Dear Tom and Ray:
Although I like to do my own repairs whenever I can, I don't know enough about cars to make a reliable diagnosis. Is it ethical for me to use commercial shop mechanics to make the diagnosis and then use that information to do the repair myself? Am I hurting their livelihood by giving them the implied promise of a potential repair job to get a thorough diagnosis, while knowing full well that I will not give them the business?
-- Ethically confused, Khai
TOM: Well, I don't think it's ethically confusing, Khai. It's unethical. And not very nice.
RAY: Most shops fold the cost of diagnosis into their posted repair rates. So if you're paying $75 an hour for repair work, that covers the time spent figuring out what's wrong with the car.
TOM: Which means that if you simply go in and ask for an estimate (which requires a diagnosis) with little or no intention of having the repair done by that shop, you are taking advantage of them and asking them to work for free. And in my experience, most people don't like to work for free. Especially when they're not told that they're working for free.
RAY: Some people, like my brother, don't like to work at all, under any circumstances.
TOM: You're hardly alone in doing this, Khai. We have people ask us to look at their car, then make some excuse about not having time or not having the money right now (which is sometimes true). Then they shop the job around to see if someone else will do it cheaper.
RAY: We also have people who call the shop to ask for an estimate on a specific job (so specific that we know they're reading it off of someone else's estimate). And since they've asked us for a price, we have to call to get parts prices and figure out how much labor will be involved, which is time-consuming.
TOM: So this kind of thing is done, Khai. But that doesn't make it nice. The ethical thing to do is to be honest with the shop, and then pay them for their time.
RAY: If you know that something is wrong with your brakes but you don't know exactly what, let the shop know that you're hoping to do the repair yourself, but you'd like to pay them to do the diagnosis.
TOM: Then pay them their regular rate for the time and expertise they put into figuring it out for you.
RAY: Similarly, if you're looking to check up on another shop's estimate, be honest. That's what we'd prefer. Say that you just got a diagnosis and an estimate from another shop, and you were hoping to find out if it seems like it's in the right ballpark.
TOM: That's a lot easier for us to answer than it is for us to go chasing parts prices for half an hour. And we'd do that for most people, figuring that if we're helpful, perhaps we'd get their business another time.
RAY: Some shops may tell you that they don't have time to help you. But that's probably because they, what? Don't have time to help you. So then you call another shop. But by giving each party in a transaction the opportunity to know what's really going on, you'll be on solid ethical ground.