Getting your car repaired is a drag. In addition to being time consuming and expensive, there is also the threat of the unknown. Is your mechanic taking advantage of you? Do you actually need a new oil and filter change, or are they trying to increase their bottom line? It’s hard to know if your repair shop is honest if you don’t know what they’re talking about. The more you know, the less likely you are to have your piston return spring replaced or your weebo disc adjusted.
Seriously, unnecessary repairs sometimes happen, but that doesn’t mean when your mechanic says, “While we’re at it, we should also replace the…” that they are trying to scam you. My wife’s car had an intake leak after 60,000 miles. The dealership suggested replacing the spark plugs while they were in there because they would have access. Now according to the manufacturer, the plugs are good for 100,000 miles but replacing them at 60k made sense because 3 of the plugs are under the intake. Don’t get me started on that questionable design choice. If we waited on replacing the plugs, we would have had to pay to remove the intake a second time. Spend a little now to avoid spending a lot more later.
The best way to handle repairs is through regular maintenance. If you read your vehicle’s maintenance schedule you will notice certain items being checked at certain intervals. The manufacturer isn’t guessing here. They have researched these things through years of testing, auto warranty analysis, dealer networks and customer feedback. They want these components and adjustments checked at specific intervals for a reason. Which is why you should always budget for maintenance when you purchase any vehicle.
All of that being said, here are some repairs to be prepared for, and possible ways to prevent them. Remember, a lot of the most expensive repairs can be put off or avoided completely with proper maintenance.
Change your oil and filter! On time, every time! This maintenance step is cheap compared to the consequences. You can get an oil and filter change for around $40. In fact, most dealerships these days will include them as an incentive to buy. Either way, if you ignore this step, it will lead to the most expensive car repair of all, replacing the engine.
Engine oil and all of the fluids in your vehicle are consumables you will need to change or top off for the life of the vehicle. Staying on top of this is the cheapest way to keep your vehicle in top condition and avoid a costly repair. Also, ignoring this easy step can possibly void your warranty. Another costly outcome to ignoring a very easy maintenance schedule.
Your brake pads are also consumable, the harder you stop the more of the brake pad gets consumed. Also the harder you slam on the brakes, the more heat you put into your rotors and drums which can cause them to warp or wear out prematurely.
Replacing pads and shoes (including parts and labor) can be anywhere from $100-$300. If you have to replace rotors and drums that can get up towards $1000. Here’s another example of not ignoring a problem. Your mechanic tells you your car needs front brake pads and you choose to skip it and keep driving. And then one day, you start to hear a scraping noise but you keep driving. And then you start to feel a vibration when you hit the brakes and still hear the scraping noise but you keep driving. And then suddenly your car doesn’t stop so well so you take it to the shop. That lucky mechanic is going to have dollar signs in their eyes! You have now ruined your calipers, rotors and obviously brake pads and it’s going to cost you over $1500. Don’t ask how I know this. I wasn’t always a mechanic.
Also a quick note on brake fluid. If your mechanic or maintenance schedule says to flush it? Flush it! Your car’s ABS pump does not like brake fluid with dirt or high moisture content. It will lock up, and that will be $1200-$2500.
This is not as common an issue with cars as it is with motorcycles because most people use their cars everyday. But if you have a classic car or motorcycle you don’t use much, you have to either treat or drain the gas out of the entire system.
These days with ethanol additives, gasoline has the shelf life of a bottle of milk. The ethanol in the fuel attracts moisture and begins to “caramelize”. It will also cause rust and corrosion in fuel tanks, lines, injectors and the fuel pump. Replacing, cleaning and flushing any or all of these is going to be $1000 to $3000.
Plus your mechanic will probably hate you for a while because rotten gas smells horrible and if you get it on you during the repairs, (which you will, ask me how I know…) it takes days for the smell to go away.
There are plenty of fuel additives out there that work well, if you know what you're doing and follow the directions. I have always used Stabil and had great results. Also make sure you’re putting the correct fuel in your car! Gas engines don’t like diesel and vice versa. I have heard of people doing severe damage to their cars by accidentally filling up with diesel. Damage like that can cost you around $4000-$5000. Not pretty.
Unfortunately there’s not much you can do to prevent your catalytic converter or O2 sensors from failing. They exist in a harsh environment and time always wins this battle. You can get more longevity out of them by using quality fuel and keeping your car well maintained. They last longer if the car is running well and the undercarriage is kept clean, especially of road salt.
Depending on how many miles your car has, catalytic converters can be anywhere from $500-$2500 and O2 sensors will run you $200-$600. If you can swing it, do both at the same time. Whatever caused one to fail certainly didn’t help the other.
Remember, sometimes it makes sense to spend a little more upfront to save money later. If I have to pull your entire exhaust system out to replace the O2 sensors and then a week later you need catalytic converters, I am going to charge you to remove the exhaust system again. A good, honest mechanic will recommend these be done at the same time. A crooked, jerk mechanic will keep this information to themselves in the hopes you'll have to bring it in again.
This is one of those areas where regular maintenance can easily prevent expensive issues. Your transmission and differentials are filled with oil. Change it when the manufacturer recommends please!
The oil gets dirty over time and loses its viscosity. The dirt particles in the oil wear out critical parts and clog filters, which causes oil flow problems. Then one day you take off from a traffic light and your car will not shift out of first gear and bang, $4000 or more.
So when your mechanic says it’s time for a transmission or differential service, do it!
The most expensive repair of all (aside from bodywork and paint, that’s expensive magic I don’t even understand) is replacing or rebuilding an engine. As I said earlier, change your oil and filter! Do it on time, every time. You don’t want to deal with this one. Your car will be out of service for a long time and talk about, “While we’re in there, we should also…”
The can of worms that’s opened when an engine is replaced is big and expensive. A good mechanic is going to inspect every part they remove in order to get to your engine and since the parts are coming out anyway, “We might as well put a new one in…"
If you have to replace your engine you will also need to replace: belts, hoses, all fluids and filters, water pump, spark plugs and anything else your neglected engine took down when the shrapnel began to fly under your hood. Expect to spend a minimum of $5000 and to probably never trust your car again. Every little noise will sound like the end in your head.
I'm sure you've noticed the recurring theme here. The absolute most expensive car repair will be the one you ignore and put off until it’s too late.
Years ago I was listening to Car Talk and I heard one of the boys talk about the “self fulfilling prophecy”. This struck a chord with me which is why I remember it all these years later. Your car develops a problem, you ignore it, this leads to more problems, you can’t afford to fix them all and start to feel overwhelmed, so you put your head in the sand and just keep driving.
Eventually the car will go no further. I have done this myself. I ignored a coolant leak I just didn’t feel like fixing. It was a small thing. Eventually it got bigger and leaked coolant into the engine oil and destroyed the engine. So instead of an afternoon of labor and maybe $75 in parts it turned into days of labor and $5000.
Don’t ignore your car, if you're not sure you need the service, just ask us here at Car Talk. And remember, if all you do is take from a machine it will eventually fail you.
As stated above, the most expensive car repair will be the one you ignore, and put off fixing. A small problem can grow to be an insurmountable, expensive problem over time. Also the most expensive repair will be the one that isn't covered by your auto warranty.
There are good and bad mechanics out there, just like in every profession. The best way to find a trustworthy mechanic is through reading reviews, consulting online forums and word of mouth from people you trust in your life. Research is the best way to find good, honest businesses and people.
Your car will come with a warranty when you purchase it. This warranty should cover many issues that may come up, as long as you take good care of the car. Many warranties will be voided if you have performed regular maintenance on the car. So whether your warranty is factory original or an extended warranty, make sure you follow the maintenance schedule. As I said above, change your oil and filter, on time, every time!
At Car Talk, we are fans of extended warranties that are offered by the same company that manufactures the car. Mopar Vehicle Protection, for example, is a product of the same company that produces your Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, RAM, Fiat, or Alfa Romeo vehicle. It’s more tailored to those specific vehicles. Read more on the topic of Extended Warranties here.
It completely depends on the contract. Tread lightly with this. Some service contracts require that you have your car repaired at franchised dealerships. Others say you can get the car repaired by a mechanic of your choice. Just make certain the repair is approved before you have a mechanic complete the repair. Every extended warranty contract is different, so make sure you read your contract before signing.
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