I worked in the auto industry for approximately nine years. Over that time frame, I worked at a variety of car dealerships. One thing I’ve realized is that they pretty much more or less all work the same, which, I believe, gives me some insight.
And I’m going to share some of that insight with you readers today. This is a great topic, but I’m actually writing this now because a reader asked me not too long ago via a comment to put something together on this, so that’s what I’m doing.
Now, I don’t own a car anymore. I truly believe, if you can do it, a car-free lifestyle is absolutely the best way to go. You’ll not only likely save a lot of money, but you’ll reap a number of other benefits as well.
However, that lifestyle isn’t reasonable or realistic for everyone, which is something I can understand.
So what I’m going to discuss today is the way I’d approach servicing/maintaining/repairing a car if I still owned one.
Acquiring Your Vehicle
Just a few quick notes here on how to think about acquiring your vehicle in the first place.
As someone who saw how things worked from the inside, I generally recommend to buy a used vehicle from a private party. There are massive profit margins built into vehicles sold on the lot – especially used cars – even if you think you’re getting a deal. Every dealership I worked at had a dealer fee, so you were $500 to $1,000 down before you even took a test drive. And with the way depreciation works, you really shouldn’t be looking at new vehicles.
Since two of the biggest advantages a dealership has over a private party is access to new vehicles and financing, you won’t need a car dealership. That’s because you’re too smart to buy a new car and you’ll likely have the cash necessary to buy a used car outright.
I was privy to special deals that were available to employees, and the used cars I would come across on the lot still often didn’t make financial sense compared to what I could acquire in the private market. So there you go.
Get yourself a five-year-old reliable vehicle that’s priced right and solid on fuel economy (used Toyota and Honda sedans often fit the bill) and you’ll be way ahead. Just make sure to get it checked over before you buy.
DIY Is Best If You Can Hack It
I’m not particularly handy. That’s why I was a service advisor, not a technician.
But if you’re able to throw on some pads and rotors, change your own oil, and replace the occasional window regulator, good for you. You’ll be richer for it and you’ll be in a position to make sure the job is done right.
The economics here only make sense, however, if you’re actually handy, generally enjoy fixing cars, and already have the tools on hand.
If you’re not handy, you might end up causing more issues than you started with, costing you more money in the end. I can’t tell you how many cars I’ve had towed in over the years because someone thought they were fixing something when they were actually destroying something else. So that’s something to be mindful of.
In addition, tools are expensive. If you have to buy a bunch of tools just to try and save money by fixing your car yourself, you have to question whether that’s the right way to go. A quick look at a calculator will quickly tell you whether or not you’re going to come out ahead there.
Lastly, it’s not exactly a thrill to change oil for most people. So if that’s not something you like doing, you might be better served just having someone else do it. Oil changes/simple maintenance for most vehicles is something that’s generally not terribly expensive. We used to run $9.95 oil change specials on domestic vehicles back a few years ago as loss leaders, so I’d seriously question whether or not spending the money on oil and a filter, and then spending your time to actually change the oil, is worth it.
But if you’re handy and enjoy fixing cars, you might already have a stable of tools on hand. So if you can hack it, DIY is the best way to go for the easy stuff.
Simple Mechanical Repairs Generally Do Not Require A Dealership
Every dealership I worked at charged labor rates that were higher – sometimes much higher – than smaller, independent shops in their respective areas. Parts were often more expensive as well. Of course, dealerships almost exclusively work with OEM parts. These can be expensive. If your car is old, aftermarket parts might be the better way to go. Just check the respective warranties.
Now, these premium labor rates make some sense when you think about it. You’re getting access to the technicians that are trained to work on your specific vehicle(s), the machines and software designed to communicate with your vehicle(s), the access to service bulletins, the checking of recalls/service actions, and high-quality service.
However this premium is most likely not worth it for simple mechanical repairs.
Think brakes, air filters, tires, the battery, mechanical switches/knobs, wiper blades, and leaking seals. Those are just a few examples.
Most often, any shop with decent technicians can handle basic repairs/service. I would recommend checking into the shop before you take your car there, however, just to make sure they’re on the up and up. But if they have a decent reputation, you’re probably going to be better off having the local independent shop replacing your brakes and tires along with taking care of the occasional mechanical repair. This is especially true for domestic cars.
One quick tip I have is to get a detailed quote before you authorize any work. The auto industry is one of the few industries left where haggling is common. If they give you a quote of $1,000 to put on a set of tires, shop around. Get the name of the tires, the amount of labor they’re charging, and find out where every penny is going. Then look at what those same tires cost from, say, Tire Rack. You’d be surprised at how much wiggle room you might have.
Also, make sure your repair isn’t covered by warranty. Not only do you have the typical limited new vehicle warranty, but there are a number of other warranties that cover parts like the catalytic converter. On top of that, it’s frequent for other parts to have extended warranties if there is some kind of frequent issue there. So give a call to the dealership and get the full scoop before authorizing a repair.
One more tip is to get a look at any repairs recommended. See the issue(s) in question for yourself.
Complicated And/Or Electrical Repairs Should Probably Go To The Dealership
Check engine light on? Take it to the dealership.
Car intermittently doesn’t start and you’re sure it’s not a battery? Take it to the dealership.
The transmission isn’t shifting properly? Take it to the dealership.
Issues like these are where that premium is probably worth paying up for.
I would regularly write up repair orders on vehicles that came from other shops – independent shops – because the check engine light was on or something else was wrong with the car and after spending hours (which the customer is paying for) trying to diagnose the issue, they gave up and sent the car our way.
What happens here is that the customer would end up spending more money. The customer had to pay the local shop for the time they spent looking at the car to futile results. And then they had to pay us to actually fix it. Not only that, but we sometimes would have to charge more because we’d have to backtrack what the other shop did or put things back together.
The thing is this – the dealership is where the buck stops. An independent shop can give up, but the dealership can’t. I never ran into a car we couldn’t/wouldn’t fix. Sometimes the proposed fix would exceed the value of the car. Or sometimes a customer would lose patience with us. But we couldn’t/wouldn’t just give up and send the car somwhere else.
As I mentioned earlier, the dealership has access to machines, experience (combined and individual), and software that independent shops usually lack. On top of that, dealerships have access to the factory if something is really complicated. It wasn’t totally uncommon for us to open trouble tickets on cars and put a call into the manufacturer for assistance. If it was something really crazy/unusual, they’d send a representative out to look at the problem and get it fixed.
And just like with the independent shops, get a detailed quote. Know where every penny is going. Find out how many service hours they’re billing you and then see if that’s commonplace for that repair. Call around. Look up the repair online. Take a look at the parts. Is there a lot of markup? Is it possible to use aftermarket parts? Again, you’d be surprised at how much wiggle room there is, especially on bigger repairs.
Are Recommended Services Necessary?
I’m not going to tell you to skip factory recommended services. I don’t want to be the guy getting an email when your car breaks down.
But I would implore you to look at exactly what you’re paying for. The majority of my work every day revolved around regular maintenance. The technicians loved this – they would call it “gravy” – because it’s light work. You’re typically paying for a lot of inspections, maybe a filter or two, an oil change, along with maybe spark plugs or something else at major inspections. A lot easier and more profitable for technicians than warranty work (the factory can be stingy) on an alternator.
Again, though, what are you paying for? How many hours are they billing you? Is three labor hours necessary to check over your entire car? What’s the split between parts and service? If you’re paying $50 for parts and $400 for labor, you may want to get a hard look at that and decide for yourself if it’s worth it.
It may even be possible to piecemeal out the service or pay for things individually. If the factory recommended service calls for an oil change, an air filter, and a number of inspections, what would these things cost individually versus the maintenance? Are you actually getting a deal when it’s all packaged together? What would a 27-point inspection run by itself?
A dealership may try to scare you into paying for big services as part of keeping the warranty active. I’m not going to tell you that’s true or not true. I can only say that I never once refused to perform warranty work on a car out of concerns over the maintenance history, even when there were no stamps in the book or records on file. If you flat out don’t change your oil and blow your engine, however, that’s on you. Be smart about it.
I hope this article provides you readers some value, especially for those that have to own a vehicle or two.
I think it says something that someone who worked in the car industry for nine years no longer owns a car. I witnessed firsthand the massive amounts of money spent by people every single day. But I think some of that can be reduced slightly if you follow the tips laid out above. Buy a high-quality car that’s good on fuel economy and gently used, be smart, DIY if you can, always assume there’s a better deal, and only do what’s absolutely necessary.
What do you think? Are these tips helpful?
Thanks for reading.
Photo Credit: supakitmod/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Edit: Corrected grammar.