Comparing Shop Estimates

comparing apples to apples

Why would an auto repair shop want to educate their customers on how to shop for service and repair work? If we encourage price shopping, wouldn’t we risk losing business to other shops who charge less? Our thought is this: when our prices are compared item to item, apples to apples, our prices will be judged at least fair if not lowest. The risk of losing inexperienced shoppers to shops that advertise incomplete services or use substandard parts is far greater. Are we going to quote higher than some shop for some things? Yes. Are some people going to choose shops with prices lower than ours? Yes. However, I think we are more likely to lose business to quotes that only seem to be lower, but are actually higher or incomparable, than we are to lose a business in a fair comparison.

Here’s our advice:

Shopping for automotive service or repair work is much different from shopping for manufactured items, such as televisions or CD players. When shopping for consumer electronics, you can get a model number and call many different stores to find the best price for that model. Every store has the exact same item, the only differences are price, service, and return policy. When shopping for an automotive service, say a 30K Service on a 1998 Honda Accord, there are many more variables. There are of course price, service and warranty, but there are also number of other considerations.

The 3 main considerations are:

  • Does the repair work or service include all of the same things.
  • What kind of parts will be used.
  • How qualified is the mechanic how will be doing the work

A maintenance service is a good example of a how important it is to make sure you are comparing the same thing at shop A and shop B. One of the chief difficulties in shopping for a service is that everyone has a different idea of what a service includes. Your owner’s manual will have a list of the maintenance items that must be done to maintain the warranty. Is this what you are being quoted for when you call your local independent shop? How about when you call a dealership? The answer in both cases is maybe, maybe not. Some independents will include more or less than the minimum warranty requirements. I’ve never seen a dealer do less than the minimum requirements, but some will do more. (Every dealer is independently owned and operated, and they all have different policies and cultures.) In our opinion (and we’re not alone), the minimum requirements are frequently too slim to keep the car in good shape long term. Anyway, everyone you call is likely to be quoting for a different set of maintenance items, even though you are requesting the same service 30K Service on the same car.

There are 3 basic flavors of parts: New, Rebuilt, and Used. New and Rebuilt parts can be further broken down into Genuine, OE, OEM, and Aftermarket. Click here for an explanation of Genuine, OE, OEM, and Aftermarket. California law requires that auto repair shop specify when a Used or Rebuilt part is used on the invoice. However, it does not require shops to specify whether the part is Genuine, OE, OEM or Aftermarket. The only way you’ll know is if you ask. Is it really that big of a deal? Yes. We pay $69 wholesale for some Mazda brake pads. We can buy a set of Aftermarket pads for the same application for $13. They are not even close to the same quality. If shop A quotes $215 for a brake job with the $69 pads and shop B quotes $185 for the same type of brake job using $13 pads, are you really getting a good deal? I would argue that you aren’t. Some parts are of such poor quality that you might be better off not doing the repair at all.

Judging your mechanic’s competency is a difficult thing if you’re not a mechanic yourself. Even if you were it would require a lengthily interview to know for sure. Here are some things you can do to help weed out the very bad among us.

  • Check for ASE certification. ASE stands for Automotive Service Excellence and is a voluntary competency testing program. An ASE certification does not guaranty a good mechanic, but it’s a step in the right direction. Quick note: ASC is not ASE, despite the fact they seem to have fashioned their logo to look like the ASE logo. ASC is a trade group where members gather to improve themselves through discussion and classes. Nothing wrong with that. It kind of irks me that they have made placards that say ASC certified on them that look nearly identical to the ASE signs though.
  • Ask people you know and respect. People who have a bad experience with a mechanic are generally anxious to share it.
  • Google your mechanic to be. If you search for Joe’s Auto and come up with horror story rants in newsgroups, blogs and forums, best to avoid Joe.
  • If you are in California, check the BAR website for complaints against your mechanic to be. If you see fraud complaints, find a different mechanic.

The best way compare prices is to get an itemized written estimate from each shop. Most shops will have no trouble e-mailing or faxing you a copy. No shop will refuse to give you a written estimate, as it is a legal requirement that they do so upon request before beginning work (at least it is in California). Frequently shops will send you an estimate that has a single line. Something like: 30K Service $380.00. When you ask what it includes, they will give you a service description sheet that is used for many different models of car and will include services that will not be performed on your car either because your car does not have the item to be serviced or the item is due at a different interval. If you get such an estimate, it’s important to ask the service writer to cross off the items that are not applicable to the car. It is equally important to question nebulous items such as “check alignment” — are you being quoted for checking the alignment on an alignment rack? Or are you being quoted for a test drive to check for pull and a visual inspection of the tires for abnormal wear? There’s nothing wrong with doing the latter, but you need to know which you are getting in order to make an informed comparison.

It is too difficult to compare service or repair work over the phone. There are so many variables in some types of work, that it can be hard to take good enough notes or be thorough enough. At least it is for me, and I speak the jargon. A common mistake is to accept the word “full” or “complete” in lieu of an itemized list. The problem is that one shop’s “full” may be another shop’s “partial”. Here’s an imaginary phone quote call (representative of many real calls) for illustration.
Ring Ring
Us: Art’s Automotive
Caller: How much for a timing belt job on my car?
Us: Just the belt is $250, the full job is $500
Caller: WHAT?! You’re more expensive than the dealer!
Us: What is the dealer including with their full timing belt job?
Caller: Everything.
Us: Does everything include the tensioners?
Caller: I suppose so. They said it included everything and it was $100 less.
Us: We’d recommend calling them back and getting an itemized list of everything they are including in their quote. Their labor rate is $40 per hour higher than ours and they are using the same Genuine parts. Their estimate for the same thing is likely higher.
Caller: OK. I’ll call you back.
The caller calls back and it usually turns out there are one or more items such as tensioners, seals, drive belts, waterpump, or thermostat that are missing from the dealer’s quote. We give the caller a quote for the timing belt job the way the dealer quoted it (for a lower price). Then they call the dealer for a quote on the timing belt job the way we quoted it (for a higher price). I’m sure for some customers the call ends after the 3rd line. They hear the price, and figure they are better off at the dealer. It’s less money, and the dealer must be doing a good job — after all, they are the dealer.

I would recommend getting written estimates for the work you want and making a matrix to compare the different prices, at least until you are comfortable with your chosen shop. You don’t have to go to this trouble if you don’t want to. You could just go with your gut feeling, faith and trust. However, if you are a suspicious person (like me), I’d recommend spending the time to ask questions and get written quotes before committing to the repair work. You’ll feel better about it and you’ll reduce the risk of annoying your mechanic with hardball questions in the middle of, or worse yet, after the repair is completed.

So what do you do if you’ve made your matrix, you’ve compared item to item, apples to apples, you’ve asked all the important questions (warranty, parts brand, qualification for your specific make of car), and you’ve found Shop B has the better price, but you like the feel of Shop A more. Well, it never hurts to ask Shop A if they will match Shop B’s price. When we get a request to match a price, we like to double check the homework to make sure that all aspects of the quotes are the same. This means we’ll need to see the other shops written estimate. Sometimes we’ll be able to match the other shop’s quote, sometimes we won’t. Keep in mind that every shop has its own set of expenses: rent or mortgage, shop equipment, payroll, insurance, etc.

There are also differences in the prices shops pay for wholesale parts. A shop that buys $30,000 per month from supplier X gets a much better deal than a shop that buys $3,000 per month. Different shops are likely to do different volumes with different suppliers, which can explain why some jobs will be cheaper at Shop A, and some jobs will be cheaper at Shop B. Here’s an example: we sell tires, about 1,500 per year. A neighboring tire shop also sells tires. I don’t know for sure, but I would guess that they sell about 500,000 tires per year. They probably have a more favorable wholesale price. We keep our markup on our tires very low so we can compete. When someone comes in with a lower quote for a tire, we can’t match it; we’re already selling the tire for the lowest price we can.

There are some times when we are presented with a quote from another shop. We compare, and we find that our price is too high. When this happens, we drop the price for you, and for all of our customers. And, on occasion, we will decide that gaining or keeping a customer is worth selling a job for less than we should — sometimes it pays to think long term. Anyway, it doesn’t hurt to ask us, or any other shop, the worst that can happen is you end up where you were before you asked the question.

Other resources include:

  • Bay Area Consumer CheckBook. They’re kind on like Consumer Reports for local service businesses. They compare auto repair shops every 3 years or so and usually have an article on how to shop for service or repair work.
  • What Your Mechanic Doesn’t Want You To Know. This book admittedly has a pro-independent shop slant, but being an independent shop, we like that. It has valuable information on some of the pitfalls of the auto repair world.
  • The California Bureau of Automotive Repair. This is the state regulatory agency. They fine and track the bad shops. You can search for a shop by name or by BAR number