THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Car repair blues: Trust mechanic but verify estimate

We often need to buy goods or services that we lack the expertise to properly evaluate.

Doctors and lawyers come most readily to mind, although with these professions, we rely, in part, on government watchdogs, professional ethics codes, and licensing boards to weed out at least the most dishonest and/or incompetent practitioners.

When it comes to more pedestrian services like automobile repair, however, we are more or less left to our own devices, even though for many of us the combustion engine is as much a mystery as the pancreas or the rules of evidence.

Which brings me back to last week's column and the case of Annette Brock's $941 repair job at Team Tires ["Caution flag: I brake for big repair bills." March 20].

As I reported, Team Tires' Scott Marshall told me that Brock brought her 1991 Honda Accord in on February 7. Brock says she only wanted squeaky brakes fixed, while Marshall says Brock complained of her brake pedal falling to the floor, and wanted a general checkup as well.

Whatever the truth of that matter, both sides agree that Team Tires called Brock at work that same day and told her that she needed a major brake job as well as other significant work on her engine to repair, among other things, an oil leak and a broken water pump. It isn't clear whether Team Tires provided an estimate of the cost.

Brock says since she doesn't know much about cars, she agreed to whatever work Team Tires told her she required. Marshall, however, claims that Brock came to pick up her car that evening, and the next morning returned and okayed the repairs, apparently after some deliberation.

In these stories, two crucial facts are not in dispute: one, Team Tires never provided Brock with a written estimate or obtained Brock's written approval for the work, although there was the clear opportunity to do both.

Second, Brock feels as though Team Tires took advantage of her.

When I asked Marshall why he did not provide Brock with a written estimate when she came to get her car the afternoon of February 7, he did not have an explanation, except to say she had been given an estimate over the phone.

I checked with the auto repair shop I've used for nearly 10 years and which I've gotten to know and trust. Given that Charlottesville is a small community, they requested anonymity. 

They said they definitely would have provided Brock with a written estimate as a matter of course when she came to reclaim her car that evening, especially in light of the nearly four-figure repair estimate. 

They said in many cases it's hard to get written authorization for work. They try to get it if they can, but they'll do work based on verbal authorization.

Marshall told me something else that caught my attention. Team Tires' mechanics, he said, are paid on commission. Marshall points out it's in a mechanic's interest to find needed repairs for a car, which Marshall apparently intended as a testament to their thoroughness, not a hint about any potential conflict of interest.

I was equally surprised to discover that some mechanics at my repair shop work on commission, although some are on salary. There, however, salaried employees typically perform the engine check-ups because it's more cost-effective for the shop, eliminating some, but not all, of the financial conflict.

Last but not least I come to Brock herself, who says she approved work on her car even though she did not understand it. 

The bottom line is that consumers have to look out for themselves. If you don't know about cars, find a friend or relative who can help you or give you a recommendation. If you have the time and can drive your car, get a second opinion, especially if the repair is going to be costly.

In every case, however, demand a clear estimate up front. If your repair shop won't provide one, take your business elsewhere. 

Use common sense and listen to your intuition.

As the Russian proverb states, "doveryai, no proverai," a saying Ronald Reagan used to tweak the Soviets on arms control: "Trust, but verify."

Got a consumer situation? Call the Hook newsroom at 434-295-8700x405 or e-mail the Tough Customer directly.