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Funny Money: How to Deal with Mechanics When You Know Nothing About Cars

A broken car in the snowSome smart people really love dumb people with problems. Because they are smart enough to know they can trick the dumb people with problems into giving them lots of money to fix those problems … that only they are smart enough to fix.

The smart people in this instance are car mechanics, and the dumb people with problems are me. This is not to say that all mechanics are ruthless con artists who invent and exaggerate problems with your car to suck away your life savings and will to live. I hear there are two or three who are honest. And that they all live in Tulsa.

Cars are just so darn expensive to repair. And if the problem isn’t covered by a warranty, you’ll be on the hook for the costs of getting your jalopy running again. For those who don’t live in Tulsa, here is my expert advice about how I save money on getting my car fixed while remaining proudly stupid.

Know when the setup’s coming.

Mechanics have a way of evaluating just how stupid you are with a series of routine questions. They’ll ask you how many cylinders your engine has, what weight of oil your car takes and how many tires it has. They perfectly well know the answers to all those questions. And if they don’t they could definitely find them on the slowest computers in the world they keep behind their desks. They’re only asking you because they want to see just how little you know about cars. For every wrong or non-answer you give, you can expect another $100 to be added to your estimate.

Remember obscure terms.

Every time I take my car in for an oil change, I learn about new parts that didn’t exist before. For instance, the alternate transnabulator rear function gasket. The first time my alternate transnabulator rear function gasket broke, I remembered the name like a chimpanzee would a hand signal. Never mind that the part isn’t real. The next time it “breaks,” I pull out my receipt and make them fix it under warranty.

Get written quotes, then shop around.

It’s said that the sure way to make God laugh is to tell him your plans for the day. The way to crack up a mechanic is to show him an estimate from one of his competitors. “Oh, that Gus over at Carmageddon is such a scamp,” Hank at Wheels and Deals will tell me. “Between you and me, $1,500 to replace your vehicle’s biocarbonate fuel locators is way overpriced. I can git er done for $1,495.” And just like that, I’m $5 less poor.

Negotiate.

But why stop there? I head back over to Carmageddon and show him Hank’s lower estimate. Gus suddenly remembers he has a special going on that will get my repairs done, as well as a bonus biocarbonate fuel locator replacement, for just $1,493.95, and that I’m best off sticking with him because Wheels and Deals gets all its parts from the junkyard where the city found radioactive waste seeping underneath.

Complain, complain, complain.

After the repair is done and Hank hands over my keys in exchange for our agreed-upon price: My entire wallet and all credit cards therein, my firstborn child and a vial of unicorn blood, I’ll object when I see that my car is still leaking a brownish substance I like to refer to as “car blood” in several places. This is when I steam off and mutter things under my breath as I walk away, only to return the next day when I’ve regained my courage. “Hey,” I say. “Fix all the leaks or give me the unicorn blood back.” When Hank says no, I look up the corporate site and email Hank’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s assistant in Kentucky. After looking up Hank’s files and verifying that Hank’s shop has already extracted enough unicorn blood and firstborn children from me over time to pay for all the company yachts, he agrees to order Hank to complete the job he started for no extra charge. Win!

If complaining doesn’t work, go nuclear.

I file a Better Business Bureau report. I don’t threaten I’m going to go to the BBB, I just do it. To remain in good standing they have to reply to your complaint in one way or another. More than likely they’ll agree to talk it over with you and either fix your car or return half a vial of the unicorn blood in exchange for a unicorn blood gift card that can be used at the shop for any repair the shop offers.

And if all else fails…

I’ll move to Tulsa.

Do you have any tips for negotiating with mechanics?

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About Phil Villarreal

Phil Villarreal writes Funny Money weekly for Money Under 30. He lives in Tucson and works for the Arizona Daily Star. He's also an author, blogger and Twitterer.

Comments

  1. So glad I can fix my cars myself. To anyone who’s mechanically inclined, I suggest you invest in some tools (yes, I said INVEST. The money you spend on tools will save you hundreds, if not thousands or dollars over their, and your lifetime) and learn to fix things yourself. Research online. Pretty much every vehicle on the road has at least one website dedicated to that particular model. There are members there that can help you with common problems and even walk you through complete repairs. You can find complete step-by-step instructions with pictures, even. Look at the steps involved, find out which tools you’ll need to complete the job, and sit back for a minute and think to yourself, “Is this something I can handle fixing on my own?” If it is, dive in and do it! I started out not knowing how to do much more than change oil, but after countless hours reading and learning online, I taught myself and worked my way up to more and more advanced repairs. My tool collection has doubled in the past few years and every one of them has paid for itself at least several times over. Nothng like fixing cars to learn valuable life-long skills and get a great sense of accomplishment after a good repair.

    Now that I’ve mastered many car repairs, I’m now teaching myself home repairs, in anticipation of buying my first home. Research, research, research.

  2. Another tip just came to me: Become Jon’s best friend.

  3. This is awesome. I am just getting through an experience that this article was written for. Not only did crappy mechanics tell me my “rotors were bad”, which i blindly fell for, but despite not making any noises prior to the repair my car started squealing like a pig everytime i touched the brakes afterwards.

    Not having the time to learn all these repairs myself, my new plan is to get a written estimate for any repairs any mechanic finds. Then, immediately go to a nearby mechanic and ask him to look my car over (not mentioning the potentially troubled part). if he doesn’t find the same thing that was so “obvious” to the first mechanic, I tear up the estimate and will never go to the original shop again.

    Sounds good now, the trick is to not run through all the mechanics in the area… Could anyone imagine how terrible it would be if you had to go through the “permit” process to work on your car similiar to working on your house? Rates would triple!

  4. The cliche, “knowledge is power”, holds true in this case. You need to have a basic working knowledge of how a car works. I’m not saying you need to become an ASE certified mechanic or get an engineering degree. However, learning the basic systems of a car is a good idea. The Internet is a gold mine of information, so use it. Also, everybody knows a car guy or gear head, so use them. Have them check it out first. Take them to the mechanic with you. Have them talk on the phone with the mechanic. Any of those actions will keep your mechanic true.

    Also, ask questions, even if you know nothing about cars. We all know B.S. when we see it. Ask them to show you the part that needs repair. Look for obvious signs of damage; broken metal, torn up gaskets, leaking fluids, etc. Any damage will be really apparent, and if it is not, then that should raise red flags. Trust your gut. If the part sounds weird or unfamiliar, whip out that smart phone and google it. All you have to do is show some interest, and they won’t see a sucker.

    Just remember that they are looking for a gullible person who is too busy or scared to question their “expertise”. A decent bluff is all you need.

  5. Tusla?

    Funny, but if you really want electric cars to succeed, do something like spelling it right so SEO can show that they are a viable solution to many problems internal combustion engines have.

    So,

    Tesla.

    :)

    Aris

  6. Another tip: find a mechanic who tells you that you don’t need something done. This was the first sign that tipped me off that my current mechanic was someone I could really trust. As soon as he turned down some easy business, I knew he had my best interests in mind. I haven’t gone anywhere else since.

  7. I think your kind of wrong because not all mechanic try to cheat you out on the things they need to be fix or not. I believe this because my uncle is a mechanic and he always gives the customers different ways to fix a problem depending on their problem. You should never complain to the mechanic all the time because they would rather lose the customer then every having to deal with you ever again. Just be nice to them and if you like them go back there when you need to fix your car. In the long run they would help fix more then whats on paper if they can.

  8. Long-time mechanic here. The article made me laugh but like Jason(#2) says, we are not all out to get you. This goes for anything you purchase (home repairs etc..), you always want to find the right person to do whatever you need done if you can’t do it yourself. Getting the lowest price is not always the best option. Some places will lower the prices just to get you in the door and then do a poor job on the repairs (or use cheap parts that do not last). You need someone that will be honest, and get the repairs done right the first time. It may cost more than someone just lowering the price to get you in the door, but having that honesty and quality repair is well worth the money in the long run.

    Let’s take Jason(#1)’s experience with the rotors for example. Brake squeak is very common and from my experience the number one cause is cheap pads. He may very well have needed rotors, but if they put cheap pads on there the squeak would be inevitable. Most of the time squeaks are just an annoyance be it cheap pads or water/rust/mud/dirt on the rotors. Even leaves can get in there and cause a squeak. But it also could be the wear indicator telling you your brakes are worn out.

    So if you do take your car in and they tell you you need brakes/rotors or whatever, ask them why. Ask them to show you the worn out parts and even compare them to new parts if they have it readily available. Then if you are still not sure, tell them you will think about it and google it like some people have suggested. You can also usually negotiate a price down just by asking if they will lower the price or if they have any discounts available.

  9. Jack is right on the money.

    By asking A LOT of questions, you’ll find yourself better informed and less likely to be ripped off.

    The bottom line is this: establish a long-term relationship and rapport with a good mechanic, and you’ll never have to worry about being gouged again.

  10. Ditto on building a good relationship with a good mechanic. We found ours when we needed some work done Christmas eve. everyone else said after Christmas. He got us back on the road in time for Christmas eve dinner six hours away. We thanked him profusely, and dropped off a Christmas card and gift card to his favorite bar the next year. We got yelled at the one time we came in with a coupon because they always give us the lowest price they can anyway. :) this last time, it was a dead battery. He checked the alternator, etc just to make sure that’s all it was, popped in a new battery, called to see if we wanted an oil change while he had the car and threw in the tire rotation for free.

  11. Also, coffee and donuts for everyone goes a LONG way towards building relationships!