Let’s say you just got an eye-watering quote for car repairs. How can you save money without cutting corners?
That’s the question I had to figure out myself just recently. A few weeks back, the infamous “$1,000 Miata” I purchased back in 2019 went in for a holistic check-up, and perhaps unsurprisingly, half the car needed replacing.
The car had actually passed its pre-purchase inspection, but a lot can happen in two years; especially on a car older than Billie Eilish.
So, I found myself staring down at a horrifying and unexpected bill for car repairs:
- A new clutch ($1,300).
- New suspension ($2,300).
- A new radiator ($700).
- A new soft top ($1,200).
- Various bits and bobs (~$500).
All in, the $1,000 Miata needed $6,000 in repairs to make it through the summer.
Now, would I, a Frugal-McDougle who writes for Money Under 30, be willing to pay anywhere even close to that amount?
Nay. Of course not. I ended up paying $2,200.
1. Get an estimate from the dealer – and then walk out
Compared to an independent shop, the dealership will charge you twice as much for equal or lesser quality work – and I strongly recommend you start with them (trust me, I’ll explain).
Allow me to explain.
The reasons why dealers charge more range from the logical to the unscrupulous:
- They have higher operating costs. Dealers have significantly higher overhead than small independent shops, so they try to offset it by charging higher for the same labor – typically 150% to 200% what a small shop would charge ($150/hr vs $75).
- They prefer to replace than to repair. Generally speaking, dealers don’t like repairing something to 90% factory condition – they want to replace it so it’s 100% factory condition. For example, while an indie shop will sand and clearcoat a scratched headlight for $50, a dealership will want to replace it for $900.
- They’ll trick you into paying for repairs you can easily DIY. A prime example of this is replacing your wiper blades. According to RepairPal, dealers charge an average of $100 for a “service” you can do yourself in 90 seconds in the Wal-Mart parking lot.
In short, unless your car is under warranty, the dealership is about the last place you want to go to get repair work done.
So, why should I start at a dealership then?
You should still get an estimate from the dealer because they’ll do the most thorough job of any shop at cataloging every possible issue with your car.
A dealer won’t feel miffed if you take that valuable list and walk out the door. They won’t feel entitled to your patronage – a quote is not a contract – and you may discover that certain repairs can only be done at the dealer using specialized tools.
But for those that aren’t dealer-specific, it’s time to head to your friendly neighborhood mechanics.
2. Get at least 4 quotes from independent mechanics
An independent shop is where you’ll likely end up getting most of your repairs done if you want to save money. Not only will they be cheaper, but you’ll also probably be happier with them in the long run.
How to find a good local mechanic
To find a good local mechanic, Google “best [your city] auto mechanic,” and start compiling a list of the five top-rated shops nearby.
Here’s how to spot an indie mechanic that’s worth your time:
- User reviews. Does the shop have solid reviews and recommendations from real customers? Do they use words like “trustworthy” and “affordable”? Are you sure the ratings aren’t embellished by fake or inauthentic reviewers?
- Years of experience. It’s a good sign if a local mechanic has been in business for 20+ years. Not only does that indicate they’ve got repeat customers – it means they’re likely led by a highly experienced mechanic who’s seen it all.
- Safe location. Mechanics in the ritzy part of town may charge more because a) they can, and b) their rent is higher. Conversely, mechanics in a tough neighborhood may be more affordable, but your vehicle’s safety may be more at risk. Keep both scenarios in mind as you look for Goldilocks’ choice right in the middle.
Once you’ve got your list of five, give them a call to schedule an estimate. Mention that you’ve already gotten a quote from the dealer but are skeptical and are collecting several more estimates.
Why get four quotes instead of three?
Chances are, out of the five you find on Google one of them will be too busy. And in my opinion, three isn’t enough estimates.
I’ve gotten dozens of quotes from as many shops over the years, and for some reason, it’s always the fourth shop that wins out. Perhaps it’s just because that fourth shop has the one mechanic who’s fixed this issue a thousand times, and can do it with his eyes closed.
That fourth quote may take you another hour to get, but it’ll also help reduce buyer’s remorse. With thousands of dollars on the line, you’ll sleep better knowing you did your due diligence and got the best rate.
How much can you save by getting your repairs done by an indie shop instead of the dealer?
Circling back to my own Miata, here’s the breakdown of what the dealer wanted versus what an indie mechanic wanted:
Mazda dealership Indie mechanic
New clutch $1,300 $750
New suspension $2,300 $1,200
New radiator $700 $450
New soft top $1,200 $900
Various bits and bobs $500 $300
Total $6,000 $3,500
Right away, I saved 42%, or $2,500, off the cost of repairs just by going to an independent mechanic. To be clear, they’re doing the exact same repairs to an equal or higher standard than the dealership.
3. Find aftermarket parts
Once you’ve got a more affordable quote from an independent mechanic, take a careful look at the cost breakdown of the estimate. You’ll typically see two columns: parts and labor.
- Labor costs are pretty cut-and-dry. You can’t really convince a shop to work faster or for less money. Labor rates for indie shops are already very affordable, so while you can attempt to negotiate, you may not make it far – and may set off on the wrong foot.
- The cost of parts is where you’ll find more wiggle room. Indie mechanics typically source their parts directly from the manufacturer, or even from the nearest dealer, who in turn charges them a premium. That means that while the indie mechanic may charge less for labor, they may charge even more for parts!
I want you to pay less for labor and less for parts, and the #1 way to do it is to ask about aftermarket parts.
Let’s quickly define what aftermarket parts are:
- OEM parts come directly from the original equipment manufacturer, hence “OEM.” Mazda OEM parts are made by Mazda, Mercedes’ by Mercedes, and so on.
- Aftermarket parts are made by third-party companies but are usually designed to meet, or exceed, OEM quality for less cost.
How can aftermarket parts afford to be better and cheaper than OEM parts?
Among other things, economies of scale.
They have more efficient processes for producing new parts for old cars, whereas the OEMs are focused on making new parts for new cars.
Are aftermarket parts better for my car?
They can increase the longevity of your car
In addition to being cheaper, aftermarket parts can improve your car’s longevity. If you replace a thin, cheap OEM radiator hose with a thick one as I did, you’ll save money on the part and the part will last longer.
They can upgrade your car’s performance
Aftermarket parts can also upgrade your car’s performance. Mazda no longer sells OEM coilovers (suspension) for a Miata as old as mine, but a set for newer Miatas costs over $1,500.
However, you can buy aftermarket coilovers by a company called Koni that last just as long for $600 – and they have adjustable dampers, meaning you can firm them up for tight handling or soften them up for date night.
Simply by ordering aftermarket suspension parts, I instantly saved $900 and got a slick performance upgrade.
That being said, there are caveats to aftermarket parts
- You’ll have to do your research. Not all aftermarket parts are made the same. Avoid anything that sounds too cheap – do your research, hit the forums, and find parts from suppliers you can trust.
- Not all shops will install them. Some shops will happily discuss and install aftermarket parts. Others will install them without a warranty, and some shops won’t install them at all. You’ll have a better chance at shops that specialize in your make or model since they’ll have more experience with your specific car’s aftermarket options.
How much cheaper can aftermarket parts be than OEM?
Just how much cheaper are aftermarket parts than OEM? It totally depends, but, generally speaking, even performance aftermarket parts will undercut the OEMs in price.
For reference, here are some of the aftermarket options on the Miata:
Part Cost of OEM part Cost of OEM-quality aftermarket part
Suspension $1,500 $600
Radiator $250 $50
Soft top $700 $200
Ignition coils (x2) $200 $100
Total $2,650 $950
If you’d still prefer OEM parts, there’s a way to save money there, too.
4. Buy gently-used OEM parts from donor cars
Another way to save on parts is to buy gently-used OEM parts sourced from other cars just like yours.
When a car gets totaled and goes to car heaven, the owner/wrecker/insurance company will often try to “part out” the car to recoup some money before it gets crushed:
eBay and Facebook Marketplace are great places to source gently-used OEM parts. For example, a brand new OEM mass air flow sensor for my Miata costs in excess of $300, but a perfectly good one from a donor cost me under $20:
Just be sure to buy your donor parts from reputable sellers who have guaranteed the quality of the part.
Once you’ve found some good aftermarket or salvage alternatives, it’s time for my penultimate ninja move:
5. Supply your own parts and pay labor-only
Some shops will let you bring your own parts and pay for labor only. When this trick works, you can save hundreds instantly.
I emphasize some, however, because this trick doesn’t always work. Some shops get annoyed by the ask, others don’t care at all. In my experience, it’s 20/80.
I was once quoted $1,200 plus labor to install a set of Michelin Pilot Super Sports (PS2s) on my sedan (my non-Miata car). When I discovered that a set of PS2s was just $800 on TireRack.com, I asked the shop if I could just have my own tires shipped there to save money.
He responded with a tone like I’d asked his personal permission to use the restroom:
Another time, however, I asked a shop if I could supply my own brake rotors to save money. This time, the shop’s owner called me from her personal cell phone to explain in a clandestine tone that she simply couldn’t allow it.
What is fair?
In your case, I’d say that if the shop helped you find the right aftermarket parts, just buy from them. They’re entitled to their margins on the parts. However, if you found the parts on your own, you’re entitled to the ask.
If you were savvy enough to find your own aftermarket parts, you’re not far off from the final, and perhaps most cost-saving tactic of all: DIY.
6. Do the repairs yourself
Even if you have zero experience working on cars or even looking under your car’s hood, you’d be surprised how easy some repairs can be.
For example, imagine the shop tells you that you need a replacement mass air flow sensor. Sounds complicated and expensive, doesn’t it?
But in reality, in my car at least, it was as easy as changing a light bulb. Take the old one out, plop the new one in, done. $20 and five minutes, and the dealership wanted $600 for the same job.
Speaking of light bulbs, headlights and taillights are easy and cheap to replace in most cars. You can replace your OEM halogens with brighter, longer-lasting LEDs for $25, and all you have to do is screw the old ones out and put the new ones in.
Try this: go down the list of services/repairs in your dealership estimate, and Google “How to replace [part] in [your make, model, and year].” I’d wager that 30% of the time there will be a YouTube tutorial on how to do it yourself in under 20 minutes.
In the end, here’s a breakdown of how I repaired my Miata this summer:
Repair Mazda dealership estimate (P&L) How I fixed it Final cost to me
New clutch $1,300 Paid indie mechanic to install OEM parts $700
New suspension $2,300 Brought AM parts to indie mechanic $1,200
New radiator $700 Installed AM parts myself $50
New soft top $1,200 Installed AM parts myself $200
Various bits and bobs $500 Installed AM parts myself $50
Total $6,000 $2,200
In total, by employing a mix of all six strategies I was able to save $3,800 or 64% on the dealer’s estimate for my repairs.
Even if you only intend to implement one or two of the above tips, I promise you’ll still end up saving hundreds of bucks – and getting better service, better parts, or both in the process.