Why I'm not trying to rip you off when I fix your car

If there's any transaction more fraught with fear of scams than buying a car, it's getting one fixed. Mechanic Jeremy Waters explains why people need to be a little more trusting — at least in his shop —Ed.

As a mechanic, I never like delivering bad news to a customer; it's not one of my favorite parts of the job. I don't like telling a customer their 5-year-old heavy-duty truck needs $1,600 worth of brakes, front coil springs (because they are broken and dangerous), tires, ball joints, tie rod end and work to pass state inspection, but I must if that's the case. I don't like telling the single mother that her car needs tires because the ones she has now have metal cords worn through the edges and are about to blow out, but someone has to tell her there's a problem. How many customers check the inner shoulders of their tires? How many remove their wheels every week to check out their brake specs? Very few. And that's why I have a job.

Nobody wants to come to a mechanic. They are there because they HAVE to be. Very few people maintain their cars, let alone repair them if there is a problem. That's why many states have state inspections. Now let's be clear here: I'm not the kinda guy that goes looking for spiders. I know the difference between 5/32's of tread and bald. I can reasonably judge at what point a given customer is going to need those rear brake shoes replaced. I can sleep at night, because my living is honest and straightforward. If it's dangerous, I say so. If it's not, I tell them. If they have time before a repair is needed, I let them know. If mechanical trouble is looming on their horizon, I tell them they may want to make a decision soon.

Our shop is very well established in most every way, but this week I pretty much got called a cheat by a newer customer who doesn't know us. Straight to my face. After delivering the bad news concerning the aforementioned 5-year-old heavy-duty truck needing so much work he pretty much shot the words "BS" and "I don't believe it." That's fine. I guess if I had a 5-year-old pickup truck that seemed to drive fine, (mind you, it didn't) I'd be pretty upset too at a mechanic telling me I was on the hook for $1,600 worth of work, none of it warranty. What's worse, if it doesn't get the work done, it doesn't get a sticker for the state. Mr. Officer keeps CLOSE tabs on that around here. of course, this fine gentleman waited until last minute — that is, Aug. 30 — to get his inspection done.

Why I'm not trying to rip you off when I fix your car
Owning a car is a privilege, and sometimes you gotta pay to play.

As they say, "the proof is in the pudding." I'm pretty sure he got bad news from a shop before me because he didn't go storming out when I broke it to him. Rather, he demanded proof. I actually LOVE it when a customer does that, because I love to be vindicated of any accusation they make against me. Vindication that I don't have to rub in, because the problems with their vehicle are so straight up it's in your face when inspected. Totally proveable, totally valid. All the more reason to be straight.

I showed Mr. C his busted coil springs, ready to slip off their perches and cause a severe control issue or tire blowout. I showed him the tires that were down PAST the wear bar (illegal here and actually citable) and almost bald. I took the brakes apart and showed him where his pad backing had ground into his rotors (he didn't hear a thing; I heard it immediately) and even showed him the specs with a micrometer that proved his rotors were already undersized and uncuttable. I even bolted on his wheels and proved that his ball joints were so bad they needed replacement, and backed it up with factory specs. Mind you, I did this all on my own dime in good faith. As satisfied as he could be that I wasn't lying, and a bit miffed at a new truck needing so much, we hit the office. Then it came to pricing, and every part and charge was called into question. My labor rate (which is actually slightly below the area average), my parts, every little thing called into play. I charge too much. I'm ripping peeps off.

See folks, it's OK for a dentist to make $1,000 an hour. Nobody bats an eyelash at that because we have insurance that could pick that up. No one cares that a family practice doctor can bank $200 off of one 15-minute visit, and forget the fact he or she gets major kickbacks and perks from pharmaceutical companies that pretty much cover their office overhead. It's A-OK for a CEO to make millions of dollars by closing American factories, blowing American workers' pensions and shipping our jobs overseas because it's cheaper to pay some kid in a sweatshop in Burma half a cent to make a product, then ship it over here. After all, we expect that from them, it's what they do. No problem, but this jerk mechanic wants to charge me how much to repair my car?

It comes down to this: I have costs too! I have thousands of dollars worth of hand tools — just hand tools — that I have to buy in order to even service vehicles nowadays. That does not include the $10,000 scanner I have to buy to repair generic OBDII systems, and that I have to update every year. It doesn't include the money I have to pay out of my own pocket to buy special electronic tools in order to diagnose and repair today's cars that are six times more complex than the space shuttle. It doesn't include the subscriptions and dues I have to pay to the parent companies so I can have access to technology, information, and special computers in order to remain competitive. It doesn't include the 6 lifts I have to service and repair if they break. Forget the schooling I have to pay for, forget the ASE's I have to get, forget the fact that every ounce of electricity that comes into my shop has a price tag on it, not to mention the water, gas, chemicals, special tools and equipment, supplies, uniforms, heat, benefits, mechanics' wages, staff, office stuff, advertising, maintenance and shop and grounds upkeep. All those things don't come for free, nor cheap. The owner has to write a check for each and every one.

Folks, that stuff has to get paid for. Someone has to pay for it. I don't like telling the customer that they're the ones who have to pay for it, but let's be real here; it's business like any other business. The consumer supports the industry. Thus the reason football is a billion dollar industry. So is music and entertainment. I don't work for free. Why should I? No one feeds my kids for free. My kids don't go to school for free. My clothes aren't free. My cars break, too. My house wasn't given to me. Heck, my entertainment isn't even free. In reality, when you consider the "cost of business" increases within the industry over the past 30 years, mechanics should charge nearly $300 an hour for the amount of tools, specializations and overhead involved. We don't. Why not? Because there's no health insurance for cars to cover that cost. That comes out of the owner's pocket, and most of us in the industry respect that such costs would break your back, and in turn break ours.

All said, if you own a car, you are going to pay money some way or another. Be it in maintenance for your 2011 model (still gotta change the oil!) or repairs and upkeep on your '87 Celebrity. It's part of car ownership that no one likes to address; we address it because we have to at that time. Owning a car is a privilege, and sometimes you gotta pay to play. After all, if it was cheap and easy then anyone could do it.

So just remember, if you get handed a bill for some serious cash to fix you car, the likelihood is the mechanic isn't trying to rip you or trick you, he's just trying to keep the doors open and put food on the table. That's what he's paid for. If you're looking for a cheat, turn off your reality TV and look at government and big business. You should be more worried about that anyway!

Photos: Nikkorsnapper, AdamL212 via Flickr.


This story originally appeared on Autoholics on Sept. 7, 2011, and was republished with permission.

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