Thursday, March 22, 2012

Auto Repairs

Auto repairs are getting expensive, which is one reason a lot of people use to justify buying a brand-new car.  But with a little intelligence, they need not be pricey.   This does not mean they are free.

This is one posting where I don't feel sorry for either party on either side of the transaction.  People whine and complain about car repair costs, expecting them to be done for free.  And of course, they fail to educate themselves, take care of their car, or choose the proper place to have the car repaired.   Many repair shops feed upon this ignorance and charge "what the market will bear" in terms of repair charges.   And often, the market will bear a lot.   But running a repair shop isn't cheap, and fixing a car is a far more costlier proposition than you might think.   Understanding both sides of the issue is key.

And one problem, in today's crazy disposable economy, is that repair costs easily can exceed replacement costs, for many consumer items.  I recently repaired the shifters on my old TREK bicycle.  It turned out the grease used in assembly hardened over time, causing a small pawl to stick in position, preventing the shifter from working.

Figuring out this problem required disassembling the tiny shifter (held together with impossibly tiny screws) and taking apart its clockwork mechanism (with no fewer than three tightly wound springs), discerning how it was supposed to work, figuring out the solution (using WD-40 to soften the grease to get the pawl to move again) and then reassembling, without forgetting any parts.

Once I did this, fixing the remaining shifters (on two bikes) was simple.  Remove the access cover, spray liberally with WD-40.  I don't know why I waited three years to fix this.   But this illustrates how repairing anything can be time consuming - unless you've done the same repair before.  Which is one reason why going to a specialist for your make and model car can be a good idea.

But it also illustrates how the labor can exceed the market value of the product.   If I had taken this bike to the upper-end bike shop on Rich People's Island (a ripoff- never go there!) they would have likely recommended replacing the shifters, or recommended buying a new bike.  Either way, their labor charges would have exceeded the value of the bicycles.  These people charge $50 to fix a flat tire, and I am not kidding.   On a bicycle.  And people go there.    People are idiots.

But this bicycle example illustrates the nature of repair of anything, and how being handy with tools (and being patient) can save a lot of time and money.  And that right there is one reason you should leave older cars to people who are handy with tools.   Because while I might be able to fix things, if you aren't handy, you'll just throw an ocean of money at something and end up very, very unhappy.

So what are the "secrets" to keeping car repairs reasonable?   Here are a few tips:

1.  Once Out of Warranty, Don't Go to the Dealer:   New car dealers make their money in the repair shop.   In many cases, they make only a few hundred dollars on the sale of a new car.  They hope to make up the difference in the warranty repairs, trade-in and used car sales, and in out-of-warranty repairs, for those customers foolish enough to go there.

Why do dealers have the highest repair costs?  They just do.  That fancy shiny new building that looks like a spaceship and has a crystal chandelier in the showroom cost some serious money.  And they have to charge a high labor rate to pay for the high overhead as well.

Plus, they have a mountain of employees running around the place, each with a benefits package.   The mechanics are paid pretty well, but usually the dealer pays to send them to factory training.  So they set their labor rate high, and their parts cost is high as well.  The latter is often because "factory parts" are expensive, and the dealer is obligated to use them as part of its franchise agreement.

By the way, car companies often make as much if not more money on parts than they do on a car.  And this is why they have campaigns to "Keep your ACME car, all-ACME!  Use only certified factory ACME parts!" - because the cost of such parts is over double that of aftermarket parts.   And yes, often they are of better quality.  But often not, and often "factory" parts are made by third parties and for sale from other sources for less.   Basic wear items - filters, brake pads, and the like - are cheaper elsewhere, even if they are identical to and made by the same company as, the "factory" version.

But, aren't dealer mechanics highly trained and know your car better than anyone else?  Yes and no.  Look around your typical dealer's shop sometime and notice how young many of the mechanics are.   Yes, the dealer sends them to factory mechanics school - to learn the latest about the latest new cars.  And as what I call "warranty monkeys" they know how to repair problems with cars that are 1-5 years old.  But usually, they have little or no experience with older cars, with higher mileage and older car issues.  Why?  Because 90% of their work is with clean, shiny, new cars that are still under warranty.

Joe Blow buys a 10-year-old used BMW and takes it to a dealer.  The mechanics snicker that they haven't seen such an "old car" in a long time.   About half of the mechanics have never seen one that old, ever, as they have been working for only five years.  And none of them are familiar with what happens to these cars when they get to be a decade-old and have 100,000 miles on them.  Often, they are utterly clueless, and may even suggest repairs that are unnecessary.

For example, as I noted before, it is typical for these cars to develop cracks in the flexible rubber intake elbow, which causes an air leak downstream of the Mass Air Flowsensor, allowing un-metered air into the system.  This elbow costs $15 and takes 15 minutes to install.  But, the mechanic, having never seen a car where the rubber is rotted out, reads the error codes (oxygen sensor out of range) and replaces all four oxygen sensors, which cost $250 apiece (dealer pricing) and another $500 in labor - and still fails to fix the problem.

And yes, that actually happened to a friend of mine - or would have, until he read my posting on the matter on a BMW site and ordered the $15 elbow and replaced it himself.

Dealer mechanics just don't see older cars with dirty engines and all the weird things that can go wrong with old cars.   So they don't know.  They are trained to read codes and replace parts, or to consult "service bulletins" describing factory defects that need to be repaired.  They are not familiar with the more difficult and esoteric job of diagnosing problems and fixing them.  And this is not because they are bad mechanics, but because they have no experience and no opportunity to get experience, in this area.

There is one other aspect of dealers that is kind of scandalous.   Some dealers will come up with a laundry-list of "defects" which at their repair rates would cost thousands of dollars to repair.   They then helpfully offer to take your "clunker" (which may need only $500 in repairs) as a trade-in on a new or newer car.   Yes, this is fraud.  Yes, I have seen it on numerous occasions.   One friend was told his car needed $3000 in repairs, when in fact, it needed $300 (that cracked intake elbow was one of them!).   Another was told his car needed $5000 in repairs, including $500 each for new rear-view mirrors (!).  In both cases, my friends were pressured to buy new cars, and fortunately, they both saw through the ruse.

And when I say "don't go to a dealer" this goes double for a used-car dealer.  Avoid used-car dealers entirely - for buying cars, or repairing cars.  Period.

There is one exception, with regard to new car dealers, and that is so-called "secret warranty" repairs.  In some instances, dealers may be authorized to fix things that are out of warranty, if they are a chronic or endemic problem to the model or marque.

For example, GM replaced TM-250 transmissions in some cars, sharing the repair cost based on mileage, with some owners.   Broken coil springs on Chevettes were replaced out of warranty.  Dodge repainted a lot of older Ramchargers with fading silver paint.   BMW replaced engine blocks in older 5-series, when the aluminum (a similar composition to the Vega engine!) eroded due to high-sulfur content US Fuel.  Sometimes, you can search online for these things, if you suspect a breakdown of a major component might be covered.

I wrote before about Extended Warranties.  I don't think they are a good bet, but if you buy one, make sure it is a factory warranty (even dealers will lie about this) and beat them up on price, as they are wildly overpriced.  Yes, a new engine might cost you $5000.  But that doesn't make an extended warranty worth $3000 - odds are, your car will never break in a manner covered by the warranty.

2.  Discount Chain Stores - Use Wisely:  The major automotive chain stores (and discount stores) that sell tires, do brake jobs, or change oil, can be useful, if you use them wisely and what they were intended for.   Going to Sears or Wal-Mart to have your engine replaced is a bad idea.  And likely they will tell you they can't do it.

But for an oil change or to have your tires mounted, they might not be bad choices.   Eeven if you don't buy them there - the Tire Rack will ship tires to your home for less than you'd pay at a tire store.  Wal-Mart can mount them for $20 a tire.  Similarly, such places can put a new battery in your car for not a lot of money.

But understand the limitations of such places and use them only for such simple repairs.  Wal-Mart might be able to do a brake job, but replacing struts may be another matter entirely.

3.  Rip-Off Chains:  Many specialty chains advertise heavily on the TeeVee and radio, and promise to do brakes, mufflers, tires, or transmissions.   Some of these are not bad deals, while others are outright rip-offs.

Modern cars rarely have exhaust system problems - they last 10 years or more.  But muffler work is nasty and messy, and a muffler shop can replace your exhaust system for a lot less than a dealer or indeed many specialty shops.   But beware - get a price quote up front, and don't fall for the trap where a simple muffler replacement morphs into a catalytic converter replacement or more.

Also, before doing any exhaust work (or any work) on a newer car, bear in mind that emissions warranties may cover some parts, including the catalytic converter, on your car for up to eight years.  

Transmission Chain Stores are notorious for diagnosing every problem as "replace transmission".  And many people report that replaced or rebuilt transmissions don't last very long.   Frankly, a transmission should last the life of the car, and if you are looking at replacing a transmission, perhaps the life of your car has lapsed.  I would avoid the transmission chain stores like the plague.

Brake Job Chains might seem like a good place to get a brake job, but their come-on pricing ($29.95 per axle!) is often just that.  That price is for a Geo Metro, and covers only pads.   Turning the rotors or replacing them is extra.  And by the way, turning rotors is often a waste of money - all you are doing is taking material off the rotors for no apparent reason.   If the rotors are "warped" (which really rarely happens) just replace them - they often can be had for as little as $25 each, for popular cars.  Otherwise, just replace the pads.

4.  Tire Stores:  Tire stores also advertise heavily and have three fundamental problems.  First, they don't sell you the tire you really need, but what they happen to have in stock.  So the "tire expert" (who was wetting his bed, only a few years ago) tells you that the Skid King Lock-em-up 2000 is the best tire for your car, when in fact, it is the only tire they have in the back room that will fit.  Funny how that works.  And, of course, their prices are not really very good, and the tire is some off-brand, or it has a poor wear rating.

The second problem is that they try to tack on "road hazard" warranties and the like, which are like any other extended warranty, just bullshit.  Chances are, the stock tires on your car, that you are replacing, never had so much as a nail in them.  Paying $20 to $50 a tire extra for this is often wasted money - but illustrates how they are in the up-selling business.

The third problem is that they always recommend an "alignment" even if you don't need it.   Or they claim that to honor the "road hazard warranty" you have to get an alignment first.  Modern cars generally don't need an alignment, if you drive them carefully, don't floor it through potholes, or slam into parking lot bump stops all the time.

My 1995 Ford F-150 never had an alignment until 100,000 miles, at which point I thought I should have it done.  The fellow at Sears adjusted the alignment very slightly and made it drive worse - it wandered all over the road with too much toe-out.  Once home, I turned the tie-rods back in to their previous adjustment (which I could see by the rust line) and the truck ran great.   It never pulled or veered or wore out tires.  And I should have left well enough alone.

My 2002 X5 now has 130,000 miles on it, and has never had a front-end alignment.  Nor does it need one.

If your car's tires are wearing well and the steering isn't funny or the steering wheel crooked, chances are, you don't need an alignment.  If the car is pulling to one side, either you have a stuck brake caliper or have some serious suspension issues that need to be looked at.  Ditto for oddball or loose steering.  But a well-maintained car may never need a front-end alignment (or four wheel alignment) in its lifetime.

And many new cars have only one adjustment  - toe-in.  And even if your car has a camber or castor adjustment, chances are, the tire shop isn't going to spend the time dicking around with that, as it is too time-consuming and they risk breaking rusty old bolts.

I watched several alignment guys at work, as I needed alignments done on cars after I replaced control arms, tie-rod ends, ball joints, and the like (which usually WILL require a front-end alignment).  In many cases, they put the car on the rack, look at the toe-in and then adjust that.  The computerized systems, which are supposed to show alignment specs for your specific make and model car, are often ignored, with the tech not even bothering to enter this information, but rather hitting "generic" as the car model.  They then align to what they believe is a standard amount of toe-in and leave it at that.

You really have to watch those chain-store guys like a hawk.  And no, it is not "insurance regulations" that prevent you from entering the work area, but rather them not wanting you to see how they actually work on your car.

I have found that buying tires online is often a better deal.   You can buy the tire you want, rather than what was in stock, and then take it to Wal-Mart for mounting and balancing.  And yes, Wal-Mart does a good job of that.   Ironically, Wal-Mart's tires are rather expensive, and they have a lot of off-brands.  I would not buy the tires there.

5.  Jiffy-Lube:  Jiffy Lube bears special mention, and the comments here can be applied to any oil change place or chain.  When you operate thousands of stores and change the oil on millions of cars, using lower-skill labor, well, shit is going to happen.  This does not mean they do a bad job, only that eventually, you will leave someone's oil drain plug out, or drive their car into the oil pit.  But anyone can do that sort of thing.  A friend of mine went to her Toyota dealer for an oil change - and they left the drain plug out.  Shit happens, as they say, and when you change the oil in millions of cars annually, shit will happen.  It doesn't mean you are incompetent - necessarily.

But the lube chains do try to "upsell" services - often recommending replacing air filters (long before they are due) or doing transmission oil changes - which can be a good idea, providing it is done.  Yes, in some documented incidents, oil change places have charged people for changing transmission oil, and then not changing it.  Ouch.

And of course, with today's modern synthetic oils, you can go a long time between changes.  And most of these discount oil change places charge a LOT for synthetic (sometimes as much as, if not more, than what you'd pay at an auto parts place).  So the savings are not as great as all that.

If you go to one of these places, like with a chain store, stick around and watch what they are doing to you car.  Often, this eliminates a lot of problems, if they know you are watching.

I use an oil extraction pump, which makes changing oil about a 10-minute affair with no mess.  Since my cars all require prescription motor oil (and radiator fluid, transmission fluid, etc.) it is just a lot easier to to it myself.

6.  Gas Stations:   Most Gas Stations have convenience stores these days, not repair shops.  The few that do are often repair shops that just happen to be located in gas stations.   Selling gas is no longer their first line of business - they leave that to the gasaterias.

These types of shops are catch-as-catch can.   Some are great, others less so.  In the small development I lived in, near Alexandria, Virgina, we had such a gas station, and they did good work.  They were not cheap, but not as expensive as a dealer.  And I had no trouble recommending them to friends.  Usually, such places develop a reputation quickly as a good place to go, and if you ask your friends and neighbors (as opposed to, say, Yelp! or Angie's List, or some other site that could be shilled or have postings from hysterics) you should be able to find such a place in your area - that can work on most common makes and models of cars.

There are, however, other types of service stations that should be avoided at all costs - and these are the kinds of places that rely on the unsuspecting and unwary to walk in.  Again, it pays to ask around in your neighborhood.  And just as the honest repair place gets a good reputation quickly, the ripoff place is well-known to everyone.

7.  Specialty Shops:  Once a mechanic has any kind of experience at all, he usually opens up his own shop.  And many specialize in a particular brand or marque, or brands from certain countries (Japanese, German, etc.).  These can be a good option, if you have a specialized car which needs specialized repair.  The fellow who repairs 100 cars just like yours is more likely to know how to fix such a car.   The generalist who works on everything from Chevies to Toyotas, to VWs to Fords might not be able to diagnose a BMW or Mercedes problem as easily or accurately.   But he will charge you his hourly rate to do so.

In the bicycle example above, once I disassembled the entire shifter, I knew what the problem was on the other three, and how to fix it.   Knowing the problem is half the battle, and when you see 100 of the same make and model car, it isn't hard to understand what is going on.   I can fix a BMW, only because I've had a number of them.   Don't ask me about your Toyota.

Similarly, a specialist mechanic can quickly diagnose problems on your brand of car - problems that may stump a generalist mechanic or even a dealer.   For an older car, particularly of an esoteric marque, these are the mechanics I would look for.

8.  Evaluating a Mechanic:  Again, references from friends and neighbors are useful.  If your neighbor went to Joe Mechanic and says, "Well, he did good work and the price was reasonable" that is a good sign.  No one is going to be cheap or free, so just get that out of your head.

And ignore bad reviews from people you know to be hysterics, unreasonable, or cheap.  You know the type - they want it fixed yesterday, for free, and a loaner car as well.  People like that are never happy and they try to abuse the reputation of honest tradesmen as revenge for perceived slights.

How a shop looks tells you volumes as well.   A sloppy place with greasy floors, disorganized piles of tools, and junk all around - with junked or wrecked cars in the lot that have been there for years - is a sign of someone with sloppy work habits.   On the other hand, the guy with the "German Autohause" with the pristine building and collector cars in the front window might just be a poseur and also have a high overhead  - and still not know what he is doing.

A well-ordered but busy shop should be concentrated on the work at hand, not on making things look too pretty.   But a good mechanic and well-run shop doesn't leave junked cars laying around or tools on the floor or blackened grease all over.

To me, there is a middle ground, and the shops that are well-ordered but busy looking are the best choice.   A place that is nothing but technicians in lab coats with clipboards is a poor choice, as is the Cletus in his coveralls with tools on the floor.

* * * 
 The main problem with car repair is often the nut behind the wheel that needs adjusting.  Yes, the car owner is the source of most of the problems:

1.  People want their car fixed for free - they seek out screaming bargains rather than just solid good deals.  Screaming bargains are usually a cover for rip-offs, in most cases.   Seek out a fair bargain and you are better off than trying to get repairs for free or steeply discounted.

2.  People throw good money after bad cars.   No, your car likely won't go 300,000 miles, nor should you expect it to.  At the end of its design life, a car can need a lot of repairs, and it isn't worth fixing.  Understanding the Weibull curve is essential to understanding car repair.   Many people throw thousands of dollars at an older car, and only then realize they foolishly wasted money - and give up.  Knowing when to unload is important, and sometimes it is better to replace than repair.  And increasingly, modern cars have a lot of esoteric parts which are hard to find or expensive - making even simple repairs costly, once the car is over 15 years old.

3.  People don't take care of their cars.  Park your car in your garage - if you have one.  Putting garbage in your garage and you car outdoors makes no sense.  Stop driving like white trash - being in a hurry all the time and tailgating, speeding, etc.   I haven't changed the brake pads on my car in 75,000 miles - because I don't drive like you do.   Drive your car like you want it to last 20 years - and it just might.

The above discussion covers the first point.   The last two points bear some further examination.

I rag on the poor a lot here, not to abuse them, but only  to illustrate how, by making poor decisions in life, they end up poor, and/or they perpetuate or exacerbate, their poverty.   We can't expect them to know any better.   But I use this to illustrate how, as a middle-class person, your poor decisions also affect your financial well-being as well.  If you can avoid making poor choices, there is at least some hope for you.

If you go to a poor neighborhood, and are astute about cars, you will be shocked to see how many poor people have fairly new cars - but that they are all dented, scratched, dirty, poorly cared for, and poorly driven.

Both of my cars are over a decade old, and yet look like new.   And yet I will see a "poor" person driving a five-year-old car that looks like it has been in a demolition derby - dented and filthy, filled inside with trash, with papers and garbage all over the dashboard.

How you take care of a car has a direct effect on how long it will last.  Perhaps the poor are not bright enough to see this.   But you, Mr. and Mrs. Middle-class who went to college, have no such excuse.

And yes, I see many middle-class people - smart people (supposedly) - who treat their cars like they live in a trailer park.

If you want to save money on car expenses - and they are huge expenses for most Americans - take care of your car.

You will also note, if you drive through a poor neighborhood, how the poor make poor financial choices by throwing thousands of dollars at cars that should be headed for the junkyard - trying to "fix" a 20-year-old Impala (book value $400), for example, or putting $2000 of "bling" rims on a $500 car.

They mistakenly view a car as a permanent thing - to be kept forever - and only give up on the car when the repairs become unaffordable.   Even then, they don't give up - they just park the car in the side yard, as if to say they will "get back to it" someday.  They never do.

I love my cars, but when they need a new transmission or a new engine, it will be time to sell them.    Or if they are over 200,000 miles, I may sell them.  Or if they no longer fit my needs, I will sell them.  They are just things - consumer goods that wear out, over time.   "Hanging on" to a vehicle makes no sense at all.

That's about it, really.   When you make poor decisions (in both senses of the word) about cars, you will end up poor - or at least poorer.