Seek Cheap, Gain Cheaply

When I lived in the Rocky Mountain region, particularly when I was driving through it, my passenger would point out the number of SUV’s populating the roads. It sounded like I had a bird as my co-pilot. Jeep, Jeep, Jeep. But more to the point, while in the Rocky Mountain region, I turned wrenches on cars for a number of years (a.k.a I was a grease monkey/mechanic/automotive technician), and, for years afterward, I worked the automotive parts counter. I had a hearty helping of the fair-price wars. And there were casualties on both ends. Now, I have the chance to be on the other side of the counter.

When it comes to automotive maintenance and repair, the bill is the focal point (at least in this post), having the final say at the end of the day. But there are opportunities for you to have your say on portions of the sum. However, it’s best to start by asking yourself, “How long do I plan on keeping this car?”

In some cases you may want to elaborate the first question based on budget and future circumstances: How much life is left in this car, in terms of how old is it now and how many miles are on it? How much value (see Kelly Blue Book, KBB) is left in this car?

Usually, cars come into a service facility for one of two reasons: maintenance–fluid changes, tire rotation/replacement, spark plugs, filter replacement, etc…, or repair–something is wrong, “not working like it used to”. In terms of maintenance, the two main items on your bill will be labor and parts. In terms of repair, there is an additional item, diagnosis. (A fourth, set-price item for either maintenance or repair, is occasional waste disposal fees for batteries, tires, etc… as well as standard shop supplies.)

Diagnosis:

If your car is having uncommon issues, this is where your bill begins. You will be quoted a set price for an hour of diagnosis, usually an hour being the normal standard. If the problem cannot be found in that amount of time, you will have the option to approve spending more money for further diagnosis or to walk away with what information the automotive technician has discovered thus far. You could take your car elsewhere, seeking a specialist or other business who knows your vehicle and the problematic system best. However, if you are already at the manufacturer dealership that sees your make and model of car on a regular basis, you probably have the most expert hands on your vehicle at that moment. If the problem can be found; sometimes in the process of diagnosis, they must tear-down parts of your car to confirm the condition and therefore are halfway through the repair process already because they have made access to the failed system, you will be quoted cost for labor and parts to complete the repair, labor possibly being reduced at this point due to the tear-down process. You can choose to:

  • Proceed with the repair as quoted.
  • Request, if available, a cheaper option for parts (which I will address later in this article) and then proceed with the repair.
  • Take the diagnosis outcome and your vehicle to have another facility perform the repair or perform the repair yourself, a DIY.
  • Or, if safety allows, choose not to proceed with the repair and drive your vehicle for as long as possible without that functioning component.

Labor:

There is little room for negotiation here. They repair the vehicle, in a set amount of time, by removing and replacing the failed part or system. Or, in some cases, they can make adjustments to the vehicle that might allow it to “limp along” until you can trade it in or sell it. After all, as I have heard more than one technician say, “It is not my car,” or “I have a car to get me home tonight.” Take note that this is normally said in regards to a used car being sold, and normally under a 60- or 90-day warranty. In the end, it may not be their car, but it is still their reputation, and if you are planning to keep the car for any extended amount of time, they will desire having their repair stand-up to the test of time and avoid offering you quick-and-cheap repairs. Cheap being that bird in your ear saying, cheap: this limp-along repair will not last and cheap: this limp-along repair may lead to additional (costly) problems down the road. However, if you read further, I list options of cheap that do not require such a sharp decline in quality, mostly in regards to parts.

For Do-It-Yourselfer’s: Labor is more than applying muscular strength to do the job. Labor, first-off, involves years of experience and training (For tips on finding someone who has those things see Your Mechanic, Your Doctor). Labor, second-off, involves their tool box–special tools that speed up time of repair and ensure other pieces are not broken in the process thus avoiding upping the cost, keeping it cheap in a rational manner. (Professionals who see your make and model on a regular basis will have a wider, and more up-to-date, selection of these special tools.)

Parts:

Alright, settle in, because here is where options reside. There are three levels I will list but not all are applicable for every part on your car. (Minor body parts, for example, such as pieces made only for vehicle appearance [interior & exterior], are normally available as OE only or used; bumper covers, fenders, and other major pieces are available aftermarket.) You can request which level will be installed on your vehicle thus affecting the level of price for your repair. I will forego an ordering of expensive to less expensive because it depends on a few variables. However, I have little doubt which is the most expensive and will start there:

  • OEM or OE: Original Equipment. Or the designer name brand level. This part was made by the vehicle manufacturer (i.e. Chevy, Subaru, Volvo, etc…) and is available directly from the car dealer. It is made to be the best-fit, of top-quality materials, and comes with a desirable warranty. Best-fit for your make and model because it is the same (or improved due to safety recall actions) part that was put on from the factory. When you pay the price for this part, you are paying for all of this as well as an additional amount for the trademark label or name brand.
    • Reman: Remanufactured. Sometimes for major electrical components (i.e. alternators, starters, etc…) or larger assemblies such as transmissions or engines, the manufacturer will take the intact, still-functioning components of a failed part such as an undamaged transmission case and reuse it to build a replacement part. Why make an entire, brand new transmission if there is only one problem gear that needs tinkering? Reusing uncorrupted parts allows for rational cheaper prices and, normally, these reman parts come with a longer warranty; the part has been quality-tested. If there is a reman option, your dealer will make you aware of it. If you have ever heard the word “core” in regards to a reman part, see below for a technical tidbit*.
  • A/M or Aftermarket. The functional but not-so-pretty level. Here is where you can purchase a new part but, generally, was made to fit more kinds of vehicles, so not the best-fit but fairly close, made of cheaper materials (or through cheaper labor) to make the price more desirable–cheaper–because you, also, are not paying for the name brand, but this part still has a desirable warranty which you may need to put to use more often due to the nature of the part. These parts are available through chain parts stores.
    • Reman: Same as above except they are rebuilding by aftermarket standards.
    • Is it really OE only? Do you trust when they tell you a part is OE only at the time they (your mechanic or service advisor) quote you the cost for repair? If no, feel free to contact a chain parts store with your vehicle information and a detailed name of the part (as provided by the quote). Should the parts store require further, detailed vehicle information that you do not have, the car dealer parts and/or service department should be able to break down the specifics that go beyond make and model such as engine size, luxury level (i.e. Special Edition) and color codes. I make this suggestion of contacting a/m stores, if you seek a more budget-friendly part, because, sometimes, repair facilities are not aware of the pace that chain parts stores keep regarding parts availability that compete with the OEM market. These stores are competitive as well as any business.
  • Used. The secondhand level of shopping. A visit to the junkyards. Be aware that if this item has gone-out (worn-down beyond repair) on your vehicle, it may be part of a pattern. This part could have a recurring history in which it fails at a regular basis on your type of vehicle. Therefore, if you purchase used, you may only be purchasing a time extension, not a permanent fix. As such, junkyards do carry brief warranties on applicable parts (such as 90 days).
    • Doing your own search for used: Not sure your repair facility is doing a search to your satisfaction for a used part? Feel free to take a knack at it; you will get an idea of what they’re facing or, rather, they just don’t like the idea of going used for this particular part. In my dealership years, I regularly visited http://car-part.com/. All you need is a VIN (Vehicle Identification Number as found on your registration, title, or insurance card) and a base description of the part and then you can search based on price, distance, or other related options.
    • The stickler is: Sometimes the part may appear to be a match but when it comes time to install, something just won’t click into place because it was made for a vehicle like yours all the way down to make and model but not down to sub-model such as yours might be an LX edition whereas this part came off an EX edition.

In summary, (I write those two words to let you know I feel I have exhausted the topic for a single post) I would like to share my original headline idea: You Want Cheap, You’ll Get Cheap. I had wanted to attach an ellipsis and the words, For Now. But Cheap’s various meanings already cover the scale of time, through cheap meaning sacrifices in quality, and yet, cheap may be your only option based on your current financial situation. If such a case, do consider that little things add up over time. Those “jiffy” “monkey” oil changes occasionally rely on shortcuts to keep their prices less-than-reasonably cheap. I have seen enough of them in my time that lead to costly damages to your vehicle’s oil pan. There are quick-fixes (limp-along repairs) to their quick-fixes but, eventually, hundreds of dollars will be the going rate to replace your oil pan. Again, it all boils down to: how long will you be keeping this vehicle?

In the end, I seek to share my experience, hoping you gain confidence–a firm footing–when you deal in the car repair world. There are ways you can go cheap, rationally, and there are ways you can go cheap that are too much a sacrifice in quality. I wanted to make you aware that you can attain a fair price for a fair sacrifice in quality. It is a juggling task that is done when making most everyday purchases from services to goods such as groceries, clothes, and property. I hope I have armed you better with the tools to win in the fair-price wars, to feel you are being taken care of competently by your car repair facility.

More to come: At this point, I think I will leave tires to its own post. Need I say a lot rides on them?

*Just so you know/technical tidbit: When purchasing reman parts on your own, there will be a request and an additional charge for a “core”. You will be refunded the additional charge upon return of the old part. The core is the contributing part which will be torn down and its uncorrupted components reused to make another remanufactured part. It is like a rebate for giving them the materials to make another part.

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