Car Repair Shops Dos and Don’ts

Standard

car repair

We lost a great friend, Tom Magliozzi from Car Talk, this week and in his honor we’re sharing a few of our favorite tips on dealing with car repair shops! Getting a car serviced or repaired has to be the least favorite activity of anyone who owns a vehicle. It often costs a lot, and most people don’t budget for that expense. Not to mention most people have no idea how to talk to mechanics and whether or not they’re paying a fair price for repairs.

I can’t give you any advice on how to make your car repair experience more pleasant, but I can offer a few dos and don’ts to help you avoid getting scammed and overpaying.

Don’t Wait Too Long.

One of my first pieces of advice is to take care of issues before they become major problems. Strange noises, steering problems and engine troubles typically don’t disappear because you ignore them. You need to address any abnormalities right away for two reasons. First, the longer you wait, the more damage you’re probably doing to the car and the more the car repair will cost. Second, if something breaks and you can no longer drive the car, you’re going to be stuck getting it fixed at the first car repair shop it’s towed to, unless you want to keep paying towing charges to have it drug around town looking for the best deal.

Don’t Diagnose the Problem.

Two things could happen if you tell the car repair shop exactly what you think is wrong. One, they may focus specifically on that problem and miss something else that’s wrong. Or two, they may charge for a repair based on that diagnosis even if it wasn’t the cause of the problem. Let them find what’s wrong.

But do provide as many symptoms as possible. Be very specific about what is wrong with the vehicle. Don’t just tell the car repair shop you’re hearing a grinding noise. Inform them that you hear it when you’re traveling above 35 mph or when you make right turns. Note whether certain weather or driving conditions make the problem worse. Recall any large bumps you may have hit that could have caused the issue. Write everything down and give the mechanic a detailed assessment.

Don’t be pressured into agreeing to a quote.

Car repair shop owners know you’re going to flinch at the size of a quote. If you say you’re going to think about it or get a second opinion, they may counter with “It’s really not safe to drive,” or “I guarantee that’s the best deal you’re going to get.” They may even put the car on the lift and claim they’ve already started the work before you’ve agreed to it. Somebody who’s confident in his work and business practices won’t resort to these tactics just to get your business.

But do push back if needed. If the shop tells you a part is worn out or broken, ask them to show it to you and compare it to one that works properly. Ask for an itemized list of all repairs, not just a single amount and question why something costs what it does. Get the estimate in writing. You should also request the old part after the repair is made to ensure it was actually replaced.

Do get a second opinion from a different car repair shop.

If you don’t feel confident in the car repair shop you’re at, go with your gut and get a second opinion. Take the itemized list and call around to see what others charge for the same work. You should also consider taking the car in to see if another shop comes to the same conclusion as the first one.

A lot of issues can be avoided by finding a trustworthy car repair shop. So always ask friends and relatives if they have somebody they like, check with your local Better Business Bureau and take a look around the shop to get a sense if a reputable business is being operated.

photo credit: Gratisography

Protect Your Car: Don’t Let Zombies Eat It!

Standard

Halloween Car

The zombies will be out this weekend! Protect your car!

Most will beg for candy. Others will try to scare us. Some will play tricks.

Of course, some of these “tricks” can be damaging to your car’s paint job. Like pelting a car with eggs, pumpkins or silly string. These substances have chemicals that feast on a car’s paint if not removed quickly.

Halloween seems to bring out the maliciousness in a lot of people. And unfortunately, automobiles parked in the driveway or on the street are an easy target.

But Halloween tricks aren’t your car’s only enemy. Caked on dirt, bird droppings, tree sap, dead bugs, road tar and salt get baked into your car’s finish by the sun and slowly eat away at its flesh. Kind of like a zombie….

Here’s how to repel the “zombies” that attack your automobile’s appearance!

Fight the Zombies

As soon as a zombie attaches itself to your car, drown it off. The longer these chemically laced droppings and other foreign substances stick to your vehicle, the more they eat your paint job. Washing your vehicle once a week will minimize the damage and protect your car. I suggest hand-washing as drive-through car washes typically only spray off the surface dirt and don’t fully remove the tough stuff—like “zombies.” Also, you should wash your car out of direct sunlight, and get in the habit of drying it off to protect the car’s paint from minerals left behind from the water.

Car Detailing BarIf you have really tough zombies you can’t wash off, your next weapon of choice is an auto-detailing clay bar that removes contaminants without scratching the surface.

Most people don’t want to spend so much time on their car, but you have to remember the investment you’ve made. Appearance will impact resale value. So protect your car because the more it shines, the more it will fetch when you’re ready to part with it. A dull finish and rust spots, on the other hand, will decrease its value.

Defend Your Car From Zombies

Today’s cars come equipped with clear-coat finishes that many people mistakenly believe forever protects them against zombies. Not quite.

Most experts agree that if you want to maintain a car’s healthy appearance, you need to regularly give it a coat of wax. A traditional carnauba wax can last 8 to 12 weeks, while paint sealants protect your car for about six months. A third more expensive but more effective option is nano coating. This spray-on coating creates a shell over your paint job and protects the finish for as long as three years.

Hide From the Zombies

Car in GarageThe best way to protect your car from the zombies is to hide it by keeping it in a garage or carport as much as possible. I know some people who drive into work before sunrise, park their car in a parking ramp, then drive it home and into garage. Their car only sees the sky for short periods of time. Of course, this isn’t possible for everyone, but it’s definitely a good way to keep that paint job pristine!

One of a zombie’s goals is to turn living beings into other zombies. Neglect your car’s exterior and those zombies will transform it into a lifeless, scary-looking zombie on wheels.

photo credit: Valerie Everett via Flickr cc by-sa 2.0
photo credit: Chris via Flickr cc by-nc 2.0
photo credit: Steve Jurvetson via Flickr cc by 2.0

Car Maintenance: Tips for Good Car Health

Standard

Day 286: "Checkup"
Basic car maintenance can feel like an overwhelming schedule of expensive trips to the mechanic if you don’t know much about cars. Which are required? And which ones are just suggestions? Even though it’s easy to ignore keeping up with regular care as long as the car seems to be in good health, it’s important to know how to care for your car so you can minimize the chance of an inconvenient breakdown.

These are a few basic (and inexpensive!) car maintenance routines that will save you headaches in the long run.

Read the Car Maintenance Section of the Owner’s Manual

car maintenanceAs I recently wrote, there are quite a few car myths that can cost you money unnecessarily. One way to know for sure how often specific check-ups are needed is by reading your owner’s manual. You carry it everywhere you go in your glove compartment, you might as well take a look at what it says about car maintenance! It’s probably not necessary to read the entire booklet, but there should be a maintenance schedule easily accessible in the front or back. At the very least, this table will tell you when to change the oil, replace belts and change the fluids. Tuck that information away somewhere handy, either in your home calendar or you can ask Siri to create a reminder on your phone!

Check the Fluids

Even if you don’t need to change the fluids entirely, you must make sure the car has enough to operate. Again, the owner’s manual will tell exactly where to check and how to know if your vehicle has enough oil, transmission fluid and brake fluid. Not having enough fluids can damage vital parts, and if the car is consistently low, it’s a sign there may be a leak. If this is the case for you, it may be worth it to get in the habit of checking the fluids every time you stop off at the gas station.

Rotate the Tires

car maintenanceLet’s say you have a gallon of milk in the refrigerator that is half full. You don’t want to run out and be forced to eat dry cereal, so you buy another gallon. Only instead of finishing the old gallon first, you start drinking from the new. Before you finish the newer one, the older jug goes bad, and you have to throw it out. You’ve now wasted half a gallon of milk–which is pretty expensive these days.

The same thing happens when you don’t rotate your tires. Front and rear tires wear at different rates and have different wear patterns. By practicing good car maintenance and rotating your tires, you increase their usefulness by making sure they wear more evenly. If you don’t, you’ll be buying a whole set of new tires when two still have plenty of tread remaining.

It’s a good idea to rotate your tires whenever you change the oil. Another good idea? Taking that opportunity to make sure your spare tire has enough air. The last thing you want is to get a flat tire and discover that your spare is flat as well!

Change the Wiper Blades

Checking your wiper blades regularly is a good idea, especially if you live in an area that receives a lot of rain or snow. If the blades aren’t able to easily clear slush and water, they may need to be replaced. Before heading off to the auto store, though, wipe the blade with a cloth and let it snap back to the window. This may fix the problem without replacing the entire blade! If not, wiper blades are generally inexpensive, and some auto stores will even install the blades you purchase from them for free.

Maintenance is important for all high-end equipment, but especially for an expensive purchase like a car. Do you have any suggestions for other basic car maintenance tips? Let us know in the comments!

photo credit: Sean Freese via Flickr cc by 2.0
photo credit: Michael Sheehan via Flickr cc by 2.0
photo credit: Scott Robinson via Flickr cc by 2.0

5 Car Myths That are Costing You Money

Standard

The truth will set you free.

I’m sure you’ve heard this saying from a wise elder or two implying that falsehoods sometimes hold us hostage. This is especially true of the myths we think are facts just because enough people believe them.

Such is the case with some popular ideas about buying, driving and maintaining cars. Believing car myths can waste time and money, prevent you from buying the right vehicle and be more harmful to the environment. There are dozens of falsehoods out there, but here are my top five:

Warming Your Engine

Warming up Your CarIf you’re parking your ’83 Chevette outside during a North Dakota winter, you probably need to idle for several minutes before taking off. But newer vehicles warm up faster when driving than idling. In fact, letting your car run in the driveway means it will take longer to reach maximum fuel efficiency and performance, and that you’re wasting fuel! What should you avoid on a freezing morning? Revving the engine or flooring the gas petal until you’ve gone a few miles!

Buying Premium Gas and Fuel Additives
Commercials for gas retailers and fuel additives try to frighten owners into believing their tanks are loaded with dirt, gunk and debris left by unclean gasoline, but gasoline manufacturers are required by law to add detergents to prevent deposits and buildups. Using an aftermarket additive or buying a brand of gasoline because it is cleaner is the same as throwing extra money in the tank. In addition, premium gasoline will not provide better performance or prevent breakdown in most vehicles. Higher octane gas is designated for hotter running, high-compression engines. If you have a normal vehicle designed for 87-octane, buying premium gas will cost you more money with no impact. The only time you should use a higher octane is when your owner’s manual says the car needs it.

Changing the Oil Every 3,000 Miles

Pouring OilThis myth is so pervasive, it has it’s own Wikipedia page. Engine oil stops lubricating if it gets dirty, and older cars do let in more dirt and debris requiring more frequent oil changes. But today’s vehicles do not! In fact, under normal driving conditions, engine oil can last 7,500 miles and even up to 10,000 miles. While you aren’t doing any damage to your vehicle by changing oil every 3,000 miles, you are wasting money and harming the environment. Just be sure to check your owner’s manual for information specific to your car and your driving conditions!

Never Buying the First Year of a Model
You don’t see this one much anymore, but some buyers insist that the first year of a new model is a “guinea pig” year. Once the manufacturer works out all the bugs, they build a better model in subsequent years. While this may have been somewhat true in the old days, modern engineering and testing means new models are usually ready as soon as they come off the line.

Overinflating Your Tires

Tire Pressure

Many people make this mistake. The pounds-per-square-inch number indicated on the tire is simply the maximum pressure the tire can hold–not the ideal pressure for the vehicle. The manufacturer provides a recommended tire pressure for the best balance of braking, handling, comfort and fuel mileage that you should use for inflation. This number is usually found in the owner’s manual and on the vehicle doorjamb, gas tank door or in the glove box.

Now that you know the truth, feel free to change your oil less, fill up with low-octane gas and buy that cool, new model with no remorse.

photo credit: Jeff Wilcox via Flickr cc by 2.0
photo credit: Sergey Galyonkin via Flickr cc by 2.0
photo credit: State Farm via Flickr cc by 2.0

Want a Relaxing Vacation? Try a Rental Car

Standard

9638435181_7e3e44c2b8_zIt’s the heart of family vacation season. Trips to national parks, amusement parks and beaches will take many families hundreds of miles from home this summer.

As you plan your summer getaway, you’re probably defaulting to driving your own vehicle to save money. But there are advantages to parking the family vehicle for the week and letting a clean, cozy, well-maintained rental car make the trip.

According to AAA, the total cost of driving a large sedan 15,000 miles a year costs 75 cents a mile including gas, maintenance, tires and depreciation. This means a 1,000-mile vacation may cost $750.

You’re probably assuming you’ll be spending the same on gas in your own vehicle as you would in a rental. But this is not always the case. If you’ve put on a significant number of miles, your vehicle has likely lost some of its fuel economy. It happens with age.

Rental cars are meticulously maintained meaning they should be achieving near maximum fuel efficiency. Can you honestly say that about your car that’s overdue for a tuneup and could use a little more air in the tires?

3377695418_58249dd56d_zConservatively speaking, a relatively new family vehicle should net 25 mpg while a moderately used model may only be getting 20 mpg. If you drive 1,000 miles in the rental, you’ll use 40 gallons of fuel while the latter vehicle will take 50 gallons of fuel. In this scenario, at $3.50 a gallon, (if you’re lucky!) you’ll spend an extra $35 driving an older vehicle.

Every car is different, so check your car’s manual to make sure you know when it needs an oil change and a tire rotation. Driving your own vehicle on a long-distance family vacation puts you that much closer to these milestones. In addition, those miles use up fluids and tire tread and wear down belts and hoses!

Every mile you put on your car also lowers its value. At some point, you’ll want to sell or trade it for a newer model, so keep the mileage low, especially if you are leasing, by taking someone else’s car on vacation.

Besides, you’re on vacation! Escape reality for a week and share new experiences with the family. You see new places, eat at restaurants you normally don’t and stay at a place where someone cleans up after you for a change. Why not make the journey just as thrilling as the destination?

photo credit: William Warby via Flickr cc
photo credit: Valerie Everett via Flickr cc by-sa 2.0

What’s Hiding Underneath that Used Car’s Hood?

Standard

Often the signs that a used car has seen better days are obvious. There’s the dented fender, the busted headlight and the rips in the upholstery.

But pre-owned vehicles have a sneaky ability to hide their worst problems. You can easily make the mistake of assuming a car that runs fairly well and doesn’t make obnoxious noises must be free of engine trouble. And that’s what an unreliable car wants you to think.

To assess whether a prospective car is road worthy or on the verge of leaving its driver stranded, you need to do some detective work.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago when advising you on looking through the glove box, the clues you will find under the hood may reveal how well the vehicle has been maintained. You want to avoid taking over someone else’s poor habits and vehicle neglect, as they are sure to cost you later.

Clues regarding the condition of the car’s mechanical components come in four categories: Leaks, Cracks, Colors and Smells.

Leaks

Leaking Crank SealYour first clues are signs of fluid leaks. Sometimes they
can be easily fixed. But often they foreshadow major engine repairs.

Look closely at the underside of the hood. If oil leaks are apparent, you might be dealing with bad bearings or excessive oil leaking from the engine. Black dirt or dust accumulated on the engine block also signals oil leakage.

Trace all of the vehicle’s hoses to check for coolant, transmission and power steering fluid leaks. Any one of these could be minor, but could make your purchase even more expensive down the road. Also look for coolant stains down the side of the engine, because this likely indicates gasket failure.

One of the worst places for a leak is the master cylinder that controls your brakes. Look for the reservoir where brake fluid goes and check the level. If it’s low, it could be a leak–or simple neglect. Cylinder leaks will also reveal themselves with stain marks, wetness or excessive gunk on the cylinder.

Cracks
The next clues to investigate are any noticeable cracks. Specifically, you should examine all belts and hoses for signs of excessive wear. Many of these can cost hundreds of dollars to replace when they finally give out.

This is especially true of the car’s timing belt that synchronizes the movements of engine parts. Replacing a timing belt is costly. Plus, if the belt breaks before it’s replaced, it could cause further engine damage.

3285710885_8d5acf017f_zColors
Provided they haven’t all leaked out, the color of certain fluids can warn you of future problems. For example, brown coolant could disclose that it’s never been flushed, a major area of neglect. It could also inform you of a leaky head gasket.

Brown is also a bad color for transmission fluid and power steering fluid. The former could mean a failing transmission; the latter might indicate a worn out power steering pump.

Smells
Anything that smells burnt–be it antifreeze, oil or transmission fluid–is always a bad sign. At the very least, a burnt smell should be addressed by looking for the other warning signs listed.

There are a few other indicators of poor maintenance or potential damage. Corrosions on battery cables means a new battery and perhaps new battery cables are in order. While not expensive to replace, corrosion is often a sign the car hasn’t received regular maintenance and tuneups.

Also study the engine’s alignment within the engine compartment. If you see marks where the fan is nicking the radiator of if the engine just looks crooked, it’s a possible sign that motor mounts are going bad.

Of course, you can greatly reduce the risks of buying a lemon by having a certified mechanic check out a car before you buy. Another way is by purchasing from a reputable dealer or rental car company that has performed a full inspection before putting the vehicle up for sale.

photo credit: Ernesto Andrade via Flickr cc
photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr cc