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Resolving Disputes 101:

How to Resolve a Complaint With an Auto Repair Shop

Most of us have vehicles--and sooner or later we're going to have to buy a new (or used) car, fix a vehicle that's broken down, or do a little automobile maintenance.
The upshot for many of us: complaints. Complaints about deceptive car dealership ads, auto warranties that weren't honored, "lemons," crooked/incompetent mechanics. Maybe that buy-here, pay-here dealership repossessed your almost-paid-off car after a payment was just 3 days late, or perhaps your new car dealer said your automobile needed a repair that was in fact totally unnecessary. No wonder the FTC alone received 77,435 auto-related complaints in 2011.
You could just yell at the other party and complain to your friends. But if you work smart, you have a good chance of actually fixing the problem.

Common Problems

  • The auto repair shop didn’t fix the problem.
  • The bill was much higher than the estimate.
  • The auto repair shop repaired a 'problem' that didn't actually need repairing.
  • The mechanic caused a different problem through mechanical or autobody damage.

Step One: Know your rights.

You have the right to receive a written estimate; it may even be required by law. (Check your state’s regulations and licensing authority, if any.) The estimate should specify that the shop must contact you if the repair will exceed the estimate by a certain amount. It should include your car's odometer reading.

You can, and should, ask these questions: What is the shop’s hourly rate? What is the warranty on the parts and repair work? Will the shop honor your manufacturer’s warranty? Does the shop charge a flat rate or an hourly rate? Will the parts be new, used (salvage) or rebuilt?

You can, and should, receive a completed work order that includes the repair done; details of labor, parts, and warranty; and your vehicle’s odometer reading when you picked up the car. In some states this is required by law. You can also ask to have the old parts returned to you, although this may cost you if the shop’s original estimate had factored in the sale of old parts for rebuilding. Again, in some states, mechanics are required to return parts. Use your smart phone to snap the parts as they’re being handed over if you’re suspicious.

...and your responsibilities

If you don’t maintain your vehicle properly, it’s more likely to break down. Worse, you could void out your warranty. You don’t have to take your auto to the dealership for maintenance or repairs, but be sure to keep your receipts and use only reputable, knowledgeable mechanics. And check your vehicle’s manual for recommended maintenance intervals—for instance, if an oil change is recommended at 5,000 miles, ask the repair shop why they think you should get one at 3,000 miles. More frequent oil changes may be justified under certain circumstances.

Pick a good place

Ideally, find a good auto repair shop BEFORE you run into problems. Ask people you trust, and whenever someone you know has their car repaired, ask if they thought the place did a good, honest job.

Check the shop’s current license if your state and/or town requires one.

Ask about certifications, like the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence’s (ASE) Blue Seal program. You might also look for AAA-certified and recommended facilities (the Approved Auto Repair network). And be sure to read any unresolved claims against the shop on—read the shop’s response, too. Since companies are notified about claims, a lack of response can be a red flag.

Check that the mechanics have experience with your make of car. If not, go elsewhere.

Shop around for the best deal at a quality shop, and get a second opinion if the repair is expensive. Note: There may be a diagnostic charge if you don’t get the repair done at that auto repair shop.

Resolving disputes with an auto repair shop

Communication is key. Before you fly off the handle, ask the repair shop’s manager to explain the situation clearly and resolve misunderstandings on either side.

If you’re still not satisfied, write a clear, concise letter to the owner or manager of the store, detailing the problem. Be polite. Calling someone a crook is likely to inflame a situation, not fix it. Don’t back yourself into a corner. There may be a reasonable explanation, so leave room for either party to apologize and fix things.

How PeopleClaim can help: Our system lets you narrow the issues, fill out a timeline, attach scanned documentary evidence, and ask for a specific resolution. Your claim can be delivered by email and/or mail, even with certified delivery (we’ll stand in line for you). If the shop doesn’t resolve your claim, your claim can post publicly and be available to regulators and other consumers until it’s resolved. Fees are nominal.

What to include in your claim

Wherever possible include a copy of the original written estimate, a copy of the original invoice, a concise statement of what happened, a timeline, a picture of damage if applicable, a second opinion by a respected shop if applicable, and a picture of any returned parts if applicable.

No resolution by your deadline? Check with your local and state regulatory agencies about the next step. If a repair shop is holding your car in lieu of a payment that you consider unjustified, you may be able to take out a Writ of Replevin. You can also ask us to copy your complaint to the appropriate regulators for a nominal charge.

As a next-to-last resort, consider Small Claims Court. (The last and more expensive resort is an attorney.) However, be aware that even with a judgment in your favor, collection can sometimes be tricky - check your state’s law and practices before filing.

And be an advocate. If your state doesn’t license or regulate auto repair shops except in broad criminal terms, you may want to ask state representatives why not.

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