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Car Repairs and the Law

Person repairs the underside of a car in a car repair shop

Car repairs happen from time to time. Finding an honest mechanic at a fair price is not always easy for everyone. Worse yet, it is difficult for most people to identify mistakes or short cuts that are taken by mechanics. That is, at least until something goes wrong! 

Becoming an informed consumer is one of the best defenses. This article focuses on legal and practical issues about car repairs.

See Dealer Used Car Sales and Warranties and Consumer Warranty Basics for related information.

Where to Go for Car Repairs

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of where you should get your car repaired. Ask:

  • What kind of car is it?
  • Is it warranty-related work?
  • Is it something simple (like an oil change)?
  • Can it be fixed at a larger tune-up chain?
  • Does it need a brand-specific shop (like Volkswagen or BMW)?

Often the best way to find a reliable and affordable mechanic is through word of mouth or reading online reviews.

Types of Car Repair Shops

Car repair shops can be categorized as one of three main types. Each has its strengths and weaknesses:

  • Car Dealerships: Mechanics at the dealership will be very familiar with the make and model of your car. These mechanics often receive specialized training. Repairs at dealerships tend to be quite expensive. Many car owners limit the use of dealership mechanics to just warranty-related repairs.
  • General Repair Shops: While parts often cost more at service stations, as compared to dealerships, labor often is less expensive. However, finding a skilled, honest, and affordable mechanic can sometimes be tricky.
  • Auto Repair Chains: These types of repair shops tend to focus on one thing, whether it is routine oil changes, mufflers, or brakes. Some chains offer a complete list of services. Chains can usually offer a relatively low price because they work on such a high volume of cars. These types of chains are best for specific types of routine maintenance.

Cost Estimates for Repairs

Several states require mechanics to provide consumers with a cost estimate before they begin any car repair work. Most repair shops are more than willing to provide one anyway. 

Some repair shops charge a fee for estimates since car owners often shop around for deals and will not necessarily use a given repair shop for the actual work. These shops must notify you about any such fees.

Limiting Final Costs Compared to Estimates

Many laws say the final cost may not exceed the estimate over a certain percentage. For example, Illinois' Automotive Repair Act provides two options for vehicle repair facilities:

  1. They can provide a written estimate for the price of labor and parts (final bill must not exceed the estimate by more than 10%)
  2. They can provide a written price limit for each specific procedure (final bill for each procedure must not exceed the estimate without the owner's consent)

The Illinois law goes into additional details about how labor costs should be calculated, estimates for suggested repairs, reassembly charges, and so on.

Refusal to Pay for Auto Repairs 

If you decide you do not want to pay for the services provided by a car repair shop, the shop may be legally entitled to keep your car. 

The owner of the shop would obtain a mechanic's lien, provided they comply with any applicable laws requiring estimates. A lien is a legal claim for property that has been improved or otherwise serviced.

The mechanic may keep and ultimately sell your car if you do not pay the bill on time. This applies even if your car is an $80,000 luxury vehicle that received a $35 oil change.

Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices Statutes (Laws) 

All states have some kind of law addressing consumer protection against unfair and deceptive acts and practices (sometimes referred to as UDAP). They can vary from one state to the next.

These laws address a wide variety of practices, including things like:

  • No predatory lending and automobile sales
  • Requiring auto repair shops to disclose certain information to consumers (such as specific details of the pre-work estimate and whether any rebuilt parts are used)
  • Requiring same-day repairs (unless more time is reasonably needed or you have agreed to a delay)
  • Requiring mechanics to correct poor repair work for no additional fee
  • Posting price lists in a way that is clear to customers

Some shops fail to meet states' requirements under UDAP laws. Contact your state attorney general's office if you believe your car repairs or how they were handled was illegal.

Unauthorized Repairs

If you have an older car and not much money, you might get work done on your vehicle that is considered crucial and let some other problems go by the wayside. 

If the mechanic makes unauthorized repairs and demands payment, you may be able to sue the mechanic. This applies only if the other fixes were completely unrelated to the original problem.

But, you may not have a case and may need to pay for repairs if:

  • The shop made a "good faith" effort to solve a problem
  • They fixed something else related to the original issue along the way and 
  • The additional fix was a possible solution to the original problem

Failing to Install a Part

Let's say your mechanic fails to put in an oil filter after an oil change or fails to properly install a part. Failing to put in the proper part(s) falls under the category of unauthorized repairs. 

To get money for an auto shop or dealer's error, you must show your car was damaged because of their negligence. Learn more by contacting an attorney in your area.

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