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Car Repairs and the Law

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

Car repairs are an inevitable aspect of vehicle ownership. Finding a reputable mechanic at a fair price can be challenging. It's difficult for most consumers to identify mistakes or shortcuts a mechanic may take until something goes wrong.

Being an informed consumer is one of the best defenses. You have certain consumer rights that protect you from unfair and unlawful business practices. This article focuses on legal and practical issues related to car repairs, including the right to a written estimate for repair work and the right to authorize or refuse work.

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 where you should get your car repaired. Consider the following:

  • What kind of car is it?
  • Is it repair covered under warranty?
  • Is it something simple, like an oil change or a tire rotation?
  • Can a larger quick maintenance chain fix the issue?
  • Does it need a brand-specific shop (like Volkswagen or BMW)?

Types of Car Repair Shops

There are different categories of motor vehicle repair shops. Each has its strengths and weaknesses:

  • Car Dealerships: Dealership mechanics are usually very familiar with your vehicle's make and model and often receive specialized training. Since dealership repairs tend to be quite expensive, many car owners limit their use of dealership mechanics to warranty-related repairs.
  • Independent Repair Shops: While parts often cost more at service stations than at dealerships, labor is often less expensive. However, finding a skilled, trustworthy, and affordable independent mechanic can be challenging.
  • Specialty Repair Shops: These focus on specific vehicle components (like tires or brakes) or types of vehicles (like hybrid or electric cars). While they have their specialties, some of these shops still offer comprehensive services.
  • Quick Service Chains: These shops focus on routine maintenance and tune-ups, like oil changes or battery replacement. Because they work on such a high volume of cars, chains can often offer lower prices. However, they are not full-scale repair shops that handle complex mechanical issues.

Cost Estimates for Repairs

Several states require mechanics to provide consumers with an estimated cost of repairs before starting work. Most repair shops are willing to provide one to offer competitive pricing.

Some repair shops charge a fee for an estimated price. This is because car owners often shop around for deals and not 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. The final bill must not exceed the estimate by more than 10%.
  2. They can provide a written price limit for each specific procedure. The final bill for each procedure must not exceed the estimate without the owner's consent.

The Illinois law details how repair shops should calculate labor costs, estimates for suggested repairs, reassembly charges, and more.

Refusal To Pay for Auto Repairs

If you decide not to pay for the services provided by a car repair shop, the shop may have a legal entitlement to keep your car.

The shop owner can obtain a mechanic's lien if they comply with applicable laws requiring estimates. A lien is a legal property claim that has been improved or otherwise serviced. This means the mechanic may keep your car until you pay for all authorized repairs. In some cases, the mechanic can even sell your vehicle.

This applies even if your car is a $100,000 luxury vehicle that received an inexpensive oil change.

Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices Statutes (Laws)

All states have some law addressing consumer protection against unfair and deceptive acts and practices (sometimes referred to as UDAP). The legal specifics can vary by state.

These laws address a wide variety of practices, including protections 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 they used any rebuilt or recycled parts
  • 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

You also have rights if your car repair takes longer than estimated. Depending on your state's law and what is in your service agreement, you may be able to:

  • Cancel your service and take your vehicle to a different repair shop
  • Get a full or partial refund
  • Get a rental or loaner vehicle while repairs are ongoing

Sometimes, shops fail to meet states' requirements under UDAP laws. Contact your state attorney general's office if you believe your mechanic handled your car repairs illegally.

Unauthorized Repairs

If you have an older car and are on a tight budget, you might prioritize essential work on your vehicle while deferring less critical issues for later.

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.

You may not have a case and owe for repairs if:

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

Failing To Install a Part

Failure to install the proper part(s) is a type of unauthorized repair. For example, your mechanic may not properly install an oil filter during an oil change or doesn't install the correct replacement part.

To get compensation for an auto shop or dealer's error, you must show your car incurred damage because of their negligence.

Protect Yourself From Unscrupulous Auto Repair Shops

There are several steps you can take to make informed decisions about your vehicle's maintenance and repairs.

First, do your research before working with any auto service provider. Read online reviews and ask friends, family, and neighbors for recommendations.

When you are speaking with a repair shop, be clear about the work you want done. Keep detailed records of all your vehicle's maintenance and repairs. You should also understand your car's functions before you talk to a mechanic. Review common automotive terms and the maintenance schedule in the owner's manual of your vehicle.

While you're not expected to be an expert, knowing the basics will help you communicate with the mechanic and prevent you from agreeing to unnecessary services.

You can also ask mechanics if they are certified through the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE).

Legal Recourse for a Vehicle Repair Issue

You have options if a repair shop does not perform a safe and satisfactory repair. This is also true if a mechanic overcharged you or performed unauthorized repair services.

You can contact your state's consumer affairs agency or attorney general's office. You can also file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau (BBB).

You can even pursue a remedy through small claims court. An attorney can help you understand your rights under the law. They will review the details of the repair and determine if the repair shop violated consumer protection laws.

Contact a consumer protection attorney in your area to learn more.

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