By David Pitt, AP Personal Finance Writer
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Cars on the road are older than they've ever been, sporting an average age of 11 years. And you can be sure that many aren't getting the care they need.
In a survey last summer by AAA, about a quarter of the drivers said they neglected maintenance and repairs in the prior 12 months to save money.
Older cars are no longer under warranty so owners are paying for more repairs out of their own pockets, said Art Shaw, CEO of RepairPal Inc. in Emeryville, Calif., which offers repair estimates and shop recommendations.
Maintenance costs are becoming much more important because they're a significant chunk of the average car owner's budget. It all adds up to underscore that finding a trustworthy mechanic should be a top priority.
"This is actually becoming a much bigger deal more quickly than people understand," Shaw said.
Whether it's replacing a headlight, a battery, or something more serious, asking the right questions before choosing a repair shop is essential.
There are some basic tips to follow to help ensure that the mechanic jacks up your car and not your bill.
— Get recommendations
Use your social network to get referrals from co-workers, friends and family. If you're active on Facebook or other websites you may get some good feedback about reliable and honest mechanics.
Once you have a list of shops check the Better Business Bureau database for any history of complaints.
Several websites offer lists of shops. At www.repairpal.com users can search by zip code and car model. The company also offers a smartphone app.
— Check for qualifications
It's important to look for and ask about whether a shop's mechanics carry any certifications. A few of the possibilities include:
AAA Approved Auto Repair: A program of AAA. About 8,000 approved shops are inspected and must pass standards set by the auto club. They must provide customers with written estimates, return replaced parts and offer a 12-month warranty.
ASA: Automotive Service Association: Its members agree to adhere to a code of ethics including fair prices, skilled technicians, and price estimates. It holds annual conventions focused on technical and management training.
ASE: A nonprofit group, National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence tests and certifies mechanics. They must pass an exam and have at least two years of experience. Retesting is required every five years to maintain certification. They display a blue and white ASE logo.
SAE: An international association of engineers and technical experts in the aerospace, automotive, and commercial vehicle industries which provides training, standards and technical publications.
Another issue to ask about is their equipment. Computerized diagnostic equipment and access to online repair systems — which provide the latest repair manuals and instructions — are basic tools of the trade these days.
— Compare costs
Auto mechanics typically charge for labor by the hour. Generally the rate can range from around $50 an hour to more than $100 an hour.
When you're given an estimate it's usually based on a flat rate. That means the mechanic looks up how long the repair should take for your particular car, and then uses a flat hourly rate and cost of parts to calculate a total. The wide gap in possible labor costs means what you pay can vary greatly from one garage to another.
Before you have your car worked on, ask what happens if the repair doesn't take as long as the estimate and see if you're satisfied with the response.
In addition to labor, you'll also have to pay for parts. Make sure the shop uses parts made by the car manufacturers. Parts like starters, alternators, and radiators can vary greatly in quality.
Simply shopping for the cheapest garage gets a lot of consumers in trouble, said Shaw, the RepairPal CEO. Quality shops invest in training of their mechanics, diagnostic tools and equipment.
While shopping, make sure you ask whether the garage charges separately to diagnose what's wrong. Today's cars usually are plugged into a computer to pinpoint the problem and a $100 charge is common.
If you receive an estimate that seems steep, try an online calculator to help gauge if it's out of line. For an example, visit www.automd.com/repaircost.
— Assess customer service
Choose an auto repair shop that willingly offers a detailed written estimate and assures that the cost won't significantly exceed that amount unless they check with you.
Also see what type of warranty the shop offers for repairs. Parts and labor should be guaranteed for a period of time or number of miles. AAA certified shops offer 12 months or 12,000 miles, for example.
Before settling on a mechanic, visit the shop for an oil change or tire rotation. This gives you time to potentially interact with other customers, view the operation, and get a feel for how the business functions.
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