Investing a Little in Your Car Now Can Save a Lot Later

The lack of a $1 part cost Maria Taylor $2,000.

Taylor, a San Francisco resident, knew her car had a leaky oil gasket that needed to be replaced. But she figured taking the car to a mechanic would be costly and time-consuming. Besides, she always left repair shops with the vague feeling that she’d been ripped off.

So she procrastinated. Eventually, she got to a mechanic--but only after her car’s engine seized up on the freeway, having run out of oil.

“It was one of those things that you just wanted to kill yourself for not having done,” she said, sighing. “It would have been the simplest thing to fix. And there I was, stranded in Sonoma. The repair was more than the car was worth.”


The only thing unusual about Taylor is that she can quantify the cost of neglect, says Ren Volpe, a San Francisco-based mechanic and author of “The Lady Mechanic’s Total Car Care for the Clueless.”

An aging population, today’s more complicated vehicles, the rise in auto leasing and a distrust of mechanics are causing America’s 200 million drivers to increasingly ignore simple auto maintenance, experts say.

Although it’s tough to put a dollar value on what that neglect might cost consumers, experts agree that anyone who plans to keep a car for several years will find that it vastly exceeds any savings accrued from skipping visits to the mechanic. (However, mechanics acknowledge that if you lease cars for short stretches--two or three years, for example--you can neglect some maintenance without suffering serious repercussions. The car’s next owner, however, may not be as lucky.)

“The irony of all this is that people would like to keep their cars longer because new cars are getting so expensive,” says Larry Northup, executive director of the Council for Automotive Reliability in Washington. “You would think that people would be more inclined to protect their investment. But that isn’t necessarily the case.”


Yet mechanics also admit that one of the reasons people are reluctant to repair their cars is they frequently don’t trust the people who do the work.

A good portion of the baby boom generation used to fix their cars themselves, but now that they’re older and modern cars are stocked with computers and webs of complex wiring, they need help, Northup says. But many people either have had a bad experience with a mechanic or have watched one of dozens of television exposes about “car repair rip-offs,” documenting repair shops recommending unnecessary work or vastly overcharging.

Women feel particularly vulnerable, Volpe says. But Mark Eskeldson, a Sacramento mechanic and author of “What Auto Mechanics Don’t Want You to Know,” says men are just as likely to get ripped off.

“Both men and women get ripped off, but since men and women are different, mechanics use different tactics to do it,” Eskeldson says. “With women, they use scare tactics. They tell you your car is not safe to drive. With men, they appeal to your ego. They know that no guy is going to want to admit he doesn’t know anything about cars, so they say, ‘Come here, I want to show you something.’ Then they point to a perfectly good part and say, ‘See how that’s all worn out?’

“The guy doesn’t want to look stupid, so he says, ‘Oh, yeah. You better fix that.’ ”

There are some things consumers can do to maintain their cars properly and avoid rip-offs, mechanics agree. Ironically, one of the best strategies is to have the car regularly maintained.

“A lot of people wait until something drastic happens and then they need to get the car towed,” Volpe says. “That’s way too late to find a decent mechanic.”

Instead, you ought to look for a mechanic the way you look for a doctor. Seek references. Ask friends, relatives and your local auto club. Then check the shop out on minor issues--oil changes, new filters and wiper blades, Volpe suggests. Before you agree to a major repair, ask the mechanic for credentials. Does the shop specialize in your type of car? Are their mechanics ASE certified?


The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence certifies mechanical competence in seven disciplines, from fixing the air conditioner to replacing the engine, says Larry Hecker, president of the Automotive Maintenance and Repair Assn. in Washington. Make sure that anyone who does a big repair on your car is ASE certified to do that type of work. Simple mistakes made by mechanics who haven’t been properly trained are far more common than rip-offs, Hecker says. Either way, it costs you money.

Also make sure to get a written estimate of the work to be done and ask whether each repair is “required” or “recommended.”

Most mechanics will have manufacturers’ specification books in their shops that spell out just how much wear your brakes can take before they are considered unsafe, for example. If a mechanic says your brake pads need replacing, ask to see the manufacturer’s specs and the measurements on your brakes. That allows you to see for yourself whether the mechanic is exaggerating the problem or if you really do need the repair.

If you are having parts replaced, ask to see the old parts. Ask the mechanic how you can tell there’s something wrong, Volpe says.

“It is important for the customer to have enough information to make informed decisions,” Hecker says. “You should not feel bashful or uncomfortable about asking questions. If the repair shop doesn’t want to answer, that’s an indication that they don’t know or are not telling you the truth.”

If you want to try some simple auto maintenance yourself, you can find help on the Internet. The Automotive Maintenance and Repair Assn. sponsors a Web site (, which offers an instructional pamphlet on how to do simple maintenance on you car, such as changing the oil and adding transmission fluid. It also tells you how often to check everything from filters to antifreeze.

The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence also offers several pamphlets on the Web, including “How to Choose the Right Body Shop” and “Car Care Information.” They’re at

Times staff writer Kathy M. Kristof can be reached at kathy.kristof

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