Keeping down the cost of major car repairs

If car repairs seem to cost more than they used to, it’s because they do. The increasingly sophisticated design of cars, along with new features such as backup video cameras on taillights and multiple airbags, make them more expensive to repair. Xenon headlights alone can cost up to $3,000 a pair. Since the most expensive options appear on the costliest cars, the better your car the higher your repair bills.

Another factor in the growing cost of repairs is that manufacturers are assembling body parts in units. Instead of replacing a small defective part, a whole section of your car may have to be replaced. Moreover, the computerization of vehicles can complicate what would seem, at the outset, to be a simple job.

Labor costs have also increased dramatically, doubling in the last decade in some states. Dealer service departments may charge $75 to $95 per hour. Independent garages with ASE certified and licensed mechanics typically will do the same work for $40 to $50 per hour. But you have to get an estimate and make certain they are doing the same job as the dealer would and that it won’t take them more hours.

So what should your repairs cost? Even a standard repair, such as replacing an oil pump or alternator, can vary significantly depending on the make and age of your car and where you have it fixed. As a rule, repairs to luxury cars cost more, as do those to older cars with parts that are difficult to get.

There are model-specific websites for many cars that give a range of costs for repairs. You can also find average estimated repair costs at the Auto Warranty Group’s website.

Here are some tips from the Better Business Bureau about how you can avoid or reduce repair costs:

Read the owner’s manual. It’s important to follow proper maintenance for your car to keep it running well and the warranty in force. The manual will also give basic information such as the weight and type of oil required and how much weight your vehicle can carry or tow.

Change your oil regularly. Change your car’s oil every 3,000 to 5,000 miles or more frequently if you do lots of driving in the city, in a dusty environment, or routinely carry or tow heavy loads.

Get your car serviced promptly. Ignoring what seem like small problems can lead to costly major repairs later.

Request a flatbed tow truck to reduce the chance of damage to your car while in transit and examine the car when it arrives at the shop to make sure none has occurred. Have a diagnostic check done on the car and get an estimate in writing. If the problem is complicated, set a cost limit that the mechanic cannot exceed without getting your approval. If the repair is very expensive or the estimate seems too high, get a second opinion – particularly if it will not require towing your car to another shop.

Examine the service receipt before you pay. Ask to see any parts that have been replaced. If the final bill is over the estimate and you did not authorize the extra charges, ask for an explanation. If there is a dispute, find out what the garage’s obligations are and who can help resolve the problem in your state.

Of course, the best way to avoid major repair costs is to pay attention to signs of trouble and get your car serviced promptly when it needs it. You can find a list of warning signs at the Federal Trade Commission website.

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