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Auto repair pricing seems all over the map. Why?

December 4, 2019

Want to get confused, quickly? Call three different auto repair shops and ask them how much a 120K mile maintenance service will cost on your vehicle. We’d estimate that in the Bay Area alone – even on a simple car like a 2010 Toyota Corolla — you could see prices as low as $350 or as high as $750!

So, what’s the deal? Are some shops ripping you off with high prices? Are others going to give you shoddy service or skip some of the work?

The truth is, both of those things could happen, but they’re not the only things that can cause big price ranges like the one we highlighted. Parts quality, shop location, business strategy, and your specific vehicle can all change the price you might expect.

Of course, everyone has different preferences! So, we’ve included some of the key factors below that can help drive price differences — so you can understand which service you want and how to make sure you’re getting a fair price for it.

Who made the parts?

High-quality parts can sometimes create large differences in price. One of the biggest differences you’ll find in price is the quality of the part.

In the auto parts industry, you can get genuine parts (sold by the car manufacturer, like Toyota), OEM parts (sold by the parts maker that sells the parts to the car manufacturer) or aftermarket (sold by a competing company, but still made to fit the vehicle).

Even within the aftermarket category, there is a big range, but OEM parts generally last longer. Usually, the best proxy you’ll have for parts quality is the shop’s warranty. Some shops don’t offer any at all, and others will warranty their work for two years! The parts themselves carry a manufacturer warranty as well.

Location, location, location

Most shops only operates 5–6 days a week, so they can’t take on unlimited cars. That means that they’re targeting a certain profit on each car to cover their overhead costs. One of the biggest? The lease.

Not surprisingly, a lease in San Francisco can cost twice as much as the same space in Redwood City. If you’re in an expensive area, chances are it will cost more to get your car repaired, too.

What’s the branding strategy?

Business strategy makes a big difference. All businesses compete on price, quality, or convenience. Auto repair is no different, of course. For instance, take how two different businesses might price a maintenance service:

Business A isn’t necessarily doing shoddy work. And Business B isn’t necessarily ripping you off. But knowing what you want and that you might have to pay extra for it can help you pick which of those businesses you would prefer.

A Mercedes or BMW costs more to maintain

European cars don’t just cost more when you purchase them from the dealership. Not all vehicles are created equally. Or with the same parts. Or the same amount of time required to replace them.

In fact, the prices can even differ on the same car. A 2010 Toyota Corolla can come with a manual or an automatic transmission. It can be a $50 difference in price to service one versus the other.

Of course, there are many other examples, too: engine size (bigger engines would require more oil and more spark plugs, for instance), or even how the manufacturer situates a part. For instance, on many Chryslers, the battery is in the wheel well instead of under the hood, and it takes a lot longer to replace it than it would on a Toyota.

Putting it all together

Figuring out the right mechanic for your car is really hard. There are lots of valid reasons you might see price discrepancies even on simple services, and that gets exaggerated the more expensive the service gets. So what do you do?

  1. Figure out what’s most important to you. For most people, that’s of course all three: price, convenience, and quality. But knowing where you can sacrifice can help you narrow down the shops you’re looking for.

  2. Learn important information like labor rate (the price per hour the shop charges) and warranty. These can help you figure out the expected price and quality for different shops, so you can know which shop is the best price for your needs.

  3. Read reviews carefully. I like to read the negative reviews. Sometimes, they show really shady business practices (work done poorly, ridiculous prices, or poor customer service). That’s a sign to stay away. Other times, the negative reviews look more like misunderstandings: the owner showed up late one day, or a car was misdiagnosed, but the owner has promised to honor the warranty and fix the issue. Those shop owners are trying to do the right thing, even if they’re not perfect.

  4. Mechanics know you’re going to shop around. We’ve found they’re more likely to recommend unnecessary work (our next article!) than rip you off on price. It never hurts to price check!

  5. There are plenty of tools to help you out. If you want to compare auto service costs in your area, check out Auto Service Costs. For reviews and amenities, you’re probably already aware of Yelp!

As with anything else, the more work you put into it, the more successful you can be in getting your car taken care of well!