This post is about two things: how to find a good auto mechanic, and what the search for a good mechanic tells us about America.
This post is long. The list of Contents will help you zero in on sections of particular interest. Reading the whole thing will tell you a story of how the solutions in my case were rather different from what I thought they would be along the way.
Part One of this post uses my own situation as an opportunity to provide an extensive look at the possibilities and concerns that can arise when a car owner faces uncertain and potentially major repairs. A key theme arising from Part One is that the car repair industry is remarkably corrupt, though the extent of that corruption may not be so obvious until a person looks at all of the steps examined here.
Part Two begins with a review of Part One, offering more detail on the thoughts just mentioned. That review introduces a broader critique of America’s preoccupation with automobiles, along with suggestions for a superior future national transportation system. Part Two closes with brief observations about the link between denial of transportation and certain forms of radical political change.
PART ONE: FINDING A GOOD MECHANIC
The story starts with a whirring noise under the hood of my 1995 Honda Civic. I did not expect or desire a major car repair bill at this precise moment, but that seemed to be the situation facing me.
A Google search for guidance on finding a good auto repair shop led to many sources of information and advice. As I began to delve into them, I realized that this project would entail not only this Part One, where I would address the car repair issue, but also Part Two (below), where I would reflect upon what the car repair issue signified.
It may seem that, in some parts of the following discussion, I spend a great deal of time on various questions. In some cases, that was not the initial treatment. I repeatedly found that, as I explored a subsequent issue, I had to revisit something I thought I had settled earlier. Also, in some areas (notably the section on advice about dealing with repair shops), I was rather amazed at how there could be so many sources of advice and yet so many of them said different things. To my knowledge, no other webpage combines so many suggestions about mechanics into a single discussion.
I am not a mechanic and, as discussed below, I do not claim mechanical, legal, or other relevant expertise. My impressions could be mistaken. They pertain to my own situation, and are offered in hopes that they will trigger ideas in other minds, but I have no way of knowing what others might find relevant or helpful. The purposes of this post are to write up what I did in the past or was advised to do in the future, in the search for a good mechanic, and to discuss what that effort suggested about life in the United States at this point in time.
(Two notes about links in this post: (1) Some links lead to Google searches. Don’t be afraid to customize those searches for your specific situation. (2) For this or any webpage, if a web link no longer works, or no longer contains the material indicated here, you may be able to find an archived copy of the webpage as it appeared on this date, by entering the URL into the Wayback Machine.)
Reviews and Referrals
It is commonly understood that a good way to find a good mechanic is to get a referral from a neighbor, friend, or colleague who obtained satisfactory results when s/he needed car repairs. Recommendations can be helpful, but they are not a sure thing: for instance, flaws in the repair may not yet have surfaced, or the referrer may have been ripped off without even knowing it.
In qualitative research, there is a concept known as saturation. Saturation occurs when you interview many people about a complex phenomenon; you hear different explanations of that phenomenon; but then, eventually, you start to hear the same story from different sources. This is often a clue that you have reached the point of understanding the phenomenon. Saturation is probably harder to achieve when you are in a big city, where there are many different mechanics. But even there, using word-of-mouth and/or online investigation, it is possible to consult a wide variety of people, including some who have a car like yours and/or who have had a problem like yours, to determine how they proceeded and what results they obtained.
Referral Sources Online
As my own Google search (above) demonstrated, there are websites that specialize in providing numerous and hopefully accurate referrals. Edmunds.com names Yelp, Angie’s List, and Google searches as prominent sources of consumer reviews across a wide variety of issues, not just limited to car repairs. Review sources that are more car-specific include SureCritic, RepairPal, DriverSide, and CarTalk.
But such review sites have problems. One problem is that unethical companies use friends and even hire strangers to place fake reviews favoring themselves and/or criticizing their competitors. There have been some responses to such practices. Amazon has made headlines for filing lawsuits against those responsible for fake ads on its website. In some cases, the legitimacy of a reviewer might emerge from aspects of his/her profile (e.g., a photo; a variety of reasonable positive and negative reviews of local businesses over a period of years). Instead of accepting unsolicited reviews, Consumer Reports appears to sell ratings ($6.95/mo. or $30/year) arising from the organization’s annual surveys of “more than 1 million consumers” — but, as I would soon find, that source was disappointing.
Another response has been to verify the legitimacy of reviews. Since 2007, Angie’s List has taken the approach of obtaining an annual audit from BPA Worldwide, whose iCompli audits claim to provide “independent third-party certification” of service claims, among other things, for some companies. The audit includes “Requiring affirmation that consumers are reporting honestly on their own experiences,” “Encouraging companies to respond (free of charge) to give their side of the story,” “Using proprietary technology and human review to screen red flags or allegations of trying to manipulate the system,” and “Backing up all ecommerce purchases to qualified members through the Angie’s List platform with Angie’s Service Quality Guarantee.” Despite these audits, unfortunately, a search leads to numerous sources complaining about the quality of the information on Angie’s List. The Indianapolis Star (2015) reports that Angie’s List “has been sued repeatedly over questionable business practices,” apparently including several suits related to Angie’s practices of promoting visibility for businesses that buy advertising from Angie’s and suppressing negative reviews after businesses are compelled to respond to complaints (see also Forbes; New York Times; Indianapolis Business Journal; Law360; Wikipedia; PissedConsumer; Consumerist; ConsumerAffairs). Consider this, for example:
Reputation Resolutions works with preeminent lawyers in this space and we have a very high success rate of completely removing offensive information from Angie’s List. The strategy for removal may involve flagging the post as a terms violation, identifying the poster and requesting that (s)he remove the post, or pursuing legal action to have the post removed. When information cannot be completely removed, it can typically be “de-indexed” from search engines, meaning that it will not be seen when someone searches for information about you or your company.
Not that Angie’s would be the only company so targeted. But at least Angie’s List had some kind of system that purported to filter out false reviews. On that issue and others, according to Consumer Reports, Yelp was much worse:
Yelp uses software that aims to filter out bogus reviews and keep legitimate ones, but it hasn’t been objectively tested, says Kristen Whisenand, a company spokeswoman. . . . A company’s ability to make amends with a negative reviewer . . . undercuts the integrity and accuracy of the ratings, because placated gripers can change their review at any time. “We see plenty of people go back and delete reviews or update them,” Whisenand says.
Some suggested that a solution was to throw out the one- and five-star reviews, and then read and average those that remain. That approach had a certain appeal. I did not know whether the companies that arranged false reviews would arrange for anything other than one- and five-star reviews. In addition, I had seen raters cut their ratings to four stars for silly reasons. If I had no alternatives, I might return to that approach. But I doubted it would come to that.
In the area of car repair, Consumer Reports was much more positive on Consumers’ Checkbook; unfortunately, that site’s relevant information was largely limited to a few metropolitan areas. Consumer Reports and the New York Times had better impressions of the Better Business Bureau (BBB), though more for its complaint resolution efforts than for its user reviews: BBB’s complaints section did have the virtue of dealing with real consumers. I found BBB’s website confusing. Among other things, it did not offer a drop-down category for Auto Repair & Service. To get that category, I had to do a search for “auto repair” in the specified zip code. Unfortunately, that category came up in some cities but not in others that I tested — and once I had used a New York City zip code, the website did not want to forget it, but instead kept bringing me back to NYC listings. I actually had to use a different browser to search another city. (In case anyone wonders, BBB did have entries for consumer complaints against Angie’s List and Yelp.)
Car-Specific Online Referral Sites
Various automobile-focused review sites listed above had their own ways of seeking to reassure users that their reviews were genuine. First, SureCritic’s FAQs said this:
All reviews with the SureCritic logo are verified as Actual Customers! SureCritic is able to ensure these reviews are from actual customer by matching them with data taken directly from the business’ point of sale (POS) system. If a customer who completed a review is not in the POS system, then they are not verified as an actual customer. You may still see the review; however, it will not have the “Verified by SureCritic” logo next to it. . . .
The business has up to 14 days to verify your customer status and to respond to the review prior to it appearing. . . . The business will not be able to remove or manipulate the review content in any way. There is no compromising or suppressing the voice of the customer. . . . One method we use to verify actual customer status is by vehicle identification number.
SureCritic was apparently flying under the radar: I found no references to it in either the Reputation Resolutions nor BBB websites. But other sources cast doubt on some of the assertions just quoted. For instance, a user at ComplaintsBoard said SureCritic had removed his/her negative review; a similar report appeared at RipoffReport; and three reviewers at SiteJabber seemed to concur that SureCritic mostly functioned in the interests of member shops (a view implicitly supported by Mitchell1).
Another option was RepairPal, offering a certified program for AARP members — which reportedly entailed a 10% discount (maximum: $50; some repairs excluded). RepairPal offered lists of more than 200,000 questions posed by car owners, most seemingly unanswered, and 13,000 specific car problems (e.g., engine stall on a Mercury Villager), many with multiple responses, some of which apparently came from ASE Certified Master Technicians (see below). RepairPal’s FAQs claimed:
- “Shops that qualify for our program go through a rigorous approval process.”
- Repairs are covered by a 12-month/12,000-mile warranty.
- Shops pay to be included in the RepairPal Certified Shop Network.
- Repairs will be priced within the RepairPrice Estimator.
- “Upon having services performed at a RepairPal Certified shop you may receive an email from us asking you to rate and review your experience and we encourage you to do so, even if the experience was negative. Please note that RepairPal will not remove negative reviews from displaying as long as they do not violate our Shop Rating and Reviews Terms of Service.”
- Shops receive a Net Promoter Score (NPS) based on third-party evaluations of the customer list extracted “directly from the shop’s computer’ system.” The FAQs said, “RepairPal Certified shops’ NPS scores rate is comparable to and often higher than companies like Apple, Amazon, JetBlue, and Walmart.” The data underlying that assertion did not appear to be publicly available, but an NPTBenchmarks webpage and a Satmetrix graph suggested that it might not be true at present, and it also appeared to be untrue in 2013. But perhaps I was overlooking something. RepairPal seemed to distinguish its Certified shops from its Price Guarantee shops. The latter evidently honored the prices calculated in the RepairPrice Estimator, but had not passed the thorough RepairPal inspection. When I ran searches for one particular metropolitan area in the Certified and Price Guarantee pages, both yielded the same results: four Certified shops and 49 non-Certified shops.
Users on SiteJabber gave RepairPal an average of 3.5 stars. Overall, the impressions given by those reviews were not good. It seemed that RepairPal was telling mechanics that they would get a lot of business if they paid fees of ~$200/month to sign up, that their review of repair shops was not at all stringent, and that those who refused to sign up received negative ratings.
Through its member clubs, the American Automobile Association (AAA, pronounced “triple-A”) offered a list of approved repair shops. For example, AAA of Northern New Jersey provided (1 2 3) search pages leading to dozens of New Jersey auto repair facilities. One of those search pages explained that AAA members, choosing a AAA Approved Auto Repair (AAR) Facility, would receive a 10% discount ($50 maximum) on labor (if requested) and a 24-month/24,000-mile repair guarantee. A AAA press release said that the AAR program held “high standards, including certifications, technical training, cleanliness, insurance requirements, and background checks” with annual re-inspections. AAA’s AAR FAQs said that, in addition, “AAA screens each facility for reliability, honesty, fair pricing, cleanliness, [and] training.” These pages did not provide links to explain such assertions in more detail.
My own searches led to a CNN article from which it appeared that the AAR inspections simply checked that the shop had “state-of-the-art equipment, training, qualified technicians, and information systems.” In practical terms, it seemed this could just mean that the shop needed tools appropriate for work on contemporary vehicles. But AutoBlog contended that this actually entailed the use of handheld computer scanners and diagnostic software, logic probes, and online repair information systems (e.g., Alldata, Mitchell-on-Demand). I did not find any description of specific measures of technician qualification. The verbiage about “reliability, honesty, fair pricing” and so forth apparently just meant that AAA contacted recent customers — “about 100,” according to CNN — with a survey inquiring into such matters as satisfaction and cleanliness. There was no indication as to how many of those customers actually responded to such surveys or how many shops (if any) failed to be approved.
Another AAA press release from five years ago said that AAA shops had to maintain at least a 90% customer satisfaction rating. A search of the AAA website did not lead immediately to the specific questions that were asked on those surveys. An online survey for one AAA chapter asked simply for the user’s “level of satisfaction,” with the options of Not At All Satisfied, Somewhat Satisfied, Neutral, Satisfied, or Very Satisfied. If those are the options presented on the AAR survey, then it appeared that 10% of customers would have to indicate that they were “Not At All Satisfied” — perhaps on every question (regarding e.g., cleanliness and fair pricing) in order for the shop to fail the test. It was not clear whether the shop would be given an opportunity for a retry in that case. But in response to some of those concerns, CNN and AutoBlog said that the survey asked customers several questions, including whether the actual and estimated bills differed significantly, whether the job was done well and on time, and whether the shop and waiting area were clean and presentable.
I noticed that a comment on an article about AAA data collection, posted by David Chiffens, referred to an “annual fee” that his shop had to pay to be AAR-listed. But my search did not lead immediately to specifics on that fee. Then again, Prescott (AZ) Import Car Service said something that I had not seen elsewhere:
AAA ensures that the repair technicians are ASE Certified in every repair area that the repair facility performs. The ASE Certifications show that the shop’s mechanics are highly skilled. AAA also checks to ensure that there are Master Technitions [sic] on staff. A Master Technician is someone who is certified in every area of the ASE Certification scope.
I would be looking into that assertion in more detail (below), in my review of ASE. Finally, I did look for SiteJabber and BBB comments on AAA, but it appeared that customer complaints could involve a variety of AAA activities (e.g., travel advice, insurance, membership fees) not related to auto repair.
The National Automotive Parts Association (NAPA), founded in 1925, offered NAPA AutoCare, which it described as “the largest network of independent mechanics in North America” with “over 14,000 locations” offering a 24-month/24,000-mile guarantee on repairs. Further, it said, “many NAPA AutoCare centers employ qualified ASE certified technicians.” ASE indicated that NAPA offered a $75 reimbursement to any NAPA technician passing an ASE certification test. Unfortunately, a search did not lead directly to any clear explanation of what a shop had to do in order to qualify as a NAPA AutoCare center. The New Mexico chapter explained that a NAPA AutoCare center had to agree to a code of ethics, which contained various general requirements (e.g., “Be dedicated to customer satisfaction”) and a few specifics (notably, “Have at least one ASE-Certified technician on staff” as well as the obligation to use NAPA parts rather than those supplied by the customer or from a less expensive alternative). As perhaps one might expect of any company, there were some complaints (at e.g., PissedConsumer and RipoffReport).
There appeared to be other programs similar to the foregoing, though not as well-known. Examples included TechNet, the Automotive Service Association (ASA), and the Certified Auto Repair (CAR) program at O’Reilly Auto Parts. CAR required each shop to employ at least one ASE Certified Technician, along with other obligations that might or might not have much practical meaning to the consumer. There was a warranty program comparable to others (above). It was not immediately clear whether O’Reilly would require its member shops to use O’Reilly parts. ASA required a number of things, including a more general commitment to use “proven merchandise of high quality.” The most specific and tangible commitments included an estimate, an itemized invoice, posted warranties, prior authorization (preferably written) for work, and cooperation with consumer complaint mediators.
Online Repair Price Estimators
Apart from referrals to specific auto repair shops, there was the question of how much the needed repairs might cost. Several online tools offered to provide estimates for common repairs.
I started with SiteJabber comments (above) complaining that the RepairPal price estimates were very high. I checked RepairPal using the example of a repair that I needed: replacement of a water pump on my 1995 Honda Civic. According to RepairPal’s RepairPrice Estimator, in my location that repair would cost between $413 and $532. A CNET review said that the data underlying that estimate came from RepairPal’s “five-year exclusive” access to “super-secret labor cost estimator tables that’s been available exclusively to mechanics up until now.” According to Credit.com, RepairPal has licensed that data to NAPA and AOL Autos. I verified that those sites (and also Cars.com) gave exactly the same estimate, including the accompanying details as to what parts and labor would cost and what other issues might be implicated in a failing water pump.
There were competing repair price estimators. AutoMD‘s estimator produced an overall estimate of $375-559, listed individual repair shops and their Yelp reviews, and showed the prices that those shops would supposedly charge, but did not provide the accompanying details I had gotten from the sites affiliated with RepairPal. The Autobytel estimator wasn’t working, even after logging in, even though I tried multiple browsers on different days: it took the year of my car and then froze. DriverSide estimated $470 (i.e., not a range), with its own estimate of parts and labor, but this estimate came without asking for my location.
The Consumer Reports estimator did not seem to be working: it took my data, but then put me back at its main webpage. Credit.com said that, anyway, Consumer Reports would not provide estimates until I bought a subscription. Later, I did buy a one-month subscription to Consumer Reports. At that point, using a different web browser, I was able to get an estimate. As I would find with other estimators (below), the estimate erroneously double-counted the labor involved in changing the water pump and timing belt on my car. When I sought the price for just the water pump, I got a range of $413-532. This was identical to the RepairPal estimate (above) — but the webpage did not tell me that until after I bought my subscription. In other words, without openly disclosing their RepairPal connection, Consumer Reports appeared to be selling, as a premium service, an estimator that consumers could get for free elsewhere.
Prepare to Meet Your Mechanic
The normal logic would be that one should prepare for an emergency before the emergency strikes. And to some extent I had done that. Consistent with advice from a number of sites, I had done a fair job of keeping my old Honda maintained according to the schedule suggested in the car’s service manual. This was not entirely the case with the water pump. Some of the sites I had reviewed made me think that my failure to do regular radiator flushes may have been a factor, though the water pump was getting pretty old in any event.
Another kind of preparation was to have towing coverage via AAA or the auto insurance policy, so that at least a car suddenly stricken by some mechanical failure would not have to be abandoned (and potentially ticketed and/or towed) for lack of an available tow truck operator or the means with which to pay for towing on the spot. There was also the preparation of knowing in advance where the preferred mechanic was located, so that the vehicle could be towed directly there instead of having to be taken to some other temporary location.
Multiple sites (e.g., The Art of Manliness, Money Management, Firestone) recommended education and homework as another kind of preparation. It might seem logical to know what the problem is, or at least to be able to make an educated guess, before looking for a mechanic. That logic is limited by the fact that some kinds of problems (e.g., muffler) tend to be obvious while others (e.g., an engine noise) may not be. In many cases, a car owner might be unable to diagnose the problem at all. The following paragraphs may help some people move beyond that level of ignorance.
Forbes offered an explanation of car repair lingo (e.g., “backfire”; “dieseling”) and recommended at least preparing a written list of specific problems or behaviors that seem related to whatever is wrong with the car.
On the relatively general level of understanding automotive mechanical systems, I found pages by ACDelco, Merriam-Webster, and CarCare, among others, suggesting that the primary systems in a typical car included belts and hoses; brakes; emissions and exhaust; engine cooling; fuel; filters and fluids; starting, charging, and batteries; other electrical (especially lighting and wipers); cabin heating and air conditioning; steering; suspension; tires and alignment; and the powertrain, driveline, or alternative propulsion system. That last category could include the engine, transmission, clutch, drive shaft, differential, and axles.
Moving from the general systems level toward the specific issue, my search targeted on a car’s water pump led to videos, pictures, and articles describing, among other things, what the water pump does and how to determine whether it is failing. For instance, Popular Mechanics said that signs of failure could include noise and/or water leakage (or the smell of burned antifreeze, or a rapid drop of fluid level in the coolant overflow bottle) — but if the smell was strong in the passenger compartment, the radiator itself might be the issue. Overheating would result if enough coolant leaked out. In my case, the recommended investigation of the whining noise under my hood called for an attempt to see if (with the engine turned off) my hands could detect lateral slop (i.e., wiggle) in the water pump’s pulley, which would indicate a failing bearing. I didn’t feel anything like that. But it looked like I might have to remove a belt to be sure — and, in my car, as it turned out, a belt cover — to get access to the pulley. I didn’t attempt that. I got more from a video in which the mechanic said the water pump fan or bearings could emit a squealing or howling noise. I had that. This did not seem to be a repair job I would do myself. Popular Mechanics offered a colorful summary: “On some front-wheel drives the job is a horror story.”
It seemed that water pump failure could result from improper cooling system (i.e., radiator fluid) maintenance. I had done a moderate but not excellent job in that department. It was probably time for the water pump to fail anyway, but now I came to perceive that my maintenance style had not exactly extended its life.
Research into those materials yielded the incidental suggestion that the water pump should be replaced when the timing belt is replaced. Reader’s Digest warned against double labor charges in this case: the steps to replace the timing belt included removing the water pump. That led, in turn, to the discovery that the timing belt should be replaced, not only every 90,000 miles (as mechanics had thoroughly drummed into my head over the years) but also (as I now saw, reviewing the car’s owner’s manual and noticing an aspect of a maintenance table that I had apparently misunderstood) every six years (because belts can dry out and deteriorate), even if the 90,000-mile mark has not been reached. Of course, timing belt failure would mean disaster: complete engine replacement, at a cost of perhaps $5,000.
In other words, I had started thinking that I had a water pump problem. I hadn’t forgotten about the timing belt, but I had forgotten that the water pump would typically be replaced with the timing belt, and I hadn’t realized that the timing belt should be replaced after six years, even if another 90,000 miles haven’t elapsed. So in this case my attempts at self-enlightenment hadn’t clarified whether there was a water pump problem, but they had inadvertently pointed me toward another thing that evidently I should be fixing immediately.
These thoughts about the timing belt raised another concern that commonly occurs to car owners: what if I went through the expense of replacing the water pump and timing belt, and then discovered that this was not, in fact, the source of the noise? This concern highlighted the wisdom of a suggestion presented in the following section: don’t prime the mechanic by offering your idea of what might be wrong. Doing so could set you up for the wrong repair. In my case, the answer seemed to be that, if mechanics giving me estimates agreed that it was the water pump, then it probably would be; but if we were all wrong about that, then at least I would have taken care of the overdue timing belt and water pump maintenance.
That, however, would not address the fact that many car owners would want to know the likely full expense before starting, because at a certain point they would rather sell or dispose of the car than pay to fix it (though of course resale options are limited when the engine is howling). Moreover, even if the water pump was the specific problem, the RepairPal estimate (above) included an additional warning:
The entire cooling system—including all the coolant hoses and fittings, radiator, coolant fan(s), and fan clutch (if equipped)—should be inspected when replacing the water pump.
To help prevent future issues, we recommend replacing the thermostat when the cooling system has been opened for repairs (e.g. water pump or radiator replacement) or during a system flush. . . .
A failed water pump can be caused by problems in the cooling system, such as a failing thermostat, radiator, or head gasket.
These remarks raised the possibility that a water pump problem on my old car could point toward additional problems requiring additional expenditures, and that the mechanic might not be able to see that until s/he was elbow-deep in the guts of the engine. I believed it was probably just a simple matter of an old water pump needing replacement. But this alternate possibility prompted me to consult RepairPal — which said that, for my car in my location, a head gasket replacement would cost $719 to $927, and radiator replacement would cost $393 to $654.
Would those be the prices if I got it all done at once? RepairPal didn’t offer the option of combining multiple services in one total. For that, I returned to AutoMD. They said that cylinder head gasket replacement would typically entail an oil change and coolant flush, and that the whole package (with water pump and timing belt) would cost $1,653 to $2,003. That was with only two shops participating — apparently they were the only ones that had given AutoMD their estimates for the full combined job. Those prices suggested that there would be little to no savings by having the mechanic deal with the head gasket at the same time as the water pump and timing belt repair. I expected as much, because the timing belt and water pump were not really close to the head gasket. I couldn’t see much of the head gasket, but what I could see looked fine, and there was no oil dripping on the floor where I parked the car.
To review, I had begun on the general level of automotive systems (e.g., engine cooling), and had moved to the level of specific repairs (e.g., water pumps); now there was the option of moving on to the even more specific level of parts for my own kind (and, perhaps, year) of automobile. If I had decided to do this job myself, I would be making use of ClubCivic and other sources of guidance arising from a search. Instead, I was content to take a brief look at a video demonstrating that this definitely was a complex job. It seemed pretty clear that my next step was to get the opinion of one or more knowledgeable mechanics.
Advice on Finding and Dealing with Auto Repair Shops
Many websites (e.g., Firestone, Money Management, Forbes, EnlightenMe, Reader’s Digest, Kiplinger, RepairPal, Jalopnik, The Simple Dollar, Marketwatch) offered advice on what to look for in a good repair shop. In providing such advice, these websites seemed to be focused especially on the person who is searching for a new shop, as distinct from someone who has already established a good relationship with a familiar shop. This advice seemed to be premised on the assumption that the car owner has already taken steps (above) to try to figure out the problem. The things these websites told me to look out for, and my own thoughts as the poor owner of a struggling old car, included the following:
- Let someone else pay for it. Consumer Reports pointed out that, of course, the car should go back to the dealer if it still covered by the manufacturer’s warranty (and sometimes, for loyal customers, even if it falls just outside warranty coverage) or subject to a recall or service campaign, or to whatever location might be specified in an extended warranty. Beyond that, a search leads to a variety of free minor repair and assistance offers, maintenance plans, and service contracts. In case of a recently purchased (new or used) car that has been nothing but trouble, the state’s Lemon Law may require special steps.
- Do it yourself. The preceding section describes ways of identifying the problem and determining whether it is something you can fix. For some repairs, DIY can be faster (for instance, you can replace windshield wipers in minutes, or Pep Boys will do that for free) and/or safer (e.g., if your circumstances allow you to do your own oil change, you will eliminate the risk that an incompetent technician will give you the wrong oil or strip the threads on the oil plug). For the more adventurous or experienced do-it-yourselfer, some auto parts chains (e.g., Advance, Pep Boys, O’Reilly) allow customers to borrow expensive auto repair tools after paying a deposit.
- Do it cheap. I could take care of tires, battery, and other simple items at Walmart, and would probably be happier and richer than if I had used Jiffy Lube or Grease Monkey, never mind taking the car to a mechanic. Don’t overlook the magic of coupons (including those offered on the shop’s website or through email signup) and rewards programs, as well as other discounts and freebies, including some mentioned in this post (e.g., $15 off your first Openbay service; AARP/senior or military discounts; AAA deals including 10% off for members, AAA Member Rewards Visa Card vouchers, and free maintenance inspection included with paid repairs). There was also the option of taking a chance with a local handyman and, perhaps, of paying him/her with barter.
- Distinguish repairs from routine maintenance. Know your car’s maintenance situation, so you won’t be caught off-guard and sold something unnecessary, and won’t convey an air of ignorance. Maintenance should generally be limited to that specified in the owner’s manual (i.e, should not include extras that may seem like a nice idea but are almost always unnecessary, e.g., transmission flushes), and can usually be done at any variety of shops, whereas some repairs might require specialized equipment or expertise.
- Simplify the problem. In my personal experience it helped to reduce my exposure to an unfamiliar and potentially dishonest mechanic by taking care of the minor things in the simplest and/or least expensive way. This would reduce the size and complexity of the bill and minimize the number of ways to sneak in additional charges. Such an approach would not be advisable when the car’s multiple repair needs were interrelated. For example, it would make no sense to get a radiator flush done in one place, only to see it partly undone by more complicated work on the cooling system at another shop.
- Choose the right kind of shop. Research by Consumer Reports found that, for all brands except BMW, Porsche, and VW, auto owners were more satisfied when they had their car repaired by an independent shop rather than by a new-car dealer. Manliness suggested, moreover, that going to an independent shop specializing in your make of automobile could be more expensive and less convenient than going to a shop handling all kinds, but the mechanics at the specialty shop would be more likely to have detailed knowledge of your car’s possible problems. A seemingly expensive specialty shop, charging twice the hourly rate, could be a better deal than the general-purpose mechanic who might flail around interminably and and make you pay for unnecessary parts and labor without actually identifying and solving the problem. TalkLocal viewed national chains (e.g., Firestone) as offering the best prices and the lowest quality service. Circa 2010, at least, CBS News reported that manufacturers tended to favor dealers by giving them exclusive access to equipment and computer codes needed to diagnose cars less than three years old. Engine work, especially, requires computerized diagnosis.
- Look for mechanic certifications. AutoBlog mentions not only the multiple levels of general and specialist certifications offered by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), but also specialty certifications from various automakers and parts companies (e.g., GM, Ford, Toyota, ACDelco, TRW, Carquest) as well as evidence of technical college training. Schiavone (2016, pp. 5-13) discusses a number of these in some detail. Free ASE study guides can illustrate the level of complexity involved in such studies. Such certifications could suggest that the mechanics would know how to do the job, and also that the shop and the mechanics invest in themselves and in their future in this industry. But this is no cure-all: despite the predominance of the ASE credential, it appears that most skilled mechanics are not ASE certified, that the certification might sometimes be just a reason to charge more, and that ASE certification would have no impact on the question of whether the shop owner was honest. I would be looking into the ASE factor in more detail (below). A different sign of mechanic and/or shop commitment: if you see them working on classic cars, especially but not only your brand.
- Nationwide coverage. Firestone, of course, would emphasize the advantages of a warranty that would have meaning away from home. And that was a good point. One time I bought a lifetime tire rotation and balancing package from Walmart, and I was able to get that service at any Walmart anywhere. But for another vehicle, I purchased a lifetime alignment package from a chain — I forget if it was Firestone or Big O — only to find that some of their stores would put me at the back of the list, keeping me waiting for hours, as if to discourage me from actually using that lifetime purchase. Sears Auto might be another worthwhile national chain, but I had rarely used them. I’d had good experiences with Discount Tire, another national chain, but bad experiences with seemingly dishonest Midas and Meineke muffler shops. Investigations had uncovered systemic scams at Jiffy Lube. I was not sure whether a warranty from a shop belonging to one of the associations listed above (e.g., AAA) would be honored by other member shops nationwide.
- Cleanliness. Many sites felt it was important that the place be well-organized and clean, from its parking lot right on in to the work area. I agreed that a chaotic workplace could be dangerous and could suggest poor management, and of course nobody would want the interior of their car ruined by inconsiderate dirt or grease smears. But the last mechanic I had used was an older guy, working out of a garage behind his house. He had been highly recommended by people all over town. He charged low prices, and he seemed honest. His shop was a mess. And I didn’t care. That’s how he worked. I would be happy to tolerate his mess in exchange for saving a few hundred dollars. That said, it did make sense that the parking lot at a viable shop would work through a different set of decent-looking cars every day or two; it would not have the same junkers sitting around outside for months. I also saw wisdom in the advice to look for good lighting. Saving money on electricity is not going to help mechanics see what they’re doing.
- Prepare the vehicle. This was the customer’s side of cleanliness. A dirty or cluttered car could discourage a mechanic from caring much about the vehicle. Clutter getting in the mechanic’s way could also impair his/her attitude. In addition, very heavy cargo could make the car behave oddly (e.g., tilt to one side), affecting its diagnosis and performance.
- Start long before you really need the repair shop, with a small job. Letting the shop handle a relatively minor repair might help you get a sense of their quality, ethicality, and speed. Shops often offer unrealistically low prices on simple jobs (e.g., oil changes, tire rotation) to attract customers. In that case, testing their inclination to gouge you may call for something a little meatier (e.g., front brake pad replacement).
- Timing. When working up to a larger job, visit the shop after 9 AM but before lunchtime. During these hours, the shop ownersep or manager is most likely to have time to talk. By noon, the day’s cars will have been evaluated, and s/he will be getting busy again, contacting customers with the results of mechanics’ initial evaluations. Don’t let your car be the one they are trying to rush out the door, especially on Friday afternoon.
- Positive interactions. Be pleasant and agreeable in your discussions with a repair shop; don’t be aggressive or hostile. Like you, the shop is (hopefully) seeking an ongoing relationship, not a headache. Bad sign: when they use scare tactics to try to pressure you into getting work done at their shop immediately. A classic: contrary to what some mechanics want you to believe, metal particles in your oil or transmission fluid are not unusual.
- Ask for references. I was not sure how useful this advice was. I would think that almost any shop could point me toward friends and relatives who had been satisfied with the service rendered. What I would want would be to talk with the people who were not satisfied, and I rather doubted the shop would give me a list of those. The better advice might be to ask other customers in the waiting area whether they were repeat customers, or why they chose this shop. It may also be worth asking how long the shop has been in business.
- Interact with the mechanics. Don’t just hover or micromanage while the mechanic is trying to work. But it can be very enlightening to have the mechanic escort you under the hood (or under the car), show you the problem, and answer your questions. Try to understand what work the shop is recommending, and why they feel that work is necessary. Be suspicious of intentions and/or qualifications if they cannot provide a reasonable explanation. It can also be informative to observe whether the mechanics seem fractious, frazzled, demoralized, lackadaisical, or indifferent. Experienced old mechanics may be good for old cars but may or may not be knowledgeable about new cars.
- Get a free estimate. Depending on the shop and the problem, it might or might not be possible to get a free appraisal of what needed to be fixed, so as to have at least some initial sense of what is happening. One option: the vehicle safety inspection required by most states. If the timing is right (in some states, inspections can apparently be performed up to 90 days, or possibly more, before the actual vehicle registration), that inspection might identify some problems without additional expense. Also, many national chains (e.g., Jiffy Lube, AAMCO, Pep Boys, O’Reilly Auto Parts, Goodyear) offer free computer diagnostics at any time, or at least when a car’s Check Engine light stays on. Openbay facilitates free estimates from specific shops nearby.
- Understand nonfree estimates. Given the foregoing options, it was not clear that there would be any advantage to buying the CarMD diagnostic tool, with its mixed reviews. I heard of shops that did nothing more than diagnosis, so as to eliminate the conflict of interest indulged by most mechanics (i.e., having a financial incentive to diagnose faint or imaginary problems), but apparently those shops were mostly a thing of the past, partly because people were reluctant to spend the time and the money for diagnoses, when repair shops might count the cost of the estimate toward the cost of the repair.
- Authorize a shop to inspect the car. Don’t volunteer your own personal diagnosis, lest the shop use it as an excuse to fix things that are not the problem. If necessary, ask the mechanic to accompany you on a test drive, so as to demonstrate the problem. Be careful before letting them test or disassemble anything to diagnose: I once had a Midas Muffler shop in New Jersey claim that a key part had been so rusted that it crumbled in the mechanic’s hand, leaving me with little practical choice (given my work schedule) but to get the repairs done there at a high price). Various sites advise permitting no inspection or towing without a prior written authorization specifying the cost and nature of the activity and any charges that will be waived if you proceed to authorize repairs, stating that the car will be satisfactorily reassembled if you decide not to authorize repairs, and stating that authorization to inspect is not authorization to repair, and that any authorization to repair will be contained in a separate document. Obtain a copy of the final form of this document before proceeding. These websites strongly emphasize the importance of these written authorizations (to inspect and, below, to begin work).
- Get written estimates from two or three different shops, especially for repairs likely to cost hundreds of dollars. Consider getting multiple estimates for a major repair even if it requires towing the car from one shop to another. (The other shop may be willing to tow it for you.) Don’t tell the second shop about the first shop’s diagnosis or price. If the first two estimates differ significantly on what needs to be done, something is wrong; additional estimates or perhaps some further research on your part may be advisable. Then, if the situation permits, take the estimates home, think about them, research what they say, and work up your own composite estimate of what needs to be done and how much it should cost.
- Verify the estimates. Ask about shop warranties on parts and also on labor. Clarify whether you will be getting new (manufacturer or aftermarket), rebuilt, or used parts. New aftermarket parts typically offer the best combination of price and performance, but Reader’s Digest says the market is being flooded with cheap parts from China, and recommends original equipment or equivalent for brake pads in particular. Reader’s Digest also says lifetime muffler deals can be a loss leader for expensive exhaust pipe repairs; on the other hand, catalytic converters and other emission parts can have very long warranties, and free replacement may be required by law. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Make sure you understand the names of the major parts being replaced, so you can look those up in online parts catalogs (e.g., AutoZone, NAPA, O’Reilly) to see how much of a markup the shop is charging. Those online catalogs may or may not agree with Haynes or Chilton manuals, which also apparently quote prices. Quora said, “A good shop will always show you their labor guide which is where they get their labor times.”
- Negotiate the estimates. Search for shops that offer price matching. Carry a printout of (or at least refer to) the estimate from another shop or an online price estimator (above). Say something like, “I would approve this repair if you could give me a break on the price.” If you are going to negotiate, do it up front. You can try to negotiate afterwards, but you have much less leverage — it is too late to take the job elsewhere. There is usually more room for negotiation at an independent shop than at a dealership or a national chain. But dealers might give a bit on price and/or warranty, if they see you as someone who might eventually want to buy a new car from them. AutoBlog said that, in recent years, dealers and large independent shops have sometimes become more price-competitive than the smaller shops. Note the study finding that women may have better luck than men when requesting a discount in car repairs. To negotiate effectively, Cars.com advised not getting emotional, using silence effectively, guarding personal information (especially but not limited to your Social Security number), not signing anything until the deal is done, and not wearing your best suit and then claiming you can’t afford a repair. BodyShopBusiness recommended practicing the negotiation in advance, setting ground rules (though the latter was easier to imagine in their scenario than in the typical consumer auto repair setting), focusing on interests and areas of agreement rather than positions and disputes, and looking for possibilities and options that will facilitate an agreement.
- Upon reaching an agreement, provide or obtain a signed work authorization. This document should specify the time and date it was signed and the date by which work will be completed; should itemize the work to be done and all fees for parts, labor, and other costs; and should contain statements attesting that all costs and fees are disclosed, specifying the warranty terms, stating acceptable methods of payment, and indicating that parts removed or replaced will be stored and saved for your inspection except as otherwise specified. Insist on written (signed or initialed) consent to any changes in negotiated work orders. Never sign a blank authorization form. Do not allow anyone else (e.g., relative or friend) to speak for you, lest the shop claim that they authorized additional work.
- Do not leave valuables in your car. That includes coins: I once caught a middle-aged, seemingly respectable Walmart technician (who was supposed to be changing the car’s oil) doing an especially good job of vacuuming the passenger carpet where I had dropped several dollars’ worth of loose change. He immediately stopped vacuuming when I returned to the car unexpectedly.
- Don’t let them rush you through the closing, and don’t just pay and drive away. Inspect and test their work when they are finished, including verifying (where possible) that your car actually has the (e.g., new) parts you paid for. Make sure the final bill itemizes the various parts and labor activities in fair detail and does not contain unauthorized or duplicative charges. Challenge fees for “materials” and “miscellaneous” items. Take your used, replaced parts home with you, maybe let a knowledgeable friend inspect them to verify they genuinely needed to replace them, and keep them for a while (perhaps through the warranty period), in case any problems come to your attention later.
- Act immediately if the outcome is unacceptable. Continue to accumulate documentation, photos, video, witnesses (e.g., a friend accompanying you), and other evidence. Ask to speak to the owner of the shop. In the case of a franchise or chain store, consider talking to someone higher up the corporate ladder. Negotiate the final price in light of your rights and options as a consumer. Pay the final bill, even if dissatisfied, but write some indication of your dissatisfaction on the bill and on your check if possible, so as to defeat a later claim that there was no problem when you left the shop. Do not go home and stop payment on your check; your car may be repossessed (though perhaps not from inside a locked garage). Proceed directly to another shop, show them your itemized receipt, and authorize them to inspect the repairs on the condition that they will provide a detailed written statement of their findings.
If You Have to Fight
If the garage did poor work and refused to make it right, there would be a question of what to do about it. To address that question, I searched, first of all, for information about consumer protections on the level of the federal government. Search results included a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) page discussing repairs made to a car under warranty. Another FTC page listed various car problem symptoms (e.g., what a smell like burned toast might mean) and pointed toward an FTC Complaint Assistant webpage, with a form specifically for car repair complaints. Another FTC page indicated that Auto Related Complaints was the seventh largest category, with about 90,000 complaints in 2013. FTC was also affiliated with eConsumer.gov, which described itself as “a partnership of 36 consumer protection agencies around the world.” In addition, FTC offered tips for resolving consumer problems. According to ConsumerProtect, however, “The FTC is not able to resolve each complaint individually. But they do have a number of tips to help you get your money back.” FTC complaints seemed useful primarily to “help the FTC and its law enforcement partners to identify patterns of abuse and fraud” potentially resulting in FTC lawsuits against companies making deceptive claims, with the possibility of refunds to affected consumers. FTC’s refund page listed several dozen FTC actions within the past two years, of which only two were automotive, involving Volkswagen and an apparently bogus auto service warranty company.
I did not dig too deeply for other solutions on the federal level. They may have been there but, if they were, they seemed to be a fairly well-kept secret. It appeared, rather, that everything was pointing toward state and local resources. For instance, FTC provided a link leading to the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG), from which I found the website for my state’s attorney general (AG). Out of curiosity, I compared his webpage against that for the AGs for Mississippi and Minnesota. All offered consumer protection links, but only Minnesota offered a top-level link specifically for automobile issues, leading to a page referring to Minnesota’s Truth in Repairs Act, which reportedly required shops to provide written estimates and (in many cases) to give consumers their replaced parts after the repair, and prevented them from exceeding estimates by more than 10%. Searches for “automobile repair” using the search boxes on the AG webpages produced about 85 results in Minnesota, but virtually nothing in either Mississippi or my own state.
I did later find a page for my state indicating that this state had no statute specifically oriented toward protecting consumers seeking auto repairs, referring consumers instead to the state’s law against deliberate false statements and other deceptive practices. These results were interesting in light of the findings by Dove (2014). Dove’s research looked into AG efforts to protect consumers from business monopolies. That was not quite the same as car repair, obviously, but it did convey some interesting information. The research found that AG consumer protection efforts were most likely from Democrat AGs in states where lobbying groups were especially active on behalf of local consumers (i.e., against outside monopolists) and where AGs had legal authority to file class action suits on behalf of consumers. Party alignment did predict the difference between Minnesota’s female AG and my state’s male AG. But Mississippi’s AG at this time was a Democrat in a state that apparently gave him broad legal powers to sue on behalf of consumers (see American Bar Association, 2008, p. 50). So I found it surprising and disappointing that he would seem indifferent to consumer auto repair perspectives. Beyond that, unfortunately, multiple searches failed to lead directly to definitive comparisons of the relative effectiveness of AGs on behalf of consumers.
Apart from AGs, state governments seemed to vary in their consumer protection agency options. USA.gov offered links to a handful of different consumer agencies (e.g., insurance regulators, utilities commissions) in each state. In all cases, USA.gov said that, in addition to the state level, there might be helpful resources at the city, county, or regional level. But in the three states I was looking at, USA.gov was not able to offer much specific help at any of these levels. As above, there was nothing specific for car owners in Mississippi; the proffered links were only to the Department of Agriculture and Commerce and to the AG. In my state, there were links only to the AG and to a few counties’ District Attorneys. Minnesota offered nothing more than the AG and the Minneapolis Department of Business Licenses and Consumer Services.
In further digging, I found Lawyers.com, offering brief information on relevant laws, with links to consumer protection attorneys, and the National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA), an association of attorneys representing consumers. NACA’s page on auto issues offered advice on various car purchase and ownership problems, but not much specifically oriented toward repairs. And that was not surprising. It was becoming clear that there was not likely to be any person or organization willing to go to bat for the little guy. Paying a lawyer’s retainer of hundreds or possibly thousands of dollars, and further expenses that could run into the thousands over a period of months or even years, would be completely senseless in most auto repair situations. Nolo.com provided further insight into what a consumer might expect from litigation. It wasn’t pretty. The primary exception would evidently be a class action suit. According to Lawyers.com, a class action would typically require many (often, hundreds or even thousands) of possible plaintiffs. While this might be an option against a defendant like Firestone or Ford, it seemed unlikely in the case of a single local mechanic.
The most likely battle scenario seemed to be that the consumer in a car repair case would be representing him/herself in arbitration, or in small claims court, against a repair shop represented by an attorney. The garage would probably have experience in this sort of thing, and in any case the attorney would. The question facing the shop owner could be whether the risks of adverse media coverage (especially if s/he lost the case) and the costs of fighting would exceed the amount saved by winning. The consumer, meanwhile, would have to consider that arbitration or litigation could be expensive, time-consuming, and ultimately unsatisfying, and that it would probably be more effective to try to work out a deal with the shop if that was a reasonable possibility.
Finally, it appeared that, if a fight became inevitable, several elements — including the repair contract, state law, and the shop’s memberships in automotive or consumer service organizations (e.g., BBB, ASE, ATEA) — could influence the questions of whether disputes would go to small claims court or would instead by handled by arbitration; whether the losing party would have to pay the winner’s attorney fees or other costs; whether a consumer’s attorney could proceed in court to challenge an arbitration provision; and whether the shop’s prior history of consumer complaints — obtained, perhaps, from the state’s attorney general or department of consumer affairs, from the files of the arbitrator, or from a Google search — would be taken into account.
Recap: Suggestions for
Finding a Good Mechanic
At this point, I decided to pull together key points of advice from the preceding sections. Doing so would give me a relatively simple set of steps that I could use, in the following section, to identify credible candidates for my auto repair job.
The first section (above) pointed me toward generic online referral sources, including Angie’s List, Yelp, and especially BBB. Those seemed to be useful primarily as a follow-up, after looking at car-specific sources, starting with AAA and perhaps also SureCritic, RepairPal, ASA, NAPA, and O’Reilly. I also thought it might be worthwhile to see what Consumer Reports would give me if I paid them $6.95 for a one-month subscription. Finally, I had already used the online repair price estimators, and had found them informative.
The second section (above) advised me to prepare to meet some repair shops. There was a question of whether I could diagnose the problem myself. To address that, we proceeded from the general level of car systems (in my case, the cooling system) to the more specific problem (water pump) and finally to the most specific level (Honda Civic water pumps). That discussion arrived at the thought that further work might be required — that problems with the radiator or other parts (e.g., thermostat, head gasket) might be causing or resulting from a water pump problem. There was the discovery that it was time to change the timing belt along with the water pump, due to the passage of time, even though I had not accumulated the recommended 90,000 miles since the last change. Since I didn’t know for a fact that the water pump was the source of the noise I was hearing, it was possible that the timing belt itself was making the noise, in which case I was courting disaster with every passing mile. It was also possible that, while the timing belt and water pump were due for replacement, they were not the source of the noise, and I might therefore be in for more expense than originally expected. I did want to try to find out whether my maintenance history might have caused the water pump to fail.
The third section (above) condensed many sources of advice on finding and dealing with auto repair shops. Among the many points discussed there, some of the key thoughts were as follows:
- I should evaluate overall expense and the choice of repair facilities. Thoughts raised in this connection: I should consider whether coupons, freebies, DIY, or low-cost shops could reduce the expense; whether I could divide the project into separate tasks and then eliminate the simpler ones; and whether I should use a dealership, a chain store, a general-purpose independent shop, or a shop specializing in my type of car or this kind of problem.
- In choosing among shops, I was advised to look for ASE or other mechanic certifications; consider whether the shop belonged to a chain or organization whose other members nationwide would honor this shop’s warranty; and use them for a small job, as a test run, before taking the plunge with a big one.
- Upon visiting the shop in person, I was told to take note of the shop’s cleanliness and the way customers were treated; time my visit for the morning, and my work for sometime when mechanics would not be rushing to get done; be agreeable, but don’t look wealthy; talk to mechanics, so as to gauge their knowledge and attitudes; and talk to other customers, to find out whether they had good reasons for choosing this shop.
- I was advised to start with free estimate services; to see whether the shop would charge for its estimate and, if so, would subtract that amount from the final bill, if I did decide to let them handle the job; to have a written and signed authorization in hand, with a variety of specific protections and limitations, before letting them inspect the car; to get and compare estimates from at least two shops; to understand and check the details on the types of parts used (e.g., new, rebuilt); to verify that the number of hours scheduled for the job matched the number shown in the official labor guide; and to negotiate the dollar amounts and warranty coverage specified in the estimate.
- When bringing the car in to have the work done, I was advised that I should obtain a signed work authorization, specifying a variety of details; remove valuables from the car; and make sure the car is clean and uncluttered, so as not to hinder the mechanic’s work and to avoid creating the impression that this is a junker that s/he need not care about.
- Finally, I was advised to be careful in the final stage, when the work is done: inspect and test the work; collect the parts that were replaced; challenge unexpected charges; document any complaints I might have; use those complaints to negotiate a price reduction or other relatively satisfactory outcome; and, if necessary, take the car immediately to another shop, to diagnose discrepancies between what I negotiated and paid for and what I actually got.
The fourth section of this post elaborated upon the possibility that the shop might be unreasonable, and therefore I might have to fight them in court or arbitration.
These brief summaries of the preceding sections were no substitute for reading those sections in detail; the purpose here was just to review the main points. Now that I had a sense of what I might be looking for, it was time to proceed to the next step: finding a handful of most likely repair shops, from which I would ultimately choose one to do the work.
Identifying Worthy Repair Shops
To arrive at a list of shops I would consider using, I decided to start by going down the list of referral sources discussed in the first section (above), and then compare the results. Except as otherwise indicated, I searched for “auto repair” shops. Where possible, I limited the search to shops within ten miles of my zip code; otherwise, I used the map and other guidance to select shops near me. I further limited my search to shops that appeared to offer engine work (e.g., not “transmissions” or “auto air”) and that were not dealers for brands other than Honda or specialists in European (as distinct from Japanese) cars. I assembled my results initially in a spreadsheet.
Reviewing the Referrals
Angie’s List. Under the “auto service” heading, I got 48 shops, of which many had Angie’s A rating. I narrowed my search to those that had at least 15 reviews. This gave me seven shops.
Yelp. A search for auto repair shops with an average of at least four stars in at least 15 reviews, sorted by rating, yielded six shops. These six were completely distinct from the seven on Angie’s List.
SureCritic. A search for auto repair in my city produced a list of 18 shops. Of those, two had no ratings; all but one of the others had average ratings of 4.3 stars or above (and most were in the range of 4.8 to 5.0 stars), except one with only 2.7 stars. Somehow, all were in my part of town; apparently SureCritic used cookies, on my computer, to narrow their search. After applying my other criteria, I had a list of ten shops — of which only one was on either Angie’s or Yelp lists.
RepairPal. The RepairPal search allowed me to designate only my vehicle and zip code. From that, they gave me four RepairPal Certified Shops for Honda repair. All four averaged at least four stars in at least 20 reviews. Only one of those four appeared on any of the three preceding lists (i.e., Angie’s, Yelp, SureCritic), and it was not the one duplicated in SureCritic.
NAPA. NAPA did not offer ratings; just a simple list of 13 shops, from which I could exclude only two that seemed to be mere tire shops. Of the 11 remaining, one was also named by SureCritic and two by Angie’s List; the rest were named only by NAPA.
O’Reilly (CAR). O’Reilly gave me a list of 35 shops within ten miles of my zip code. There were no ratings. Many were mere quick-lube joints. I decided this was too much of a random grab-bag to invest time in. See also CarTalk (many listings, few reviews per shop).
DriverSide. This website offered a selection from numerous repair categories. Selecting Engine Repair and sorting by rating left me with only one site meeting my criteria — and even that was slightly more than ten miles away.
AutoMD. To get a list of shops from this site, I had to specify the service I was seeking. Engine > Timing Belt Replacement did not appear on the list, but Timing Belt Tensioner Replacement did. That appeared to be close enough; they quoted a price range of $436 to $480 from the sole shop rating at least four stars (albeit with only one review). Trying again with Water Pump Replacement instead of the timing belt did not change the outcome. AutoMD did not appear to be a useful source of referrals for this job in this area.
ASA. ASA produced a list of eleven shops, of which only two appeared on any of the other lists reviewed so far. There were no ratings.
BBB. As noted above, it was not easy to get the “Auto Repair & Service” category to work in my region’s BBB directory. I seemed to get different results every time I searched. The first search gave me hundreds of shops, with no meaningful way of filtering them. The best search appeared to intend to provide only BBB Accredited shops near my zip code — but even that search produced some shops 75-100 miles away, and none of the listed shops had more than one or two reviews. I decided that BBB might be most useful as a check on a short list of shops that I would identify by other means.
AAA. AAA consisted of different websites for different AAA chapters. For example, the one for northeastern New Jersey offered filtering by zip code, facility type, and distance. A search for AAA Approved Auto Repair shops within ten miles of my zip code produced a list of twenty facilities. There were no ratings. Of the twenty, only five appeared on any of the preceding lists. Note that, once my computer got the idea that I was in northeastern New Jersey, it resisted letting me use AAA websites for any other region.
ASE. ASE claimed a total of 1,500 Blue Seal shops. ASE defined these as “shops where a large percentage of the technicians are ASE-certified professionals.” Replying to my email, ASE said the Blue Seal program “recognizes businesses that have at least 75% of their technicians ASE certified with at least one certified technician covering each area of service offered in the shop.” ASE did appear to track the whereabouts of each ASE certified mechanic, but apparently did not offer a database identifying shops that had at least one ASE mechanic on staff. The ASE search page offered nothing smaller than a 75-mile radius from my zip code. The search produced a list of 12 shops, of which only three were within 30 miles of me and offered services to the public (as distinct from e.g., the city-owned shop serving a metropolitan bus system). Only two were within ten miles; and of those two, only one appeared on any of the preceding lists.
Consumer Reports (CR). Given the sorry state of information thus far, I decided to spend $6.95 for a one-month subscription. This allowed me to view CR data on auto repair shops. In terms of overall repair satisfaction, their Ratings Overview gave Honda dealers a score of 81, putting them in the middle of the pack (ranging from 76 for Dodge Ram to 85 for Buick, with Tesla an outlier at 93). The Overview also gave independent Honda shops (definition unclear) a score of 88, again in the middle between Jaguar and Mazda (85) and Cadillac and Buick (90). This was all very nice, but completely unhelpful for my purpose. Contrary to what CR had promised, it appeared that I was actually not going to be getting complete car repair satisfaction ratings from them.
Selecting the Best Referrals
As just described, I had obtained names and addresses (and, in some cases, ratings) of specific, seemingly relevant auto repair shops from a total of nine different sources: Angie’s List, Yelp, SureCritic, RepairPal, NAPA, DriverSide, ASA, AAA, and ASE. Those nine sources had identified a total of 59 different shops. Of those 59, 47 were identified by only one source (e.g., by Yelp, but not by anyone else).
These results demonstrated that these listing services did not agree on clear criteria by which consumers could select superior auto repair. Rather, it seemed that these services were using their own criteria, and were in substantial disagreement with one another. This state of affairs seemed to support the complaints that some of these referral websites corruptly recommended the shops that paid them to do so, regardless of the actual quality of services rendered by those shops.
There might have been more overlap among these lists, but my review (above) had found that some merchants would attempt to buy votes by giving special treatment to complaining consumers, in exchange for a change or deletion of their negative reviews. The concept here seemed to be that it is OK to deceive other consumers as to what really happened, as long as you, personally, come out OK. As noted above, some referral websites automatically deleted negative reviews after the repair shop took steps to set things right — which might only happen after the consumer had experienced a lot of hassle and frustration. It appeared there were also threats of litigation and other high-pressure methods of getting sites to delete negative reviews. It was not clear which additional shops might be listed on some of these sites, or what their listings might say, if these websites had all been willing and able to tell the full stories sent to them by consumers.
In a bid to distinguish credible from noncredible referral sources, I calculated the percentages of referrals, meeting my criteria, that were corroborated by other sites. For instance, of the six sites listed by Yelp that met my criteria, four were also named by at least one of the other referral sites listed above. Therefore, 67% of Yelp’s relevant referrals were supported by other lists. Similarly, three of RepairPal’s four referrals (i.e., 75%) were echoed by other referral sites, as were five of NAPA’s eleven referrals (45%). But for other referral sites, the percentages were not so good: only two out of seven (29%) for Angie’s List, two out of ten (20%) for SureCritic, two out of eleven (18%) for ASA, and six out of twenty (30%) for AAA. Nobody echoed the one relevant referral offered by DriverSide, and only one of ASE’s two Blue Seal shops was on any other list. Based on these numbers and on the criticisms discussed above, it seemed that some of these lists might as well have been pulling names out of a hat. Thus I decided to disregard referrals from Angie’s List, SureCritic, and DriverSide. As just indicated, Yelp, RepairPal, and NAPA came out OK in this calculation, and I was not yet prepared to jettison ASA, AAA, or ASE.
But then there was the question of whether I would take seriously those shops that nobody but Yelp or NAPA recommended. I decided the answer was no. If other referrers agreed with Yelp or NAPA, great. But if not, in Yelp’s case, the risk of fake reviews was too great; and in NAPA’s case, I did not think there should be a special advantage for shops that were willing to restrict customers to NAPA parts. After removing the shops referred by either Yelp or NAPA but nobody else, I was down to 34 shops that had been referred by RepairPal, ASA, AAA, and/or ASE.
Further whittling down the list, I found it puzzling that ASA had nominated 11 shops, and yet not one of those shops was also nominated by RepairPal, AAA, or ASE. The latter three had been widely approved, in many of the websites I had viewed and also in my own evaluation (above), and half of the shops recommended by RepairPal or ASE were also on the AAA list. In other words, ASA tentatively seemed to depart from what RepairPal, AAA, and ASE would consider a worthy shop. So I decided to eliminate the shops recommended solely by ASA.
That left me with a list of 23 shops recommended by RepairPal, AAA, and/or ASE. Previous experience with ASE shops had alerted me to the possibility (above) that ASE membership might point toward quality work but would not necessarily protect the customer against overcharges. I decided to keep the ASE shop that AAA also recommended as a special case, for possible future contact — along with the one local Honda dealership, recommended only by Angie, that had now dropped off my list.
Regarding the dealership, BBB reported five complaints in the past three years. Among those, one was resolved to the customer’s satisfaction, the dealer failed to make a good-faith attempt to respond to one, and in two of the three others it was not clear that the dealer had been responsive to the customer’s complaints. (Recall, here, that BBB complaints involve real people and real cars, and are thus not susceptible to manipulation as Yelp and other online referral sources might be.) Regarding the ASE shop, BBB reported zero complaints in the past three years.
So now it seemed to be a matter of starting with the few shops that had been recommended by more than one of my relatively trusted sources. Using pseudonyms, the primary contenders were Wine Country and Oceanic 1 (referred by both AAA and RepairPal). There were two groups of secondary contenders: Square Block and Oceanic 2 (both referred by Yelp and either AAA or RepairPal) and WorkShop and LuckShop (both referred by AAA and NAPA). As the names suggest, the Oceanic auto repair company had two different locations on this short list, collectively drawing referrals from RepairPal, AAA, and Yelp. This said something good about the Oceanic company. BBB reported that Oceanic (all shops combined) had only one complaint in the past three years, and in my review Oceanic’s response to that complaint seemed reasonable. Based on BBB responses, it appeared that my vetting process might have worked. Overall, it did seem that Oceanic 1 would be a good place to start.
To summarize this section, then, I had decided to disregard referrals from Angie’s List, SureCritic, DriverSide, and ASA; to rely primarily on referrals from RepairPal, AAA, and ASE; to consider referrals from Yelp and NAPA only as supporting votes for referrals by RepairPal, AAA, or ASE; and to favor shops referred by more than one of these sources. These decisions left me with a short list of shops and the decision to start by contacting the Oceanic 1 auto repair shop, and I would also consider contacting the Honda dealer and/or the ASE shop recommended by AAA.
An Alternative: YourMechanic.com
Having identified some potentially worthy repair shops, it was time to look at alternatives. I started with YourMechanic. Their website said, “Our mechanics make house calls.” That is, they coordinated mobile mechanics who would presumably bring their tools to work on your car at your home or office. It was certainly an interesting idea: given my personal involvement in auto repair during college, I found it simultaneously disturbing and yet familiar to imagine my engine being disassembled in the driveway. YourMechanic offered a 12-month, 12,000-mile warranty, but not if I chose to supply my own parts. They said that most of their mechanics were ASE-certified; they claimed to accept only 2% of applicants, and said that I could view mechanics’ certifications during the booking process. I could imagine that they might be able to attract good mechanics by offering a higher dollar-per-hour rate, absent the fixed costs and overhead involved in running a shop. Regarding discounts, customers would reportedly get $20 off for their first service using coupon code RSG20, and a search produced other discounts as well.
YourMechanic offered a brief discussion of my repair: I opted for timing belt replacement, since their page did not seem to permit combining two operations (timing belt plus water pump). Their testimonials page seemed to list mostly lightweight jobs (e.g., oil change, used car inspection). One reviewer said he had been quoted a price of $3,000 for a timing belt replacement, and was grateful that YourMechanic charged only $1,000. But apparently he had an atypical kind of car: the pricing page offered an example of a timing belt replacement for $489, and their estimator quoted me a price of $407.
In terms of reputation, searches (1 2) led to positive media reviews of YourMechanic (e.g., Yahoo! Finance, Fortune, Automotive News, TechCrunch) and averages of four-star or better reviews from alleged users on Yelp, TrustPilot, and SiteJabber. I was concerned that the relatively small number of negative reviews on those sites and others (e.g., ComplaintsBoard, PissedConsumer) might be fake; surely a number of repair shops would prefer that YourMechanic fail. I noticed in particular that my local Yelp included a negative review by someone who was actually not located in this city, and that (even though he had no followers) a remarkable number of people had upvoted his comment, as being not only useful but also funny, when there was nothing funny about it.
As an antidote to possibly fake reviews, BBB reported 58 complaints against YourMechanic by real customers in the past three years. This seemed like a high number, compared to other shops (above), but perhaps YourMechanic was presently working with much larger numbers of customers nationwide than any single shop would be. It appeared that YourMechanic did try to respond to those BBB complaints, and that some of the complaints lacked merit, but it also seemed that a number of people got a runaround and had to go to a lot of trouble to get legitimate complaints resolved. YourMechanic’s replies to many of these complaints did not seem thorough.
As another source, Glassdoor provided only a few internal reports from this company’s mechanics, along with numerous reviews by employees at headquarters, some of whom expressed strong dislike of the company and particularly its management. (It appeared that most of the Glassdoor reviews were forced by company management, possibly in an effort to link reviews with specific employees and thus control the public image.) Of the several Glassdoor reviews offered by mechanics, most appeared negative, with remarks about dishonest corporate practices and not offering enough work. The latter problem might not matter to full-time mechanics who work for YourMechanic on the side (see e.g., RideShareGuy). I was not sure what the arbitration options might be, if any, but access to small claims court could be problematic: it seemed that a customer might have to file suit at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, CA.
These red flags about the company were joined by the realities of my own situation. It might have been different if I’d had to tow my car to a shop, or if I had needed a simpler repair. A shop would have the advantage of allowing one mechanic to consult another, not to mention full access to expensive diagnostic tools that few mechanics would be able and willing to buy for their own work. It seemed that many real BBB complaints about YourMechanic may have arisen from situations in which a well-meaning mechanic simply found himself in over his head, for one reason or another, out there alone at someone’s house or office, trying to get a job done immediately, without any option of being able to stay after hours and work on it again the next day if necessary. And when things went south for the mechanic, it looked like YourMechanic’s response was, too often, to circle the wagons and make things difficult for the consumer, rather than proceed with a customer-is-always-right philosophy.
I was curious as to whether prices might be cheaper in other cities. I did not think it would be worth my while to go driving off to some other city for repairs, partly because of the time and expense involved and partly because I would rather have ready access to the shop in case I needed warranty protection afterwards. But I did compare water pump replacement prices stated by RepairPal for shops within ten miles of Brooklyn NY 11215, Columbus OH 43203, and Salina KS 67401. The ranges of estimates for those three locations were $410-529, $424-547, and $403-520, respectively. The substantial overlap in those price ranges suggested that neither geography nor population density would have a necessary and significant impact on price.
I noticed that my selected independent shops (above) did not include any that would specialize in Hondas. I had imagined being able to find a mechanic who would take one look and have great insight into what was most likely to be wrong with my car, including not only the immediate problem but also what could be foreseen. I was not confident that workers at a dealership would always possess such long and broad experience. But even with a AAA search expanded to a 100-mile radius, I saw no independent shops whose names suggested deep Honda expertise. I did see a Honda-specific webpage for a shop with “Euro” on its name, suggesting that I might have erred in discarding Euro-specific shops listed by my sources. Then again, a shop specializing in European and Asian cars was not really much of a specialist. Nor did reasonably focused searches in Google, Edmunds, AutomotiveForums, and ClubCivic turn up useful recommendations in my area: there were not many results, and I had no way of knowing whether the few people offering their opinions were honest and qualified.
Turning to another possibility, TalkLocal offered to let me “talk to high quality local professionals in minutes.” They said, “In minutes we will connect you with up to three professionals on the phone that can help you with your specific service needs.” This seemed vague. In my area, the category they offered was Auto Paint & Repair. Within that category, the services offered were Brake Replacement, Oil Change, Transmission Repair, or Other. Within Other, I had to enter a description. I tried “timing belt.” They insisted that it be longer than 40 characters, so I tried again: “I would like you to replace my timing belt and water pump.” They gave me a chance to enter my name, email, and phone number, and a promise that “a local pro will call you shortly.” I decided not to proceed. No doubt TalkLocal could be useful for some services in some cities, but they did not seem very focused on auto repair in my city. In a brief exploration at a later point, JustAnswer seemed to provide a more competent, perhaps even too rapid, service connecting consumers with apparently knowledgeable question-answering experts.
After the engine started making noise, I decided (wisely or not) to begin by replacing the dying old battery at a nearby Walmart. I knew it was possible that my diagnosis was wrong — that the noise might be coming, not from the water pump, but rather from the alternator, in which case my new battery could soon be ruined. So it may not have been wise to take that step first. But I didn’t want to have to keep jump-starting the car from the marine battery in the back seat, or parking it on a hill to push-start it (given its manual transmission), so that’s what I did.
While I was there at the Walmart, I asked the technicians if they knew of anyone who could change a water pump. Inquiries led to one of their co-workers who reportedly did work on the side. He wasn’t there that day, but they gave me his phone number. The online price estimators (above) indicated that labor charges would account for half to two-thirds of my anticipated car repairs. So this possibility of using a backyard mechanic could make sense: this guy, otherwise making a low wage at Walmart, might jump at the chance to charge a fraction of a shop’s hourly labor rate. But I was concerned about the downsides. There would be no meaningful warranty. It would have been better if this hadn’t been such a large repair. There was no way of knowing whether he had the expertise to do the job. He surely didn’t have expensive diagnostic equipment. I had never met him; but whoever he was, he would not be the first person I would call for an informed evaluation of the full situation facing me, with this old car. He could completely screw up my engine. This might become an appropriate step if it came down to a choice between this or junking the car: if it didn’t run well when he was done, I wouldn’t have to pay him. A search led to these and (1 2 3) other worries. In short, this was a possibility, but it didn’t feel like the right choice now.
There were other possibilities: buy a motorcycle or scooter; try a smaller, golf-cart-sized alternative to the automobile, like the Tata Nano; rely on ridesharing services; rent a car only when needed; or get by without any car at all.
Overall, motorcycles and scooters capable of handling highway speeds were not cheap, not especially safe (though surely a lot of fun), and not good for hauling things. Car rental would be a possibility if I only needed a car for an occasional trip that would justify its cost of $30 or more per day, but that was not the case for me.
The Tata Nano was apparently not being sold in the U.S. due to its reputation as a death trap, and another micro-car, the Smart Fortwo (besides not being super-affordable), appeared to have a mediocre reputation. In many places, it would be possible for most people to address most transportation needs with neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs) and low-speed vehicles (LSVs) and other simple, low-speed vehicles costing one-half to one-third as much as a car (and far less to maintain) — but it appears that, thanks in part to auto industry lobbyists whose grandparents destroyed the trolleys, cities have been very slow to move toward supportive infrastructure. Almost everywhere, if you’re allowed to use such a vehicle at all, you’ll still have to take your chances out on highways filled with trucks and SUVs.
A search on the ridesharing option led to a number of webpages comparing the costs of car ownership against the use of services like Uber and Lyft. Streetwise offered what was essentially a proof-of-concept calculator for Boston residents who were already using public transportation to get to work, and thus just needed a car for in-town errands and out-of-town trips (e.g., vacations). Their default calculation said that, if I made just one in-town trip per week and two out-of-town days per month (the latter totaling 261 miles), then a typical car would cost me $6,771 per year but a combination of Uber and Zipcar would cost only $3,856. A major factor left out was that of convenience: I would have to find or wait for those rides, as distinct from just hopping in my Honda and taking off — although Uber claimed that, at least in San Francisco, the average Uber driver arrived less than three minutes after agreeing to pick up the passenger. Another webpage, several years old, reported the experience of an L.A. resident who swapped a car for Uber. For him, putting on lots of miles, Uber was far more expensive, at $18,115 per year, as compared to an estimate of only $12,744 per year for car ownership. He estimated that Uber became cheaper for those who drove less than about 9,500 miles per year. Business Insider (Holodny, 2016) summarized a Deutsche Bank study (Lache et al., 2016) estimating that “using driverless taxis in the future might cost about the same as owning a vehicle in major US urban areas.” Josh Waldrum expreimented with Lyft and Uber for one month in Austin, TX and concluded that they were cheaper than owning his Volkswagen Jetta; average ride waits were just over four minutes; insurance coverage for ridesharing passengers was sketchy; but it was less free and less convenient to have to rely on ridesharing; and there’s something therapeutic about being able to get into your own car and drive around. I wasn’t confident that Uber would work well for a shopping day, involving visits to several different stores and several bags from each. Zipcar would, at a cost of at least $9 per hour, but I would need Uber to get me to the nearest Zipcar location. For me, it seemed that ridesharing could address some but not all needs.
Finally, regarding the option of going without any motorized vehicle, DoughRoller calculated that, over the lifetime of the average car purchaser, the opportunity cost of owning a car totaled more than $1 million: “If you can find a way to eliminate owning a car, or owning fewer cars, or even driving them longer, there’s a big pot of gold waiting at the end of this rainbow.” This option seemed to call for living in a place with great public transportation (e.g., New York City) and/or being able to get by on foot or bicycle. Unfortunately, while we have had bicycles for more than a century — as I can tell you, after being hit by drivers both accidentally and deliberately — America remains remarkably unsafe for bicyclists. That is true even within cities, where other countries see vast fleets of them. Just one American city made Wired’s list of the world’s 20 bike-friendliest cities. That city: Minneapolis, ranked 18th, well behind Buenos Aires and even the capital of Slovenia. CNN would include Portland, OR, even though only 7% of its commutes are made by bike, and The Guardian gives honorable mention to Davis, CA, with 23% – as compared to more than 50% in Copenhagen and more than 61% in Groningen, in the Netherlands.
That summarizes the alternatives to a traditional auto repair shop that seemed to be available to me. Basically, what I saw in these alternatives did not tempt me away from the two or three shops that my search had located.
Another Option: Buy a Different Car
At some point, it becomes more economical to buy another car than to fix the one you have. People reach that point when, in the insurance company’s view, the car is totally wrecked (i.e., “totaled”) due to accident or other damage. When the insurer considers a car to be totaled, it is because it would be more expensive for them to pay for car repairs than to just give you a check for the vehicle’s alleged value and then sell it for scrap. Owners likewise declare their cars to be totaled, in effect, when they decide repairs will cost more than the car is worth. A search leads to, for instance, the story of a broken timing belt resulting in a $6,000 repair estimate, for a 2004 Hyundai Electra worth much less than that.
A new car may have been the least expensive option in the long run, but at this writing the Nissan Versa was still the cheapest new car in the U.S., and it cost $12,825 — not to mention licensing, insurance, and so forth. That was more than I needed, and more than I wanted to spend — and, anyway, a new car’s payoff timeframe didn’t match my situation (below). So my search was going to be limited to used cars.
Components of Ownership Cost
Simply switching to a different kind of car, even if it is no newer, can result in savings. To compare various models, Kelley Blue Book (KBB), Bankrate, Edmunds, Agco, MasiLabs, CSGNetwork, BGSU, and others offer calculators or lists of the costs of car ownership. AAA estimates that, on average, small sedans average the lowest annual cost of ownership ($6,579) while large sedans have the highest ($10,492). Key components of the cost of ownership include insurance, maintenance, fuel efficiency, and purchase price and depreciation. (For state vehicle taxes and fees, see DMV.org.)
For the insurance component in particular, Nationwide Insurance noted that rates vary according to the type of policy (e.g., comprehensive & collision), driver age and driving record, location, type of car, deductible, and policy limits. AAA (2016) estimated that auto insurance for good drivers averages $1,222, representing a steep increase in recent years. According to TrustedChoice, “Rates will almost always be lower for used cars than new cars.” For the effect due to type of car, Insure.com offered lists of least expensive vehicles to insure (dominated by Honda and Jeep) as well as most expensive (mostly sports cars and Mercedes). Insure also ranked states according to their average cost of auto insurance, and CarInsurance provided a calculator showing average insurance rates at various locations.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, 2014) provided figures suggesting that the maintenance component of car ownership costs stays pretty high for ten years after the warranty expires, and then declines somewhat. BLS found that, overall, repair and maintenance expenses (R&M) averaged $546 per car per year in 2012. (BLS noted that total R&M for the average car had risen 4.5% between 2011 and 2012. At that rate, total R&M in 2016 might be about $650.) BLS broke the data down into five-year subgroups — that is, for cars that were 0-5 years old, 6-10 years old, 11-15 years old, 16-20 years old, 21-25 years old, and 26+ years old. Total R&M would apparently have been highest in the 0-5 year group, but was evidently suppressed by warranties (which would help with repairs but not with maintenance items). On the other hand, R&M was higher than one might expect, in the early years, possibly due to greater use of dealers for R&M and greater complexity of some repairs on newer models. At any rate, the $437 total R&M for the 0-5 year group was eclipsed by the $588 for the 6-10 year and $576 for the 11-15 year groups; totals declined to $483 and $457 for the older (16-20 and 21-25) groups, and then rose to $502 for cars aged 26%. BLS suggested that some of the higher R&M for cars aged 26+ years may be due to collectors’ expenditures on restoring classic cars.
There seemed to be some problems with those BLS data. For one thing, it is not clear that the foregoing figures captured all R&M: only 41% of survey participants reported any oil change expenses in 2012. Also, BLS data did not say whether older cars might have survived so long because they were being driven fewer miles. Surely, I felt, people and corporate fleets that depended on their vehicles were not using old cars. Automotive Fleet (2015) found that vehicles in one corporate fleet required significantly higher maintenance costs as they aged, within the first three years of life, after which the company (GE Capital Fleet Services) may have reduced maintenance and/or sold them. Their chart, showing average cost per month:
The CarMD Vehicle Health Index (2016) contended that, as cars continued to improve in quality, average car repair costs per year were going down. But AAA found the contrary in 2013. AutoTrader pointed out that certified pre-owned (CPO) programs could also cut maintenance costs for late-model, low-mileage used cars. YourMechanic calculated that the most expensive brands to maintain included BMW, Mercedes, and Cadillac, while the least expensive were Toyota, Scion, and Lexus. A Reddit discussion contained a large quantity of further information and personal experience on R&M.
Of course, a newer car can save some money if it is more fuel-efficient. If the old car is driven for today’s average of 11,287 miles per year (2015), and if it gets the recent-years average of 25.3 miles per gallon of gas (MPG) (2014), and if gas costs $3.00 per gallon (reflecting a rough midpoint of prices in recent years), then the average cost for gas is $1,338 per driver per year. Compared to that, an improvement of 10 MPG would save $379 per year. But if gas is only around $2.00 (as it is at this writing) and the mileage improvement is only 5 MPG, the annual savings will be only $147.
There seemed to be a number of factors influencing the depreciation component of car ownership costs. A search led to the following thoughts:
- For a comparison of the costs of leasing, buying new, or buying used, see Edmunds.
- A car is more expensive per year if it lasts fewer years. For example, within the total cost of car ownership, the purchase price component of a $20,000 car that is totaled after four years is $5,000 per year on average. Conversely, a car becomes cheaper per year if it lasts more years — and also, of course, if it costs less.
- Over the long term, new car prices have been rising. According to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Center for Transportation Analysis (2015), the average (inflation-adjusted) price of new cars rose from $21,413 in 1980 to $28,465 in 2000. The average new car now costs $33,666 (KBB, 2016). Bankrate (2016) found that this average new car price exceeds the safe financing capability of the typical family (see New York Times, 2016; AutoBlog, 2014).
- Also, over the long term, automobile longevity has been increasing. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT, c. 2015) reports that the average age of automobiles rose steadily from 5.1 years in 1969 to 9.5 years in 2009. DOT also reports that the average age of all light vehicles (cars, pickups, SUVs, etc.) rose from 8.4 years in 1995 to 11.4 years in 2014. IHS (2015) says that age rose further, to 11.5 years in 2015, and expects a further rise to 11.7 years by 2018. The long-term increase in age is reportedly due to improvements in automobile quality. In recent years, that has been supplemented by economic pressures compelling people to keep driving older vehicles.
- Average age of cars in use is not the same as the average age at which a vehicle is finally retired. BLS (2014) reports that, in 2012, household vehicles sold were, on average, 15 years old; those given away were 14 years old; and those traded in were nine years old. It was not clear how long the average car lasts. One person claims, without citation, that the average car is scrapped after 19 years, with a peak between years 13 through 17. IHS cites a total of 258 million vehicle registrations each year. Of those, according to USA Today, 14 million (5%) are at least 25 years old, and 44 million (17%) are 16-24 years old. IHS said 120 million (47%) are 6-14 years old. The New York Times (2012) suggests that 200,000 miles tends to be the approximate limit for most vehicles in use today. Some said 200,000 miles or 10 years, but I was not sure where the 10-year limit came from: even at 20 years, my Honda had virtually no problems that were purely age-related. An exception: a small plastic clip became old and brittle and broke sometime after year 15. iSeeCars said that only about 4% of even the longest-lasting vehicles run longer than 200,000 miles, though of course (as with human longevity calculations) the vehicles that do reach that point in good shape are likely to have years of life remaining. At the average of 11,287 miles per year (above), 200,000 miles would be equivalent to almost 18 years. But people said that a person who buys a good new car and maintains it with determination to get 250,000 miles (~22 years) from it will probably succeed.
- The usual car, sold as scrap, is worth about $75, with some possible additional value in certain parts (e.g., battery, tires, radiator, gas) (Junk Car Medics, 2016; ScrapSalesUSA, 2016). WeBuyAnyCar estimated the scrap value of my car at $50.
- On a straight-line basis, for an average car, the purchase price component of the total cost of ownership is perhaps $2,237 per year (i.e., $33,550 divided by 15 years). Of course, cars do not depreciate on a straight-line basis. The new-car purchaser who plans to sell his/her vehicle at some point must consider the amount of value lost during the early years especially. Edmunds says that, on average, 9% of the value of a new vehicle evaporates as soon as it is driven off the new car lot, and another 10% vanishes by the end of the first year of ownership; an additional 12% of the new car’s value disappears during the second year, 11% during the third year, 9% during the fourth year, and 9% during the fifth year (see also CarsDirect). These figures vary by model. For example, Bankrate calculated that the Kia Sedona LX retained only 29% of its value at the five-year mark, whereas Investopedia said that a typical Honda Civic still had 37% of its value after ten years. A car’s resale value will also depend on whether it has been treated well. But with the average car price and depreciation figures just stated, the average purchase price component of ownership cost will be $6,375 in the first year, $4,026 in the second year, $3,691 in the third year, and $3,020 per year in years four and five. Sources said that, by year ten, depreciation is a minor factor; at that point mileage and condition are the main determinants of resale value, primarily because those two factors determine likely future maintenance expenses.
- The new-car purchaser who does not plan to sell his/her vehicle should still consider the possible effects of depreciation. There is no way of knowing whether the vehicle will be stolen or totaled due to extreme weather or accident before the vehicle reaches old age. In that case, note that insurance reimbursement may be zero, if the appropriate (e.g., comprehensive) coverage is not in place. If there is an insurance reimbursement, it will typically take depreciation (i.e., current market value) into account. One source reports that 7% of one-year-old vehicles are totaled but 32% of vehicles in the 10- to 15-year age range are totaled each year. The reason for that difference is presumably that a $5,000 repair (for example) may cost more than an old car is worth.
Some of these cost factors — notably, most of the determinants of my insurance and licensing costs (e.g., age, location, driving record) — were out of my control at this point. What was in my control was to choose a type and age of car that would be relatively inexpensive to insure, would have good gas mileage, and would experience little depreciation. A small sedan like the Honda Civic already supplied all of those things, especially if I bought one at least ten years old. To simplify my comparison, then, I decided to try to figure out how much Civic I could buy if I opted not to fix the one I had. If it turned out that it would make sense to replace my 1995 Civic with, say, a 2002 Civic, then I could compare other possible replacements (e.g., a Toyota) against the 2002 Civic as desired.
Anticipating Future Repair Costs
I was not going to significantly reduce car ownership costs by switching to a different or older model; I had already gone about as far in that direction as I could. My car was or could be mechanically decent, but the body needed work, and I wasn’t going to make that investment. Even so, before I could compare the expense of replacing this one with a newer Civic, I realized that I needed a clearer sense of just how expensive my present car was going to be, if I kept fixing it.
I say that because it now seemed that I had been in a state of denial or at least procrastination. I recalled that a mechanic I had visited during the past year had said that I had problems with the power steering and the CV boot on one front axle. He hadn’t been clear on whether these were urgent or important, for a car this age, but now it seemed I should be looking into those. Combining RepairPal and AutoMD, I got a rough sense that those might cost around $700 — which, if memory served, was in the neighborhood of what the mechanic had estimated. And although the present water pump (?) noise had grabbed my attention, I had also felt, for some time, that the clutch might be on its way out. RepairPal and AutoMD cited several clutch components (assembly and master and slave cylinders), and I wasn’t sure which I might need, but that job could apparently cost anywhere between $500 and $1,500.
One way of looking at it was to estimate how much I should have been budgeting, last year and this year and next year, to keep up with R&M. It looked like my receipts from last year’s R&M came to about $400. Add the $700 for the power steering and CV boot, and it seemed I should have spent $1,100 on the car last year. (And the year before: the suspension needed work too.) Spending another $1,100 this year would take care of the water pump and timing belt, assuming those were the source of the present noise, with something left over to add to the $1,100 that I might be spending on the clutch next year. And, in a further exorcism of the denial demon, I was reminded that even though I didn’t intend to pay for body work, both rear windows were nonfunctioning and eventually one or both of the front windows would follow them, and that would be an autobody problem ($400?) that I would have to fix.
Note that I was looking at past bills, here, only to get a sense of future expenses. Investopedia reminded me of the logic of sunk costs: basically, I had to calculate my situation in light of the future, disregarding what I had already spent. The goal was to save money from this point forward. There was no use crying over spilt milk.
So the present reality seemed to include the urgent water pump (?) issue and other, less urgent repairs that I had been postponing. How far could I go, toward resolving those issues, before it would make more sense to buy a different car?
One answer came from Edmunds, which offered this rule of thumb: “If the cost of repairs is greater than either the value of the vehicle or one year’s worth of monthly payments, it’s time for another vehicle.” I did not think that advice was good. Edmunds estimated that my car — with its repair situation and all — was worth only $206. That was less than the price of a good bicycle. I could not replace this car for that amount. So I rejected that advice and, implicitly, the 50 Percent Rule recommended by AAA: replace the vehicle when repairs approach 50% of the vehicle’s value (see Maxham‘s critique).
U.S. News offered a different rule of thumb: “If this repair is just one of many you predict to come, it probably makes more sense to trade in your vehicle and purchase a new one.” There was some truth to that, but much depended on the amount and timing of those repairs. The better rule seemed to be what I had arrived at (above): if you can find a better vehicle for the same total cost, buy it. Similarly, Carfax said this:
Review your repair records for the past year. If you spent between $1,500 and $2,500 on your car, then you’re paying upwards of $200 per month to keep your car running. That’s a bundle of money, but it may still be much cheaper to manage than making car payments that could set you back by $300 or more each month.
Of course, the investment in the newer car would continue to pay for itself after the car was fully paid off — but then, the newer car would also require its own R&M payments, on top of the monthly loan repayment.
In the words of a StackExchange participant, “The value of the car is only of interest if there is an intention to sell it again.” If you intend to drive it into the ground, as I did, then all that mattered was, will it cost less to keep using it or to replace it? That participant suggested evaluating the repair costs against the amount of time they bought me.
Compare.com raised the problem of terminal expenses. That is, some repairs would be so expensive as to end the discussion: at that point, the car’s life would be undeniably terminated. Compare.com cited the CarMD Vehicle Health Index (2016). Among the Index’s list of the ten most expensive vehicle repairs in the U.S. in 2015, each costing at least $3,500, the ones that could apply to my Civic were, in effect, these three: replace engine, replace steering column, and replace transmission. The mechanic had said, within the past year, that the engine was in good shape. The maintenance clock had apparently brought me around to the time of water pump (?) replacement, but the engine itself did seem sound. But the tranny was an unknown. Some Hondas (but not Civics) apparently had transmission problems in some of the early 2000s model years, but one mechanic said, “I have seen Honda automatic transmissions in both Civics and Accords with over 300,000 miles and they drove perfectly fine. If you change the fluid with anything that resembles regularity, consider the life infinite.” (See also Million Mile cars.) I had been doing a decent job with the fluid. This information recalled that, sometimes, the older model is the sturdier one — that, in trading up to a newer year, I might actually be buying into problems that the older car would have avoided. These impressions seemed to be supported by a response when I posted a question, asking for advice. The response was, “That car will run forever if you want it to.”
Finally, Car Connection offered a list of intangible factors to take into account when deciding whether to replace a car. These included the improved safety features in a newer car (not to mention the question of whether 20-year-old airbags would still function), simply getting tired of the beat-up old clunker, and lifestyle changes calling for a different kind of vehicle. All of these had some relevance to my situation. I would be exploring some of them further (below).
Interpreting the Numbers
As indicated above, my plan was to start by figuring out how much Honda Civic I could get for a comparable expense, and then see if I could get a better alternative in any other car brands. So now I faced the challenge of translating my repair budget into terms that I could compare against the price of a replacement Civic.
In recent years (until this new set of more serious problems), I’d had the rough impression that I was paying approximately $600 per year for relatively major car repairs. But now that didn’t seem right. $600 per year at age 15, and $1,100 per year at age 20, would imply that R&M expenses were rising at $100 per year.
It seemed the better approach would be to talk in terms of cost per mile. In my relatively brief searches, I did not find estimates of the R&M costs per mile for a Honda Civic at various points in its life. But I did find some bits of information that provided at least a rough sense of those costs.
BLS (2014) estimated that R&M expenses for the average 10-year-old car came to about $580 per year (or more, if I cared to assume that costs had continued to rise in the past few years), and that R&M expenses actually declined thereafter, reaching a low of only $457 for the average 25-year-old car. This decline seemed implausible. Those may truly have been the amounts that people were spending on upkeep for their old cars, but the reason would surely be that they were not using those cars much — that, as suggested above, many of them were classics sitting in garages, or possibly even junkers gathering weeds somewhere, but still possessed by their owners and thus reported in the BLS survey. It seemed that the data for the 10-year-old cars were more likely to provide a fairly accurate reflection of the cost of maintaining a car in active use. A 25-year-old car might not bother anyone, once it found a resting spot, but a ten-year-old car represented a relatively valuable and to some extent depreciating asset, and was likely to be sold rather than allowed to sit.
The BLS estimate of $580 per year included all sorts of ten-year-old vehicles. But AAA (2016, pp. 6-7) estimated that maintenance and tires for a small sedan cost 12% less than for an average car. So at year 10, perhaps R&M for a car like my Honda would cost about $510 (i.e., 88% of $580). That would mean a cost of about 4.5 cents per mile, at the recent average of 11,287 miles per year (DOT, 2015).
How did that compare to my current situation? I wasn’t sure that every owner of a 1995 Honda Civic with 223,000 miles would now be budgeting $1,100 per year for R&M. But this did seem more realistic than the $457 figure provided by BLS. And I also thought it might not be far from the average, for cars in active use. It really did seem to be a fair estimate of my own costs for the next few years.
Note that this allocation of $1,100 per year for R&M, at age 22, was not just a larger number: it was also covering fewer miles. At an average of only 6,200 miles per year in recent years, it came to 17.7 cents per mile.
Now, it was possible that this level of expenditure was only temporary, spanning just the next few years. After I had invested $3,000 or so, the car might be ready to circle the globe, and my R&M cost per mile might drop way off. But we were not there now, and I was not sure we ever would be. As indicated above, what I had experienced in recent years was that a number of things were wearing out due to age, and it seemed that would probably become more frequent as the car continued to grow older.
What seemed most likely was that (a) estimated annual R&M costs per mile had risen noticeably, from 4.5 cents at age 10 to 17.7 cents at age 22, and (b) the increase would be best accounted for, not by a straight-line average, but rather by a curve rising with vehicle age. It seemed, in other words, that maybe my rough impression was right: maybe I really had been spending only $600 on R&M a few years back; maybe R&M really had gotten much more expensive in the last few years. Based on these numbers, one reasonable scenario looked like this:
This scenario suggested that, if I continued to use the vehicle at the same rate as in recent years, I should expect its R&M cost to rise to 25 cents per mile, three years from now, and to more than 30 cents five years from now. It was reasonable to suppose that R&M expenses for a somewhat newer Civic might follow a similar curve. Since a newer car would have been in service for fewer years, its projected R&M expenses would land on the left side of the curve, whereas mine were well into the right side. So a newer car would have a lower R&M cost, in cents per mile, and those costs would not rise so rapidly in the next several years.
With the scenario shown in that graph, I could estimate the breakeven point — the point, that is, at which a newer car would have paid for itself in lower R&M costs. Using KBB’s used car shopping tool to price newer private-party Civic LX sedans in “Good” condition, I arrived at these calculations:
This chart (click to enlarge) compares estimated R&M costs for several newer Honda Civic model years, looking as much as ten years into the future. The 1995 Civic columns show rising year-by-year and cumulative estimates for R&M on my present car. Since the repair curve rises at an increasing rate, estimated annual costs become prohibitive at some point, anticipating something like a terminal repair (e.g., replace transmission). Even if the curve did level out, sometime after the next several years of anticipated higher costs, it was not likely that maintaining this car would ever become less expensive, per mile, than maintaining an average Civic of a newer model year.
In this chart, values for the newer model years turn yellow when they reach breakeven — when, that is, cumulative purchase plus R&M costs are less than I expected to have spent on R&M for the 1995 Civic. For example, the top yellow value for the 2000 Civic indicates that, by November 2018, I would project R&M plus purchase expenses of $3,424 for the 2000 Civic, and this would be lower than the $3,712 estimate for the 1995 Civic. These estimates suggest a sweet spot for the 2004 Civic, insofar as it reaches breakeven in the same year as the 2002 Civic, and only a year behind the 2000 Civic. The 2004 Civic also quickly becomes almost as affordable as the 2002 Civic — whereas, for several additional years, the cumulative costs for the 2006 Civic remain around $1,000 higher than the 2004 model, until depreciation can whittle down its inflated average purchase price.
In other words, this chart suggests that, if I bought a 2004 Civic today, in 2016, then by 2019 its cumulative total of purchase price plus R&M would be lower than if I kept repairing my 1995 Civic for those intervening three years. Ten years from now, in 2026, if the 1995 Civic was still running, it would have cost me a projected total of $22,720 for R&M, while the 2004 Civic would have cost me only $11,460. That gap would be so wide because the 2004 Civic would be so much farther to the left on the cost-per-mile R&M curve (above).
Buying a 2004 (or perhaps 2005) Civic at the start of the 2017 model year would be a bid to reproduce my experience with the 1995 Civic: a relatively flat R&M curve in the early years, and a steeper rise later. But the estimates for the 2004 model also provoke new questions, including these: What happens to the estimates if, in KBB’s database, I switch from looking for a car in “Good” condition to one in “Very Good” condition? What odometer mileage should I be looking for? Should I adjust the calculations to account for the risk that the seller might be unloading a car with problems that my mechanic and I won’t detect? Have there been unusual problems with particular Civic model years? Can I afford its initial purchase price? And will I be keeping it long enough to reach breakeven?
In response to the first of those questions, I tweaked the spreadsheet to accommodate the bump up from “Good” to “Very Good.” That bump required a few hundred dollars more in each case. It did not change the breakeven year for any of these models. I had not yet investigated the recommended procedure for buying a used car, so for present purposes I could not be certain whether a mechanic’s inspection and a Carfax report, or some other measures, would protect me from a lemon.
Regarding mileage, I developed another chart. This chart (below) uses the overall U.S. average of 11,287 miles per year (DOT, 2015) to estimate a starting mileage for 2016 (i.e., the time of my anticipated purchase). From that point forward, the chart applies my own estimated 6,200 miles per year. In this chart, red indicates when a vehicle is expected to be beyond the 220,000-mile mark, which was approximately when it became clear that my 1995 Civic had multiple relatively expensive problems. Orange denotes 200,000 miles, which was when I had an earlier series of repairs, although not as major. Finally, just for perspective, yellow indicates 150,000 miles.
This chart suggests that, based on experience, keeping the 2002 model more than four to seven years could bring me back into the land of noticeably higher R&M expenses, whereas the 2004 and newer models were likely to remain in the area of relatively low R&M expenses for at least ten years. But that raised, again, the question of how long I would be keeping the vehicle, and how much trouble-free life I would want to pay for.
Deciding on a Philosophy
To answer the question of how long I would keep a replacement vehicle, I had to think about my future transportation options.
Normally, the car decision would be pretty simple. You buy the car; later, it dies, or you sell it, recover something for the excess remaining life you bought, and apply that toward another vehicle. But for me, and for America, these were no longer normal times.
First, about me. I had turned 60 and was now marching beyond that. Previously, I had gotten used to being middle-aged, and then I had started to wrap my head around the idea of being an old person. But the calendar, always impatient, had scooted me right along, and now I had taken the plunge. In this new status, some things were starting to look different. Driving was one of them. This wasn’t being 35 with a new baby, where I might hope or expect to stay in the same house for the next 20 years. This was a point in life where the 20-year future was likely to bring a lot of changes.
Between 1977 and 2016, I had owned only two vehicles. I hadn’t needed one during my years in New York City; then I had bought a new 1982 Toyota pickup; then there was this 1995 Honda Civic. With what I was reading about automotive improvements over the years, it seemed that, if I bought a 2011 Honda Civic in very good condition for $8,205 (KBB) at this point, I might be able to keep it until 2030. But did that timeframe make sense for me?
It didn’t, not if I planned to get serious about the long-simmering idea of living in a more transportation-friendly community, where walking, biking, golf cart, and/or shuttle might take care of most of my transit needs. Or if I were to become an expat and move to Ecuador or Thailand. Or if I found myself in a writer’s colony or a cohousing settlement. Or if I returned to the variable, sometimes difficult, sometimes fantastic experience of living outdoors, which I might be able to do with a backpack and/or a bicycle. Or if driving would be out of the question for me — after, say, age 65 — due to health problems or fear of traffic.
My own future was not the only variable in flux. Technology was changing too. Yes, the SmartCar and the Nano were nothing to write home about, but there would be other minimalist cars. And while completely driverless automobiles might take another 30 years to appear on our streets, largely autonomous vehicles were expected to become increasingly common by 2020 — and there was a strong likelihood some of them could and would be designed for senior citizens who might otherwise be stranded at home.
So I didn’t think I should buy a car for the next 10 to 20 years. My life, and technology, seemed to be poised for major changes on a shorter timeframe. With that realization, I was inspired to draw up the charts shown in the preceding section. I chose Honda Civic model years that seemed to offer affordability but also some remaining years of life. The charts seemed to say that the 2004 model, for example, would be a sensible purchase if its mileage was well below 200,000 and if I was going to keep it for several years at least. But was I? That was the part I needed to figure out.
Miles per year was another variable. Yes, I had averaged 6,200 miles per year over the past ten years. But that was before I turned 60. Was I going to want or need to drive 6,200 miles in this car in the future? Here, again, the answer depended on decisions that I had not yet made. A replacement would not pay for itself very quickly if I rarely used it. The 1995 Civic might be adequate: years could pass before any more major repairs were needed. Moreover, for an unused car, the calculation could change due to a higher R&M cost per mile. Mice might make nests in the seats and chew on the wiring; tires and other rubber parts could age and crack even though they were not being used; plastic parts would continue to grow more brittle due to age. For a car that had not been moved in the past year, the first mile could be an expensive one.
Because of the unknowns, part of me was asking whether I should just try to buy another year with my 1995 Civic, so as to let the dust settle. This thought was appealing. I had not expected to be forced into this car repair situation. It felt a little rushed, to move so quickly from an ordinary day, to the prospect of a major repair, to the search for what might be the last car I would ever own. If I could, I would prefer to sidle up to such decisions at a more deliberate pace.
Meanwhile, though, I could not just let the car sit. I needed to be starting it up and using it occasionally, and that was not going to happen as long as it had what might be a timing belt problem. I needed, at least, to get an estimate of the work that would be necessary to get my car through the next year or so, if I could.
Interacting with Shops
I had concluded (above) that I should get a repair estimate from the Oceanic 1 auto repair shop and also, perhaps, from the Honda dealer and/or the ASE shop recommended by AAA. It seemed I probably should start with Oceanic 1, find out what was wrong, and then decide how far to go in seeking other estimates. In this line of thought, I was placing a fair amount of trust in Oceanic, though that could change if I was not impressed upon arrival.
Oceanic 1 was eligible for a discount from AAA. The least expensive AAA membership entitling me to that discount cost about $50. On Thursday afternoon, I called AAA and verified that the discount would be available immediately upon joining. They could not tell me how much the discount at Oceanic 1 would be; they said I would have to ask the shop for that information. That was odd: later, when I ran a search looking for discounts and coupons at Oceanic, I found a AAA webpage saying that this shop would give me a 10% discount to a maximum of $50. Then I looked at the website for Oceanic 1. They offered $50 off any repair over $500. It appeared the AAA discount and membership would be unnecessary unless my repairs cost less than $500.
I called Oceanic 1. I did not expect what I got. The man very politely informed me that his shop did not work on any cars more than 16 years old. So, on to plan B! I looked at the website for the ASE shop that was also referred by AAA. (Here, I will refer to that shop as Wiltmoss.) The Wiltmoss website offered a free inspection that did not include engine diagnostics, as well as a 10% discount on non-dealer parts (?) to a maximum of $100. A search yielded no other discounts for Wiltmoss. I called them and said I had a whirring noise from the front of the engine. They were willing to schedule a look at it, next Tuesday, for $40. I forgot to ask if that $40 would be applied toward the cost of repairs. (The $40 fee was actually pretty good, compared to the $90 that Pep Boys would charge, applicable toward the cost of repair work done there.) For the clutch, Wiltmoss said they would just do a road test, and there would be no charge. The man on the phone seemed a little rushed, so I didn’t explore questions about the power steering or CV boot. I decided to ask them to look at those items, or just give me their free inspection, when I arrived in person.
Then it occurred to me that perhaps I wouldn’t have to spend $40 to get an estimate. I called the shop I am referring to as Wine Country (above), referred by both AAA and RepairPal. No charge to look at the car; coupon for $50 off a $500 service. I made an appointment with them for Tuesday afternoon. I would probably want a second opinion, but I would want to think about the first opinion first, so I canceled the $40 appointment at Wiltmoss.
I wondered how the Honda dealer would compare. Their website said they were presently offering no discounts. A search led to indications that there had been coupons and discounts at one point, but those had apparently expired. Their website offered an 800 number, but I was not sure it was working; it seemed to be hanging up on me, each time I called. The website did not offer a local number, so I went with the options of scheduling a service appointment online. As a note to that appointment, and also in a separate email, I asked if there would be a charge for looking at my car. They sent me an email that evening, gushing about how eager they were to help me, but apparently it was just a computer-generated automatic message; they didn’t respond to my question about the charge. I canceled that appointment.
On Tuesday, I went to Wine Country. I pulled in next to a BMW. The waiting area had leather couches. A sign on the wall indicated that this was a Christian establishment, doing business in an ethical manner. Despite all of the foregoing advice, I mostly fell into the default mode of just signing the inspection authorization form. It contained a reference to “repair work,” and I told the service writer I was going to have to change that. He said something like, “I’m not going to do any repairs,” but I crossed out the “repair” wording and wrote in, “Inspection only. No repair or alteration.” He accepted that. But then I forgot to ask for a copy of it. At least I had cleaned eleven dollars’ worth of change out of the ashtray, in case everything really went wrong. Oh, and I did remember to ask the only other customer in the waiting room whether this was his first time there. It was. He was there because Discount Tire had screwed up his wheel.
As they had warned me on the phone, I sat for two hours. They came back with an estimate, no charge, as promised. The estimate included amounts for a power steering system flush ($90) and a brake flush ($90). One participant in a discussion thread said I could easily do the power steering flush myself, and sketched out the procedure. Other participants disagreed on whether this would be necessary at all. The Honda’s manual called for periodic inspection of the power steering system, but did not specify when or whether a flush might be indicated. Neither RepairPal nor AutoMD nor DriverSide had that specific item, and the Autobytel estimator was still not working. Another thread was more emphatic on doing it myself, at the cost of an hour’s labor and maybe $30. Later, I would come to understand that the power steering flush was probably a necessary by-product of one of the larger repairs that we were about to get to.
Regarding the brake flush: here, again, the manual said nothing about a flush. The $90 estimate was in the RepairPal range (including this shop) of $83 to $107. For brake hydraulic system bleeding, AutoMD estimated $63 to $91. This, too, seemed to be something I could theoretically do myself — although, having struggled to bleed the brakes on my old Volkswagens, I wasn’t terribly eager to try.
I was a little skeptical of my fine Christian shop’s ethics when I thought I heard them trying to sell another guy on a $17 bottle of fuel cleaner or oil cleaner. But I may have misunderstood what was happening in that conversation. I noticed that they had thrown in $38 for “shop supplies.” My sources of advice (above) had suggested that this was pure profit and should be negotiated off. They had thrown in an alignment, but that seemed legitimate — but I would get that done at Walmart, where I had a lifetime alignment deal that seemed to be keeping the tires wearing evenly.
Now, getting to the meat of it. The estimate said I needed to replace the car’s rack and pinion steering assembly, at a cost of nearly $900, of which about two-thirds was parts. AutoMD and DriverSide didn’t seem to offer anything like this, but RepairPal quoted a range of $575 to $1,522 for a steering rack replacement, which I guessed was probably the same thing. So it did seem that my nice BMW-serving, leather-couched Christian shop was a bit on the rich side, presumably charging an appropriate price to preserve those ethics. They say you get what you pay for. When I saw the picture of the part at O’Reilly Auto Parts, I wondered whether this was the same as the “steering column replacement” that Compare.com (above) had priced at over $3,500. O’Reilly said a complete (remanufactured) rack and pinion assembly would cost as little as $172, though prices could range up to over $400. It was not immediately obvious what I would be getting for the higher price.
The reason for the steering assembly replacement was that apparently it was leaking power steering fluid, and apparently those leaks are not generally repairable. As I understood it, from the guy at Wine Country Automotive and from the results of a search, the power steering pump circulated power steering fluid through the steering assembly, making it easy to steer the car; and the pump also used power steering fluid to lubricate itself. Running out of fluid would cause the steering to become difficult, and would also cause the power steering pump to burn out. Someone said it was possible to connect the pump’s output to its input, so that it would just keep itself lubricated but would no longer make my steering easier. That maneuver could make sense in some vehicles because the belt driving the power steering pump would also drive other accessories. If the pump burned out, it would freeze up, the belt would snap, and those other accessories (e.g., the alternator that kept the battery charged) would cease to function. But as far as I could see, there were no other devices on the power steering pump belt. In that case, the only drawback would be the switch to manual steering. Sources disagreed as to whether this would be physically challenging. I had driven a manual steering car before. As far as I could tell, that’s all that would happen. The car would still steer, just not easily. But perhaps not: if the power steering fluid was leaking out, the lack of lubrication might cause the steering to completely lock up. Preferably not at 60 MPH, please.
So the whining noise I was hearing was from the power steering pump running low on fluid. The mechanic at Wine Country added some fluid. That killed the whine. So they did seem to have targeted the problem. The guy said I could keep adding fluid, but it would gradually leak at a faster rate, and eventually it would just run right out. But in my subsequent inspection, we did not seem to be nearing that point. I could see where the side of the engine was dark and grimy from leaked fluid, but it was not actually wet. There did not seem to be any drips on the floor under the car. The online sources made it sound like I might be able to go quite a while before I would have to get this fixed, and also that I would have some advance warning. For now, it seemed that all I needed to do was to keep a container of power steering fluid in the car and check the fluid level occasionally.
Two other relatively major items on the estimate: replace right front drive axle, for $215, and replace left rear wheel bearing, for $185. Adding $170 for the brake flush and alignment that I assumed either or both of those jobs required, the total for these two items was $570. That compared against a RepairPal estimate of $273 to $542 for the axle and $238 to $354 for the bearing, minus double-counting for the brake flush and alignment.
Later, I called the older backyard mechanic I had used previously, located in another state, just for purposes of comparison. He estimated about $200 for the right front axle, which was close to what the Wine Country shop had estimated, and about $500-600 for the steering system. That was really quite a contrast against the price that I got when I did eventually call the Wiltmoss ASE shop: $354 for the rear wheel bearing, $350 for the right front axle, $930 for the steering assembly. So, yes, it did appear that their ASE certification was supporting markedly higher costs.
So that was the situation — aside from, of course, the timing belt and water pump, and any other repairs that might be coming down the pike. I did feel reassured, in my test driving, that clutch replacement was not really as urgent as I had feared.
At this point, I felt that I had largely completed the search for the best solution to my car repair situation. I had worked through the question of how to find a good mechanic, had identified one, had gotten what appeared to be an accurate estimate, corroborated by the elimination of the whining noise, and I had obtained some price quotes from other shops. I had not done the best job of dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s in my interactions with the shop — but then, those did not seem to have been necessary. They would probably feel more necessary if I went with a less highly rated mechanic.
In the process of getting to this point, I asked myself some pretty fundamental questions about my transportation future. I considered the option of buying a newer used car in light of possible changes in my needs and preferences within the next few years, and also in light of the possibility that relevant technologies would be changing rapidly. I wondered how much I would be needing a car, how much repair would be necessary to make this car last a while longer, how much longer it needed to last, and to what extent I could replace it with my bicycle, the bus, ridesharing, or other means of transportation, in my present or some future location.
What I concluded was that, at this moment, I might try to get by, doing as little as possible. In part, that was a reflection of the possibility that there might be nothing I could do — that the high prices of new cars, the unknowns of used cars, the sinkhole of my present car, and the probable inadequacy of a non-automotive alternative, in most of America, left me without any good options. It seemed that my path forward might be marked by temporizing — trying a bit of this, spending a little on that, and hoping to get by until my thoughts and circumstances came together definitively. I might return to this post to update this section in light of future developments, but at present it appeared that it was time to turn to Part Two.
PART TWO: WHAT THE SEARCH
FOR A GOOD MECHANIC
TELLS US ABOUT AMERICA
A Review of Part One
As described above, the search for a good mechanic can entail an enormous number of issues and unknowns. Most people are able to skip — or, perhaps, they just ignore — many of those matters. Some don’t have cars in the first place; or if they do, they just pay for repairs, suffer the pain, and try to move on; and if the repairs seem substantial, they sell or junk the old car and put themselves back into debt to buy a new one. Sure, you hear horror stories about crooked or incompetent mechanics; you know that it can happen to you; but somehow, on this particular day, it’s not your problem. It’s especially not your problem if you are wealthy, or lucky, or if you can fix the problem yourself, or you know the right guy, someone who is honest and fast and does good work.
It’s only when you put it all together in a single story, as in Part One, that it adds up to something remarkable. Here’s the unfortunate reality: there are people in this country, every day, who get snared at one point or another in the twisty, sneaky, shrewd, and crooked business of auto repair. They are naïve and trusting, or old and vulnerable, or uninformed and confused, or poor and desperate. There are a million ways to fleece them, and a million people ready to do it.
The corruption runs deep in this business. Think, for a moment, about some of the ground we covered in Part One. We talked about referrals. What happens in the car repair referral business? You have ratings companies that try to fool you into thinking that their approach is honest, when in fact it is subsidized by mechanics who feel forced to pay to join the rating company, or else risk being unfairly blackballed. You have phony ratings submitted by people who are paid to lie about their involvement with the shop. You have law firms that specialize in suppressing the truth – that sue, and threaten to sue, ratings companies that do publish honest reports on consumers’ actual experiences.
With these levels of corruption, it is no surprise that these sources tend to provide substantially incompatible lists of recommended shops. For the most part, they are not referring you to the best shops; they are just profiting from your uncertainty. Somehow, in a nation built on computers, the essential data (on e.g., repeat customers, lawsuits, complaints) are essentially unavailable. Even when I turned to Consumer Reports for a reliable answer, they charged me $6.95 and gave me something other than what they seemed to be promising.
And that’s just at the first step, when you’re looking to find a good shop and an accurate rating – which you shouldn’t need to begin with. If a shop does bad work, it should be fined; and if it continues to do bad work, it should be shut down. Health officials can shut down a restaurant that has cockroaches; but the auto repair shop that left you stranded in a dangerous place in the middle of the night will not even be fazed.
And how about mechanic certification? In this country, you need a license to cut someone’s hair. But to make repairs that will prevent your car from veering off the road and flipping several times? For that, the guy needs to be able to hold a wrench. I don’t know that a paper-and-pencil (or computerized) test is necessarily as good as requiring someone to complete an apprenticeship and be certified by a licensed mechanic, but at any rate there should be something verifying that you can trust your life to this person. You shouldn’t have to rely on ASE, a money machine for the shops that use it and an uncertain indicator of actual quality from the consumer’s perspective; you should be able to get the same kind of assurances that you would get from our educational system, if it were set up to produce people who are certifiably competent for the tasks they are going to perform.
So, alright. For better or worse, you have the names of a few potential shops. Now it’s time to take a closer look and arrange the repair. This, it turns out, is a bureaucratic project rivaling the construction of a new metropolitan airport. My review of various websites yielded a total of more than two dozen large paragraphs, each addressing another aspect of the byzantine process by which you drive your car to the shop and get it fixed. You have to conduct surveillance on the shop in advance, as if you were planning a strike on enemy territory; investigate mechanic certifications, as if you were the nonexistent governmental official who could save a thousand people the trouble of doing the same thing in order to verify qualification; arrive at just the right time, and shake hands in just the right way, like a politician working a crowd; draft and negotiate separate legal documents authorizing inspection (but not repairs) and then a formal work authorization – or why not just hire a team of lawyers to help with that? — and, finally, be prepared for a major crisis to erupt, when you pick up the car at closing time, drive it down the block, watch it stutter and die, and wind up getting it towed to another shop, missing whatever you had going on that evening, and spending hours at work, the next day and perhaps for days to come, fighting with the shop, lining up witnesses, and potentially contacting a lawyer – who might then tell you that not only would his/her services be expensive (assuming you were even allowed the aid of an attorney, which might not be true in arbitration) – but that, if you lost for any reason, you might have to pay the shop’s attorney fees.
People complain about big government. But in the world of car repair, either the government is not big enough, or it didn’t get big in the right areas. Because there are millions of cars in this country, providing the backbone of our national transportation system, and yet somehow the law and the government are remarkably absent from the many useful roles they could play in cleaning up and simplifying the chaotic and treacherous car repair industry.
There are alternatives to the prospect of spending large amounts on car repairs, but not many good ones. Here, again, the system does not appear to be designed for its users. For example, as explained in Part One, the ordinary needs of many people in many places would be adequately addressed by cheap-to-buy, cheap-to-maintain low-speed vehicles. Certainly the average American, unable to afford the average new car, would benefit from them – especially in large cities, where cars and trucks clog freeways and the average commuting speed can be well below the speeds achievable by these alternative vehicles, whose small sizes would enable far more people to share the existing city streets. But with political inertia influenced by vested interests, nothing happens. The same is true of healthy, cheap, bike-friendly infrastructure, where other countries are far ahead of us.
Part One was built around my own situation, as a person who did not have a lot of money for car repairs and definitely could not afford to be lied to or cheated. As such, I was not alone. Virtually everyone knows, by now, that the wealthiest 1% of Americans have been getting richer while the rest of us have been struggling. Most people have also probably heard that one in every seven Americans lives below the official poverty line. What is less widely publicized is the situation facing the rest of us, who are neither rich nor in poverty. Our situation became clear in May 2016, however, when the Board of Governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve System (more commonly known as simply “the Fed”) presented the results of a survey finding that nearly half of American adults would have to sell something, or borrow money, in order to cover a $400 emergency expense. And $400 is far below the price of many car repair scenarios, including mine.
Yes, there are surely some wasteful people among us, who would be short of money no matter how much you gave them. But when it reaches this level, involving nearly half of the nation, that easy explanation isn’t good enough. Affording the car, affording the rent or mortgage, affording the children’s education — when you add it up, this is simply not a nation that can afford our car-centered transportation system, including particularly the car repair circus described in Part One.
How We Got Here:
Our Love Affair with the Automobile
Discussions of car repair, and of other aspects of transportation policy, often have a half-baked quality. Policymakers seem to start in the middle, with a lot of assumptions. Among other things, it is assumed that people will and should keep on buying cars, and that the government has to keep on expanding and maintaining the system of roads to accommodate them.
There was a time when such assumptions seemed obvious. We had virtually endless amounts of land, oil, and money to build highways. Just climb in your car, take off, and go wherever you want, in a car that doesn’t cost too much, burning dirt-cheap gas drilled right here in the U S of A. The government will put the highways out there for you. All you need to worry about is your own personal convenience and pleasure. Wind blowing through your hair; nobody around to bother you; free on the open road.
Then things changed. People became aware of pollution. Cars and gas became expensive, coming from places like Japan and the Middle East. Roadway construction blasted paths of destruction through urban communities. The open road became lined with suburbs and strip malls. Traffic lights appeared, and arranged themselves into endless strings. Highways filled up with other drivers. Road rage followed.
It’s not that our motto was, “Waste as much of everything as you possibly can.” But that is essentially what we did. We acted like an animal that has too much of something. We cuddled with it; then we walked across it; and in the end we just pissed on it. The land, the oil, the freedom, the space. We had that inexplicable urge to use it up, to convert it all to scrap and junk. And to a considerable extent, that’s what we did.
So, OK, the party is winding down. We love the automobile, but the automobile does not love us. No, sadly, it kills us. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2014), motor vehicle accidents are a leading cause of death in every age group; they are the leading cause of death from ages 5 to 24. From the dawn of the automobile age to the present, we are approaching a total of four million of us killed and tens of millions more injured in motor vehicle accidents. Four million dead — more than twice the number of American soldiers killed in all American wars, over 240 years of history — because we were determined to put the entire nation on wheels, in the most inefficient way possible. And that does not include millions of additional deaths due to automotive pollution. We have veterans’ cemeteries and flags and a holiday for those soldiers; how is it that we don’t have anything like that for these far more numerous victims? And how is it that we have kept building and expanding those highways, year after year, killing far more American civilians than firearms kill — even when we know that, per passenger mile, car travel is about 17 times more deadly than train travel, and about 66 times more deadly than bus travel? Those are our friends and families, dying in those cars. What are we thinking?
And now that we have pissed all over the landscape and each other, leaving countless Americans with shattered homes, life-changing injuries, and chronic pain, what do we discover? Several things. We discover, first, that we cannot afford to build and maintain the highways after all, not in the volume needed to handle all the traffic. We are already making non-drivers pay for roads they don’t use — and, even so, after all that money and all those deaths, in some cities it is actually faster to bicycle — or even to walk! — than to drive (Scientific American, 2015; Treehugger, 2010). It was a fun idea, to blow those trillions of dollars; but in the final analysis, it was stupid. We discover, second, that the joy ride has ended — that driving is stressful — raising the question of why we didn’t try to make bus travel as relaxing and comfortable as train travel. We discover, third, that our auto-centric lifestyle — driving our solitary selves to isolated homes that would not be practically accessible without the automobile — is probably the loneliest mass lifestyle in the millenia of human existence. As Price (2015) puts it,
When I lived in the city, I used to have random encounters with strangers, often daily. These were usually nothing more than simple interruptions. The elderly lady that asks for help at the train station. Overhearing the couple’s conversation behind me on a bus. The homeless man asking for my spare change. These people were rich and poor, old and young. Even though the idea of being forced to interact with strangers sounds undesirable, there’s something very human about feeling that you are part of a living world. . . .
Living in the suburbs, I have eliminated most of these random encounters. When I get into my car to drive to work, I feel like I’m travelling through town in my own isolated box. When I get out of my car at work, the only people that I interact with are co-workers, and when I return home, the only people that I interact with are family. . . . I have to go out of my way and place myself in public to interact with my neighbors and others that live in my town, rather than it being a natural part of my day.
And now that we’ve made cars into plush little mini-homes in which many of us spend hours sitting each day — by choice or, more often, by necessity — we discover that, like those expensive highways, the average American family can no longer afford them. When the average car on the road is nearly 12 years old, you suspect that the American love affair with the automobile has matured into a disgruntled middle age. It used to be sexy and glamorous; now it’s more of a grind.
There’s also the size factor. A transportation industry based on individual preference means that rich people, who are often the most pathologically selfish people, will behave in ways that threaten the lives of others. For example, automakers have reaped enormous profits from selling absurdly large and wasteful SUVs to wealthy people who generally do not need vehicles of that size — and this has happened even though research indicates those vehicles do not make their owners any happier than if they owned inexpensive cars (Okulicz-Kozaryn et al., 2015). Compare, for instance, the massive 2016 Ford Explorer against the 2016 Nissan Versa. The Explorer costs about $41,600, weighs 4,901 lbs., and averages 18 MPG. The Versa costs around $12,000, weighs less than half as much (2,362 pounds), and averages 30 MPG. Guess which one the average person can afford. Guess which sort of driver has been happy to waste rivers of gasoline for the past 20 years, since SUVs first went mainstream in the 1990s. Guess, too, what happens to a family on a budget, traveling in a Versa, when some spoiled teenager loses control of mommy’s Pigmobile. And, yes, that is an unfortunately realistic scenario. Paleti et al. (2010) found that young adults driving SUVs and pickup trucks are more likely to drive aggressively than those driving a sedan or van. For that matter, it appears that SUV drivers of any kind may be more aggressive than others, whether because that’s the kind of person who would tend to buy an SUV or because the vehicle itself encourages aggression (Pincott, 2013; James, 2000).
Soon after the SUV’s advent, researchers began to find that, due to their excessive size and weight, SUV collisions were responsible for large numbers of unnecessary deaths in other vehicles. People who drove Ford Explorers, for instance, were about 16 times more likely to kill occupants in another vehicle, in a collision, than were people who drove ordinary passenger vehicles (Latin & Kasolas, 2002, pp. 1162-1163). Gabler and Hollowell (1998) found that pickups, minivans, and SUVs accounted for only one-third of vehicle registrations, but were responsible for 60% of side-impact fatalities. In an analysis of ten million accident reports, Anderson and Auffhammer (2014) found that, when the striking vehicle weighed just 1,000 lbs. more than a basic sedan, the probability of death in struck vehicles (of all sizes) increased by 40% to 50%. The probability would be significantly higher in more extreme cases — as in, for example, the 2,500-lb. difference between the Ford Explorer and the Nissan Versa.
As you might anticipate, SUV owners don’t lose much sleep over this, else they wouldn’t buy, keep, and drive such abusive monsters. To the contrary, they have fomented an arms race on the highway, as others observe the speed, power, and safety of a vehicle that will crush others, and feel that urge to keep up with the Joneses. And this is what our great-grandparents should have expected, when they allowed the preferences of the wealthy to shape the nation’s transportation system.
We aren’t so eager to celebrate those aspects of our national joy ride. But think about it for a moment. Imagine what America would be like if our SUV drivers, and the rest of us, hadn’t been in such a terrible rush to use up all the oil in Texas and all the iron in Minnesota; if we weren’t now fracking our way to the destruction of our water supplies, to try to squeeze out more fuel; if we hadn’t built the Rust Belt on a shortsighted commitment to auto manufacturing. Imagine what the Middle East would be like, if we had not insisted on our God-given right to ship mountains of money to Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq, during all those decades; imagine what could have become of the lives of so many veterans and civilians, here and abroad, if we hadn’t built an oil-driven economy dependent on that region — making it important enough to go to war for, rich enough to lure the Halliburtons and the Blackwaters, and awful enough to inflame thousands of terrorists. Imagine if it weren’t just accepted that we will keep losing friends and celebrities to the continuing catastrophe of the private vehicle; remember all the automotive close calls in which your own life could easily have ended. (Well, keep trying — your number may come up one day!) Imagine if we had back all the forests and streams that have been damaged or destroyed by highways and by pollution due to automotive emissions and automobile-oriented industries, from steel to concrete; imagine how much less of a worry climate change would be, if automobiles were not one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Imagine a substantial end to the constant roar of traffic pervading today’s cities. Imagine the improvement in our obesity rates if we weren’t compelled to drive everywhere. Imagine how different America would be without the auto-based social changes noticed already in the Middletown study (1929):
[N]or do the family and neighbors spend long summer evenings and Sunday afternoons on the porch or in the side yard since the advent of the automobile and the movies. These factors tend to make a decorative yard less urgent; the make of one’s car is rivaling the looks of one’s place as an evidence of one’s “belonging.” [p. 95]
The automobile has apparently unsettled the habit of careful saving for some families. “Part of the money we spend on the car would go to the bank, I suppose,” said more than one working class wife. [p. 255]
More than two-thirds of the best friends of the mothers of both working class and business class wives interviewed were said to have lived within six blocks of them, while [only] slightly over one-half of the best friends of the present generation of working class wives and less than one in five of the best friends of the business class women interviewed live within six blocks of them. . . . “People ain’t so friendly as they used to be. There’s less neighborhood visiting. You have to go places to see them.” . . . “I don’t see my friends at all. That is really true — I never see them unless I run into them somewhere occasionally or they come over to dinner. It was different with my mother. She and her friends were always in each other’s homes.” [pp. 273-275]
Imagine, in short, what this country would be like, and how much we would have saved, if we had chosen a transportation system that would be pleasant, affordable, and convenient for everyone, not just the rich.
History is written by the victors: we are constantly reminded of how essential, fun, and glamorous cars are. So we are shut off — we allow ourselves to be shut off — from the other half of the story. Yes, mass transit will obviously become a poor alternative to the private automobile, when you have designed your system for the latter; but the opposite would be true if we had designed our system for the former. Imagine yourself in a car, surrounded by trucks, on a two-lane highway that is perfectly adequate for transporting merchandise, while people zip past you in trains and express bus lanes, looking up from their book or their tea to wonder what you are doing down there in that silly automobile. In our present system, the idea of funding mass transit will seem odd precisely because the idea of funding highways seems normal; but of course the situation could be just the opposite — and the costs would be far lower, because mass transit has far greater potential efficiency for moving people around.
It is fun to drive a car, under the right circumstances. The child in us loves the feeling of being on a carousel or roller coaster. Whee! The world is ripping past! But people can have that fun in any event. There can be roads and cars, rented or owned, where they can go and pay their money and enjoy themselves. We don’t charge everyone thousands of dollars a year to ride a ferris wheel; why would we shackle everyone to an average annual expense approaching $9,000 to enjoy the fun of driving? Nor does a car represent the only way to have fun in transportation. Motorcycles are fun; skates are fun; bikes are fun. For that matter, a horse is fun. Wouldn’t it be nice if we, and the kids, could enjoy these modes of travel, in our home communities, without having to risk an early death at the hands of a speeding or distracted motorist?
The Right to Transportation
How much transportation should America’s transportation system provide? The present answer is that it should provide as much transportation as the individual can afford. The choice of destination, the frequency of travel, and the comfort and convenience of travel options all depend upon how much time and money a person cares to spend.
That makes sense for some purposes. An individual who decides to fly to Paris for lunch can be reasonably expected to pay his/her own way. But it does not make sense for other purposes. We all benefit from getting kids to school and workers to their jobs. Therefore, we need a system that can get people to those daily destinations efficiently. This is not some kind of special favor. It is essential to the efficient functioning of the nation.
The right to transportation is so basic that it is taken for granted in the U.S. Constitution, like the freedom to breathe and eat. For instance, the First Amendment observes that the people have a right to assemble; the Second Amendment states a right to bear arms; and various amendments refer to the right to vote. These rights are not primarily exercised in one’s living room. People need to be able to get to various places to exercise them. Let’s not be cruel or stupid about it. There should never be an American who was unable to get to a job, or to church, or to the doctor, or to his/her child’s graduation or parent’s funeral, or who went through life without ever getting to visit this nation’s capital or to see at least a few of the great national parks. Generally, the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness implies a right of reasonable access to effective means of transportation.
Our present system, shaped by the desires of the wealthy, ignores that right. That is the American approach generally. We have tended to endow acceptable education, healthcare, and other benefits upon those are financially most worthy. If others don’t like that, they can suffer. And if they don’t suffer in silence, ultimately we have the police and the courts to control them. Their choice — what we have expected of them — is that they would quietly live, struggle, suffer, and die, as the case may be, without disturbing the rest of us.
That makes sense if you think a good society will be ruled by the law of the jungle, where those who cheat — even those businesspeople and bureaucrats who are complicit in the deaths of employees or consumers — often come out on top. These people — in many cases, the moral dregs of society — are most likely to get what they want and need. That makes no sense. As an organizing principle for a society, the law of the jungle is absurd. In place of the love, the hopes, and the needs that matter to everyone, the law of the jungle seeks to create one winner and many losers. It appeals to the worst in us; it doesn’t work well over the long term; and it becomes a lot less fun when a self-declared winner suddenly discovers that s/he, too, is vulnerable.
Where has our approach to transportation left us? The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE, 2013) observes that one-third of Americans do not drive cars. Millions of people are unable to get where they need to go. Sometimes they can ride the bus, but often there is no bus operating on a reasonable timeframe within a reasonable distance. People largely excluded from using automobiles include those with physical problems (e.g., poor nighttime vision; recovery from surgery; permanent disability) or mental problems (e.g., attentional disorders; driving phobia due to speed, intimidation, or past accidents); those whose parents are at work or, for other reasons, cannot drive them to soccer or band practice; and those who cannot afford or are otherwise unable to buy, insure, repair, and maintain a car.
The numbers are substantial, and in many cases the stories are sad. Brookings (2011) calculates that more than 10 million American households — that is, almost 10% of the nation — lacks access to an automobile, and many of those also lack access to public transportation. Indeed, ASCE (2013) gives this country’s mass transportation system a grade of D because, among other things, “45% of American households lack any access to [mass] transit, and millions more have inadequate service levels.” AARP (c. 2011) estimates that more than 3.5 million Americans age 65 or over stay at home on any given day, often because they have no alternative; that 54% of seniors have poor transit access; and that nearly two-thirds of people of that age who have stopped driving are making fewer trips for social, family, and religious activities. DOT (2012) estimates that bus routes no longer serve towns and cities near 11% of rural Americans. We are regressing: that sounds like the pioneer era.
If you don’t want to have to deal, every day, with crowded and stressful highways and poorly behaved drivers fielding oversized, overpolluting, overly dangerous vehicles, then you may have to join those who favor a priority on mass transit. Don’t sell your car. Use it to go pick berries on the weekend. People will still need cars out in the countryside. But if you want to get through crowded places with minimal aggravation in your daily commute, don’t choose the most scary, expensive, and space-consuming option possible. It’s just common sense.
A Different System
How much transportation we can offer, in what configuration, at what price — these and other issues need to be resolved. At present, it is not clear how we can dig ourselves out of this highway mess. But one thing is clear: we need to make a major shift to a better system. The shift will take decades, but it needs to happen. What we have now is bleeding us.
We do have a working transportation system at the extremes. If you want to go next door, you walk. If you want to cross the continent, you fly. It’s the parts in between those two extremes that are screwed up.
For the majority of trips that people are actually able to make in the U.S., the question of how to get somewhere is settled: people get in their cars, and they drive. They have to; the public commitment to highways and cars has made the alternatives dangerous and/or expensive. Part One covers most of that.
The large missing piece is rail. Part One does comment on that, in the sense that the auto industry people have been doing everything they could to wreck this country, whenever they saw an opportunity to take more money from the rest of us. They started by derailing the trolley and interurban mass transit services that we already had in place a century ago. But there’s much more to rail than that.
Trains will not generally compete against airlines for travel across great distances. But they can compete well against airlines and highways for freight shipment across such distances, and they can also compete well against highways for economical mass movement of people across smaller distances.
Unfortunately, several generations of Americans have made rail transportation into an afterthought. As a result, our cities are now having to undo a century’s misdirection into highways that just keep filling with cars. This correction is enormously expensive.
It didn’t have to be that way. We could have expanded rails instead — keeping ahead of population, acquiring the land while it was cheap, shaping our society and its laws around the recognition that, compared to a highway, a rail right-of-way capable of carrying similar numbers of people or amounts of freight would entail a smaller slice through a neighborhood, would be more easily bridged, and would involve only a fraction of the fuel, noise, and pollution. I won’t argue the case in detail; others have already done so (e.g., Bloomberg, Ricco, Kandel, Merrill et al.) — pointing out that trains in the U.S. have been made far more expensive than in other countries, due especially to our laws.
What we could have had — what we will eventually have to construct — is a transportation network whose parts interact intelligently, in place of today’s automobile circus. There may always be a need for roads. But in crowded places, they take up valuable real estate, they cost too much to build and maintain, they are dangerous, they cheapen the feel of neighborhoods, and they require everyone to own a car.
Think about the amount of land devoted to making sure our cars are comfortable. We are used to seeing pictures like this one, looking down on a typical American suburb. But look again.
Notice how much of the neighborhood consists of car space — for the gray asphalt streets, and also for the white concrete driveways leading into the large portion of each dwelling reserved for the garage. If all that space were turned green, lawn sizes would double if not triple, and everyone’s yard could open onto park space, bike paths, playgrounds, and other private and shared amenities.
But then how would people get themselves and their goods home? Look particularly at the houses in the center of the picture. Notice the fence line dividing their backyards. Imagine a one-way lane running where that fence is. That lane would be sufficient to permit vehicles (e.g., taxis, delivery trucks, the local shuttle, rented cars) to pick up and drop off people and goods. Of course, there would be many ways to rearrange the space. But if the street were not designed as a small version of an interstate highway, making it as easy as possible for random strangers to enter and exit the neighborhood quickly, people might feel less of a need to keep their houses a safe distance away from it.
For getting to work, the local shuttle could cruise through the neighborhood every few minutes at rush hour and less frequently (or on demand) at other times, connecting logically with the bus schedule on the main road nearby. Without floods of automobile traffic, buses would have the main roads largely to themselves. There would be many more bus travelers, so there could be multiple buses traveling the same routes — which would mean that they would not all have to stop at every bus stop. Buses would move more quickly to the nearest express bus or train stop that would whisk suburbanites downtown.
For all the talk about the freedom of the open road, imagine how liberating this sort of system could be. People would have a real option to get rid of their cars. No more auto insurance premiums. No more worries about speed traps waiting to catch you off-guard. No more car repairs. No more risk of death on your way to the store. No more being bullied or endangered by irresponsible and rude drivers. Yes, there could be rudeness on the bus too, but with a big difference: not only are others watching, but they are in a position to observe, take pictures, and intervene if so inclined.
In a system like this, we would gravitate toward a much simpler and less expensive highway network, built to handle thousands of trucks and buses driven by professionals, as distinct from millions of cars driven by amateurs. And we could, at last, convert some of those endless miles of pavement into lanes for slower, friendlier, safer — and, yes, cheaper — modes of transportation, including bicycles, low-speed vehicles, and other inexpensive modes of local transport. They would no longer be mere afterthoughts, forced to step aside and make room for the almighty automobile.
This is just one suggestion. No doubt there have been better proposals for a sensible transportation system. Whatever the precise contours of the future, it is clear that we need to be moving toward it.
We Did This to Ourselves
Part Two of this post has reflected and expanded upon some themes that arose in Part One. So far, Part Two has been largely car-specific. Now, without entirely losing that connection, it is time to draw some more general conclusions.
This country’s handling of its transportation duties and opportunities illustrates a core fact: the public is often incapable of managing its own affairs. The story of the automobile illustrates that fact, but it applies in other areas as well.
The market economy has been bribed to insist otherwise — after all, a free-spending public brings wealth to merchants — but the market economy is wrong. People have a remarkable capacity to blow incredible amounts of time, money, and effort on futile and sometimes destructive pursuits, while neglecting the things that really need to be done. Societies have leaders — people who are elected, appointed, inherited, or allegedly chosen by God, or who seize power for themselves — precisely because most of us recognize the need for an authority that will control our neighbors’ (if not our own) worst tendencies.
In America, the top leaders tend to be politicians, who usually find it advantageous to do (or at least to promise) whatever the public wants. The problem is that the public can be taught to believe strange and terrible things. As with cigarettes and slavery, so also with automobiles: once we are convinced that a really awful arrangement is perfectly natural, we fight tooth and nail to keep it; we make it as difficult as possible for our country to behave sensibly. In reading an article like this one, we are going to look for every possible excuse to keep things as they are. Let the next generation undo our mistakes.
Public opinion can be manipulated. The advertising and marketing professions exist because most people can be persuaded to believe nonsense. Among the politicians and corporations trying to sell you a fantasy, few have marketed themselves and their views as long and as effectively as the automotive industry. The fantasies mentioned above are largely their creation. In the words of Lutz and Fernandez (2010),
[M]arketing establishes brand awareness and interest that children then carry with them into adulthood. . . . [Hollywood movies] and toys such as Mattel’s Matchbox cars encourage children as young as toddlers to see cars not just as fun and exciting but as anthropomorphic friends with distinct personalities. . . . Like the rest of us, children and teens like to think that they are resistant to advertising. So, cars are being sold to them through word of mouth, product placement, video games, merchandising, social networking sites, and other promotions . . . . But cars are more dangerous to teenagers than they are to any other age group . . . .
With all this social approval and disapproval at stake, the automakers toil to create distinct images for their cars . . . . Having absorbed these differentiated marketing messages, many consumers think of the car not just as a mode of convenient, individualized transportation but as a form of self-expression. . . .
“The buyer is a liar” is how dealers explain the difference between what consumers say they want in a car and what they end up buying. . . . [O]ur ultimate purchases are often based on a boiling stew of rational needs, emotional wants, and impulsive acts encouraged by high-pressure sales tactics.
Wealth-oriented people have managed to pervert the basic need for transportation into something that costs, on average, almost $9,000 per car per year. What if someone got hold of your other needs, and squeezed you for thousands of dollars for those too? Like your need for justice . . . oops, I guess the parasites did latch onto that one. Or your need for fresh water. (Hold on, they’re working on that too!) Or for fresh air or sunshine. Or peace and quiet (though that, too, can cost you). How asleep at the wheel were we, to allow so many of the essentials of life to be placed under the control of others, unnecesarily letting them abuse that control for their own benefit?
In effect, America set forth on a grand experiment, to see what would happen if it allowed the most fundamental choice about its transportation system — specifically, its focus on transporting cars rather than people — to be shaped by the wealthy. The focus on cars gave us a transportation system significantly disconnected from the country’s actual needs.
The purpose of a transportation system is not to win votes, make jobs, or amuse rich people. It is to provide safe transportation to the public at a reasonable cost and with minimal adverse side effects. The American transportation system did not focus on such objectives. Thus it became a failure. It does serve many people for many purposes. But for the country as a whole, it is lethal, inefficient, inordinately destructive, and financially unsustainable. Simply put, we were led down the wrong road.
The American transportation system embodies the dominant American system of beliefs. In the car repair situation, we find ourselves facing enormously complex and poorly explained problems and suggestions that are designed to take our money, without necessarily giving us what we paid for. People are inexperienced and intimidated, and anyway they don’t have time and the means to figure this stuff out, much less to fight about it when they get fleeced. Instead, the common understanding is that you cannot trust the person who is fixing your car, on which your life depends. That is just nuts.
From these findings in the area of car repair, we arrive at a general impression. Somehow, we wound up with a country where the natural assumption is that you are fair game if you are vulnerable (e.g., car just broke down, a thousand miles from nowhere, and somehow the towing coverage did not get renewed on the auto insurance policy, or their hotline is not helpful) or uneducated (e.g., wouldn’t know how to tell whether the engine does need the major repairs alleged by the shop) or weak (e.g., need the repairs done right away; don’t have another vehicle to rely on while this one is being fixed). The car repair situation is a microcosm of what life is like here. This is your America.
Unfortunately, it does not end with that. Abusing the public’s need for transportation can lead to other things, mostly bad. Regardless of who wins the American presidential election scheduled to occur just a few days after the publication of this post, the fact will remain that many on the Democrat side have been alarmed at the prospect of what they consider a Hitler-like President Donald Trump. It is regrettable that those voicing such alarm have been less attuned to the concerns that would make a Nazi-like president more appealing. There can be many factors in such a situation. But let us not forget that it was Hitler who inaugurated the People’s Car — that is, the Volkswagen Beetle, designed to give ordinary people access to automobiles — nor that, in another widely cited transportation-related remark, it was Mussolini who was said to make the trains run on time.
Regardless of whether credit is being fairly apportioned in such stories, the point here is that transportation is a really big deal. It is the sort of thing that can contribute to radical political change. Denying universal access to it is a very bad idea. In these troubled times, it is increasingly evident that that unfortunate fact of American life should change as quickly as possible.