Then two big questions pop into your brain: Are the fixes really needed? Am I being overcharged?
There might not be a way around getting the car fixed, but there are ways to stay in control of the situation. But it takes some work and planning both before and after the big repairs come:
GET TO KNOW A MECHANIC
Establish a relationship and find a repair shop you can trust — or risk big problems. Good old word-of-mouth still is probably the best way to pick a garage, says George Geropoulos, service adviser at Ted's Auto Clinic in northwest Chicago. Ask like-minded friends and neighbors where they go. With or without a recommendation, check online and find shops in your area that have mechanics with Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification. Also look for AAA certified garages and other training for technicians. Check online reviews. Shops that rely heavily on a particular neighborhood for their customers will take extra care to make sure people are happy.
When you find a garage, take your car in for an oil change and inspection. See if the people seem honest and are willing to take time to explain a problem. "It's like a dating relationship," says Jill Trotta, director of the automotive group at RepairPal.com, an online service that provides price estimates for auto repairs. The oil change is like having coffee with someone. Getting a small repair done is like going to dinner. A major repair can establish a long-term relationship. "If you do your due diligence up front, when something bad goes wrong, you can feel more comfortable," Trotta says.
GETTING TO THE TRUTH
Say the mechanic says that grinding noise in your front end signals your brake pads need to be replaced. How do you know he's telling the truth? Brake pad replacement is almost always accompanied by resurfacing or replacing the rotors, the round things that brake pads grab onto. That can drive the price up more. A good mechanic will take you into the garage, show you worn-out parts and explain the problems if you ask. If you're not there, ask the shop to send you cellphone pictures of the worn pads and other parts. Make note of exactly what parts are being replaced. If it's an expensive repair and you're still a little skeptical, tell the mechanic you need to wait for your next paycheck to get the repair done, or you're just not ready to do it now. Then get a second opinion, even if the next shop charges you for it, says Ron Montoya, senior consumer advice editor for the Edmunds.com automotive website. A simple Google search also will tell you if the problem the garage pointed out is common for your car, Geropoulos says.
THE PRICE IS RIGHT
Once you've determined that the repair is needed, there are ways to make sure the price is right. There are several websites such as RepairPal that have data on what prices you should be charged. Costs can vary widely across the country, so in addition to make, model and model year, the sites ask for your ZIP Code. RepairPal even has a mobile app for smartphones, so you could do the price check right inside the shop. Some sites give you estimates from several nearby shops.
RepairPal uses the same database garages use to figure out how long a repair should take. The site shows you the hourly labor rate and part cost data that comes from repair garages. It'll give you a price range for what the repair should cost. You can also call another shop or two and ask what they'd normally charge for the same repair on your model. Trotta, whose service makes money by certifying garages and charging them $199 per month to be a recommended shop on the RepairPal site, says the site calculates a fair price for quality repairs done with quality parts.
The lowest price may not be the best deal. Trotta says some garages will sell inferior, less-expensive parts that won't last as long. "The cheapest thing to do when getting your car repaired is to fix it right the first time," she says.