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Confessions of a car mechanic: Ask Larry

July 20, 2011
By Larry DeHays

Here’s a common problem when dealing with a repair shop; an explanation; a confession; and then we can all have a beer and get along just fine.

Your mechanic (I know, it should be “technician”, but the public doesn’t seem to quite be ready for that yet) gave you an estimate for repairs that included a two-hour labor charge. He said it was the “flat rate” for the job. You agreed, and the work began. One hour later the car was ready, and you noticed that they still charged you for two hours of labor time. Did you get ripped off? How can they charge you for more time than they spent on the job?

Here’s the answer, with a little background information.

Car repairs are traditionally charged in one of two different ways. Each way has a benefit and a down side for you or the shop, depending on the type of repair. One way is called “flat rate”, and the other is “time and materials”.

Flat rate is determined by outside experts (not your mechanic). Tests are conducted for various common repair jobs to see how long an average mechanic with average tools and equipment takes to complete a repair on each specific job for each specific vehicle.

The results are published in books (or on line) most prominently by the Motor Manuels, from the Hearst Publishing Group, and by Mitchell Manuels by Mitchell International Inc. Your mechanic can look up each repair job and use that estimated time to price the job to you. The advantage for you is that you won’t have to pay more for a slower than average mechanic.

There is no down side for you. You are paying the average price. The one thing your mechanic can control is his labor rate, or dollars per flat rate hour. That number he should tell you up front, and it varies from shop to shop. The advantage for the shop is if they invest in above average tools, equipment and training and can therefore “beat” the published flat rate time; they can make more money per hour, which pays them back for their investments. That’s not cheating, it’s being successful.

The other way to charge is by whatever number of hours it takes to do the job. This of course is risky, because you might be paying more for slower workmanship. This type of charging is usually reserved for the jobs that are not in the flat rate books, or which have many unknown “snags,” like tearing down an engine to see how much damage has been done when your car overheated or ran out of oil. The job cannot be estimated until the damage has been itemized. Explorative surgery required. A mechanic should be able to estimate ROUGHLY how many hours will be required to identify the damage, but cannot be positive. He’ll have to keep you advised as it goes along. These jobs are tough on mechanic/consumer relationships.

To confess, most mechanics would hope that the job is common, well documented in the books, parts are readily available, and you agree to the flat rate charge. They know the job well enough to beat the crap out of the flat rate time. If they get a bunch of that type of jobs in one day, they make pretty good money that day.

What happens many times, however, is that bolts are stuck, possibly break off, extra problems are encountered during the job that were not noticed beforehand, new parts are defective and have to be changed again, and tools and equipment break down on the job, causing the job to take much longer than flat rate. In fact, very few mechanics can ever turn out 40 hours of flat rate time in a 40-hour week.

So next time your car is ready early, be like Bob Marley, don’t worry, be happy.

(ITALICS) Larry DeHays is the owner of DeHays Automotive Inc. of Fort Myers Beach at 17617 Broadway Ave. near Beach Bowl on San Carlos Boulevard (go to or call 466-3373). He has been an ASE Certified Automotive Technician for more than 35 years, and is an Arbitrator with the Florida Lemon Law Program, under the Florida Attorney General. His mechanic column will appear as a blog on our online site,, in the near future. It will act as an advisory and provide opportunity for exchanges for those who read it.



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