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Trust, but verify before getting car repaired

April 3, 2013
By Larry DeHays , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Why is it so difficult to get a car repaired? Are mechanics dishonest? Are the cars too complicated? Are they made to fall apart when the warranty expires or the final payment is made? Are there too many middlemen in the parts supply business making the prices too high? After nearly 40 years of studying these questions, my professional opinion is; "sometimes, no, no and no", in that order.

If you disagree, you should call or write to present your case, or get your own column. This one's mine. Here's my case.

As for dishonest mechanics, I know it happens because I've seen it. However, I don't see why it should be more prevalent in this trade than in any other. It can happen whenever anyone provides a service to the public using expertise that the customer doesn't understand. The opportunity for fraud is there, and some people will take advantage of it, but I don't believe mechanics are any more likely to do it than financial advisors, (anybody ever heard of Bernie Madoff?), or home remodelers, or air conditioning repairmen, or real estate developers. How many mechanics do you know of who retired as millionaires? It's not a really profitable business, even when it's run dishonestly. Yet mechanics as an industry are distrusted almost automatically. Some of that may be simple human nature. As an example, I once was buying a newspaper from a machine, and as I was closing the door to the machine, a voice behind me asked me to hold the door open for him. Going mostly on instinct, I decided not to aid and abet a thief, and I slammed the door shut and turned around to confront said thief. He looked crestfallen, and explained that he had mistakenly taken two papers and wanted to put one back in the box. Sure, like you've never done something stupid like that. I hear you snickering. The point is I should not have assumed that he was dishonest. I should have held the door, and asked him why he wanted it held. If he was going to be dishonest I could then have slammed the door. An old Russian proverb that President Ronald Reagan liked to repeat, says to trust, but verify. Good advice for dealing with anyone, about anything, even if it was Russian. The simplest way to verify is to get second or third opinions, or estimates, on the project. This can become a daunting task. I once had a house built, and interviewed several builders. Each one tried to convince me that the others were completely crazy, and had no idea how to build a house. I had to decide which crazy, incompetent builder to use, but at least I got a choice. You should do the same with mechanics. But don't ask them to build your house. If they did, it would be held together with bolts and nuts, and when the hurricane comes, it will bounce down the street in one piece. Insurance pays better if it blows apart.

The other questions are easier. Are cars too complicated? No. They are complicated as much as is necessary to get the job done as cheaply as possible. The market pressure controls this. If it could be simpler and cheaper, the manufacturers would make it that way, because they could out-sell their competition. Is there such a thing as "engineered obsolescence," whereby cars fall apart on schedule? No. The engineers are not that accurate at forecasting failure dates. Anyway, a few years ago, new cars had only a 12-month, 12,000-mile warranty. Now five- or even 10-year warranties are common, and cars are lasting much longer than they used to last. Through the 1980s, 100,000 miles was a death knell for a car. Now many cars routinely go 200,000 miles or more with good reliability. And finally, is the parts supply business bloated? No. Actually, small parts houses have been getting bought up by bigger and bigger companies for years now, reducing middlemen. Also, Chinese parts are flooding the market, which is forcing prices down. We now have more sources for parts than we ever have, and prices are competitive, trust me. But verify, of course.



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