Car repair can kill a student's semester at college

mechanicIt's the sound every college student dreads:

RUH-TUNKTUNK TUNKTUNKTUNK TUNKTUNK TUNK...

What is it? I actually have no idea, and neither do you. And trust me, neither do the "Car Talk" guys, either: How many centuries has it been since they were in college?

Anyway there it is, clamoring underneath the hood of your car like a pissed-off zombie with a hangover. And you sure didn't hear it yesterday. Now the sole thought you can muster is, "Will this cost me $50 or $5,000?"

Of all the unforeseen expenses a student might face, few can break the budget like an unexpected auto repair bill. Between the difficulty in finding a trustworthy mechanic, the complexity of modern cars and the huge variability in car part costs, how can you figure out the cheapest way to get through a breakdown?

In order to find some answers, I turned to Ken Lavacot, ASE Certified Auto Technician and CEO/co-owner of the car advice hub at 2CarPros. (I also filled in some gaps with info from his site.) Lavacot, an expert with more than 20 years of experience in the auto repair industry, offered some tips that might help students save money on car repair, both in the short and long term.

Is that "check engine," or cash?

The first thing to do when your car begins acting up, Lavacot said, is to isolate the problem system and decide if something is really wrong. Just because the check engine light shows up, for instance, doesn't mean much in and of itself -- the light could come on due to malfunctioning sensors, or even something as mundane as a loose gas cap.

One of the best investments a car owner can make in the long run is a simple portable diagnostic tool that can read the distress codes your car sends out via its powertrain control module (PCM). You can store this little device in your glove compartment and hook it up with the help of an online manual like this one, then compare the codes to an online database to get an idea of what's causing your car to act unusually.

Although this might not bring you much closer to an actual fix, it give you an idea of what you'll be dealing with, allowing you to look up costs and compare estimates, and it also provides some defense against a dishonest mechanic who might claim to have found "phantom" trouble codes that aren't there -- something that happened to me on two separate occasions when dealing with repairs on my own 1996 Mercury Sable last year.

Putting the D-I-Y in drive safely
As long as you're feeling emboldened by your new little diagnostic tool, it might not be a bad time to take things a step further and get your hands good and gritty by learning to perform some basic repairs.

Although that metal microcosm inside your car can seem like a strange and scary place, basic services often prove easy to perform and can help save you loads of cash in the long run, Lavacot said. Web sites including the in-depth forums at Lavacot's own 2CarPros and the more basic overviews at autorepair.about.com can help get you started in the process of becoming an amateur auto tinkerer.

"The Internet today is one of the best ways to be informed on how a car works and what to look for when a particular malfunction occurs," Lavacot said. "To save money on service, even a novice D-I-Yer can perform basic services like filter and lubricant changes."

However, Lavacot cautioned against trying to take on tougher repairs, including most problems involving the air conditioner, transmission, suspension and engine, without expert help. He also stressed the importance of following manufacturer's recommendations to the letter and keeping on top of basic services like oil changes.

"Today's automobiles are subject to higher temperatures and harder driving conditions than ever before," he said. "When servicing your car, prevention is always your best weapon against repair costs."

Besides cutting out some visits to the car garage entirely, the knowledge you'll gain in the process of learning to perform your own car maintenance will arm you with new confidence when you do have to deal with the professionals -- and could help you avoid a potential ripoff at the repair shop.

Of course, "auto mechanic" remains a professional career for a reason. If your car starts belching black smoke before the check engine light ever has the chance to send up a warning flare, you should probably keep your hands off and leave a major meltdown to a professional auto repair technician.

Repairs done right at the right repair shop
The quest for a trustworthy auto repair shop falls somewhere between the Perseus myth and "Ishtar" in its potential for epic hardship and comic boondoggle. Perhaps because most people know so little about their vehicles, the auto repair industry has long been plagued for years by allegations of fraud and consumer mistrust, and a solid mechanic remains an elusive and treasured commodity.

Still, honest mechanics are out there waiting to help. Lavacot recommends starting off with an inquiry toward your local Better Business Bureau for complaints against auto repair businesses and winnowing the sketchy ones out of your search. Although the BBB often represents the most reliable and accountable source of such information, other sites such as the subscription-based Angie's List and Yelp can also provide you with first-person customer accounts and warn you off from shady mechanics.

Once you find a shop, Lavacot said, don't hesitate to ask lots of questions and ask to see what the mechanics really do in there. Make sure the shop sticks to the original estimate they provided when you signed a work order.

Advertised car repair costs can mushroom during the course of a job when unscrupulous mechanics "find" other problems and take it upon themselves to fix them without your permission, but Lavacot noted that state and federal consumer laws mandate that customers approve all unexpected cost overruns during a fix, and they also limit the amount of unapproved overcharge from an original estimate to just a few percentage points of the bill (not including tax).

"Being informed on how a car works is the only way to be sure if a mechanic is telling you the truth," he said. "When a work order is placed, always ask for the old part in the box of the new part being installed on your vehicle, and ask them to explain in detail why the old part failed." Lavacot said that this helps to keep the mechanic honest and ensure the quality of the new part you're paying for.

And finally, remember that when you're trying to find a reliable repair shop you can stick with for the long haul, don't be afraid to shop around and get different estimates for the job at hand. Even though these estimates won't come free and can run up a bit of extra cost, they could pay for themselves many times over if they end up landing you a qualified auto repair technician whom you can truly trust.

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