Archive for Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Car owners regret do-it-yourself repairs

July 8, 2009


Real estate agent Laura Musall shows the new taillight on her 2004 Nissan Altima at her home in Fishers, Ind., in this June 22 photo. Musall’s taillight burned out and her husband thought he could make a quick repair by replacing the bulb. He couldn’t easily remove the plastic light cover, so he ended up prying it off with a screw driver, shattering it in the process. The replacement was $250 from the dealer. Many car owners who try to save money by doing their own repairs find that it costs more in the end after a botched attempt.

Real estate agent Laura Musall shows the new taillight on her 2004 Nissan Altima at her home in Fishers, Ind., in this June 22 photo. Musall’s taillight burned out and her husband thought he could make a quick repair by replacing the bulb. He couldn’t easily remove the plastic light cover, so he ended up prying it off with a screw driver, shattering it in the process. The replacement was $250 from the dealer. Many car owners who try to save money by doing their own repairs find that it costs more in the end after a botched attempt.

— When the taillight of Laura Musall’s five-year-old Nissan Altima burned out, she hoped to avoid the repair shop by letting her husband replace it at home. It seemed simple enough: Buy a bulb, pop off the cover and make the switch.

But her husband struggled to remove the plastic casing, and when he used a screwdriver to pry it off, it shattered. What came next was even worse. Her Nissan dealer wanted $250 to order a new one.

Musall, a real estate agent from Fishers, Ind., figured “10 bucks, we’d be done.” “But apparently,” she said, “it’s not a do-it-yourself thing if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Car owners looking to trim expenses are sidestepping the mechanic and plunging into their own repairs. Or trying to, anyway. Their efforts can backfire, costing more in the end and creating do-it-yourself horror stories.

Mechanics say they’ve seen it all in recent months, including incorrectly applied brake pads and antifreeze poured into engines.

“A lot of people, they’re in dire straits,” said Pam Oakes, owner of Pam’s Motor City Automotive in Fort Myers, Fla. “They try to do this stuff at home in their driveway.”

The results can be frustrating, and sometimes outright dangerous.

Not so simple

Beth Riggs, who lives near Lebanon, Ohio, took her Chevy Trailblazer SUV to a car-savvy neighbor nearby who charged $500 to replace her front and back brakes, far less than the going rates at nearby repair shops.

Later, on a highway ramp, her car suddenly froze up and pulled to the side of the road. The problem? Riggs says her neighbor neglected to put a certain part on a bolt of the wheels, setting off a chain reaction that caused the tires to lock up.

The car had to be towed, and Riggs ended up paying an additional $400 to have it fixed at a suburban Cincinnati auto shop.

While well-intentioned, many people forget that today’s cars are vastly more complicated than models made just years ago. Most are so computer-controlled that owners can’t spot problems without access to specific tools and data programs, said Dave Striegel, owner of Elizabeth AutoCare in Elizabeth, Pa.

Even jobs that were once simple, such as changing the oil, can take hours to complete now.

“They’re not able to do nearly the work that they used to do — it’s even going beyond the heads of a lot of technicians who aren’t keeping up-to-date,” Striegel said.

Cutting out the middleman

Even so, some car owners remain undeterred. On Yahoo, queries for the terms “car repairs” and “salvage auto parts” are up 77 percent and 99 percent respectively in just the past month, according to the site’s data.

Other car repair search terms remain at three-year highs, reflecting “a renewal of the good old American independent spirit,” said Vera Chan, a senior editor for the site.

The urge to cut out the middleman extends to even the wealthy, said Stephen Viscusi, a New York-based author and career consultant. “We feel the need to be frugal and save money,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean repairs come easily. Viscusi tried to change the oil on his Mercedes-Benz sedan — and wound up with it all over his face, a situation he likened to an episode of “I Love Lucy.” He also struck out replacing spark plugs on his BMW.

Tell the whole story

Auto shops say there’s an easy way to save money: Just be upfront about the repairs you’ve tried at home. Most do-it-yourselfers, perhaps out of sheer embarrassment, play coy when mechanics start asking questions about what went wrong with the car, said Paul Lambdin, owner of Cary Car Care in Cary, N.C.

“Rather than saving themselves time and money by telling us the whole story, they’ll just say, ‘This doesn’t seem to be working,’” he said, “without going into the details of what they’ve already done to destroy the whole mechanism.”

To piece together what went wrong, mechanics typically have to start asking questions, and lots of them, said Oakes, of the Fort Myers repair shop.

“It’s like, ‘What’s the real story?’” she said. “You play quiz master with them. ... You play the 20 question game and then it comes out.”

‘I can fix this’

People who try the at-home tinkering are usually out of work or low on cash, said Evan Brodof of Evan’s Auto Repair in suburban Cincinnati.

Many of them are men who work as contractors or handymen in another trade and think they can apply those skills to car repair, said Craig Douglas, owner of ASG Automotive in Indianapolis.

“It’s those people who have that mindset, “Hey I can fix this, I can fix that,”’ Douglas said. “Bob-the-Builder-type people.”

Musall, with the broken taillight, says she’s learned her lesson. Her husband won’t be laying his hands on the car anytime soon.

“It’s all fixed,” she said, “and he’s not going to do any more car repairs.”


skinny 8 years, 6 months ago

That's why you buy the shop manuals for your vehicle on ebay for a hundred or two and follow the step by step directions. The dealerships are outrageously high.

Chris Ogle 8 years, 6 months ago

If at first you don't succeed, just quit..... no sense making a damn fool of yourself.

maffupps 8 years, 6 months ago

How I wish I could have been there to watch that dude's Benz skeet oil all over his face.

kansasmutt 8 years, 6 months ago

Some people just should not use a tool and should stay away from a car. As a mechanic for over 35 years, i have seen things you could not imagine. 1 example. Drain the transmission and fill the engine oil.

Christine Pennewell Davis 8 years, 6 months ago

kansasmutt not sure about you but I have no idea who the heck on the planet is so dumb they put antifreeze in the engine. I have known a dumb dumb do the whole tranny fluid but anti freeze, dumb. Must not been a very good friend still charged 500 for the break job hope at least he had to buy the parts as well.

OldEnuf2BYurDad 8 years, 6 months ago

"A man must know his limitations" - either Josey Wales or Harry Calahan, I don't remember which.

Honestly, a car is so valuable. Opening and hood and guessing about what to do is just dumb. That Altima repair was probably just a matter of peeling back the felt apolstery in the trunk to get at the light. That's a lame solution: prying with a screwdriver.

gccs14r 8 years, 6 months ago

If the means of disassembly is not self-evident, a ham-fisted application of force is seldom the solution.

tolawdjk 8 years, 6 months ago

Yeah, I've got to think that even a 15 minute net search would have told you how to change that light on the Altima.

I can't think of too many repairs involving the exterior of a car that rely on "screwdriver" and "pry".

mrbig 8 years, 6 months ago

If you are reading this article and looking for ideas of how to get your car repaired inexpensively and correctly- go to this link on craigslist...

He uses a computer program, just like a shop, to give you an estimate that is usually 1/2 the cost of a regular shop.. who knows how much less than a dealership.

salad 8 years, 6 months ago

OldEnuf2BYurDad (Anonymous) says…

“A man must know his limitations” - either Josey Wales or Harry Calahan, I don't remember which.

"A man's gotta know his limitations..." -Dirty Harry

gphawk89 8 years, 6 months ago

Just get a "real" shop manual off ebay. I've purchased several Haynes and Chiltons over the years and not been impressed with any of them.

I do most of the repairs on my cars, even major repairs, by myself for several reasons: 1. It's a lot cheaper. Seems like labor costs are about 2/3 of the entire repair. 2. Repair shops (at least the ones around here) try to sell me "repairs" that the car obviously does not need. 3. Repair shops do shoddy work. I had a set of wheels balanced then almost lost a wheel on the highway because some idiot hand-snugged the lug nuts and didn't tighten them. I spend hours removing (in pieces) an oil filter that some idiot installed way too tightly. Ruined an engine because some idiot left my radiator cap off AND disconnected the temperature sensor.

The money you save by doing just a few repair jobs by yourself can get you a really good set of tools.

Christine Pennewell Davis 8 years, 6 months ago

I trust two people with my cars, hubby and danny.

Christine Pennewell Davis 8 years, 6 months ago

of course Danny Fox blue hubby name jim but not Dannys' Jim. 75x55 yep they try to sell you all sorts of things and tell you it is needed plug wire deal was probably just some punk kid who should not be in a shop.

Christine Pennewell Davis 8 years, 6 months ago

oh yeah 75 fs is real bad about stuff crooked as heck also.

Leslie Swearingen 8 years, 6 months ago

My daughter has a 98 Toyota and she does all the repairs, changes the oil, etc. I think she gets this from her father who did all the work on our car back in the day. I will never forget changing the spark plugs and adjusting the timing with several relatives standing around saying, now it's not my car, so I am not going to tell you what to do, but-

gontek 8 years, 6 months ago

I sold my camry when it needed new tires, timing belt, and a total of 2-3K in maintenance.

I bought a early 1970's chevy truck. It is really simple and I did all the work on it myself other than the alignment, I bought the parts at parts stores and for about 3K I have a reliable ride that I can work on myself, although it is loud and ugly. I also get about 9 mpg, but the way I drive a tank of gas lasts me a month.

I'm also not afraifd to bang on parts with a sledgehammer anymore, brute force is key in some repairs.

imastinker 8 years, 6 months ago

I took a car in for the first oil change I ever paid for a while ago. It was a 6000 mile trip, so I didn't want to wait until I got home. I dropped it off and went to eat across the street. They pulled it in immediately, and I got back after eating and reading a newspaper. I still waited for nearly an hour. They came out with this long checklist of items that needed fixed - that didn't need to be done. The air filter that was replaced with the engine 5000 miles before was "dirty" but they couldn't tell me why. The brake fluid needed flushed but they couldn't tell me how they determined this. The transmission fluid needed flushed even though it was just done. The radiator needed flushed even though the antifreeze was new there too.....

I'll keep changing my own oil - thannks!

It's actually a shame that mechanics are either too crooked or stupid to treat people right. The ones that aren't stupid charge $85/hr and mark up their parts 35% above list (and pay well below list). Then, they still charge for shop supplies.

gccs14r 8 years, 6 months ago

Auto shops are hurting because more people are doing their own maintenance to save money. I think you guys are right that this article is a scare tactic to keep more people from trying it themselves. Maybe if shops weren't crooked, incompetent, and expensive, people would be more inclined to keep using them.

mrbig 8 years, 6 months ago

I agree that this article is to scare you into not doing your own maintenance. But why would you go to a traditinoal shop?

Shops charge $85/hr+ and then buy the same part that you can go buy from Advanced or O'Reilly's and then mark it up 2-3 times, and then also charge you shop fees. The only reason places like Meineke give great deals on oil changes is so that they can get you in the door to tell you EVERYTHING that's wrong with your car.

Seriously- call this guy on craigslist if you don't want to do it but don't like shop prices either-

His prices are usually 1/2 what shops charge b/c he doesn't have any overhead. He charges somewhere around $40-50/hr in labor, and charges you what it would cost you to go buy the part yourself- or you can bring the part if you want. He doesn't try to screw you out of all your money either!

EX: A friend of mine went to Firestone right before their vacation b/c their A/C on their Ranger wasn't working- they told him he needed a condenser, etc and it would be around $2K. He called this guy, and it turned out to be a screw undid itself somewhere on the A/C. He put in a new screw, and told them to have a nice vacation--FREE.

jcomp98 8 years, 6 months ago

As a mechanic I would like to say thank you to the idiots who think this article is a scare tactic. Go ahead with repairs on your own, with no idea of what you are doing. Feel free to cause more problems and do more damage. We will fix it, bill you for your stupidity then send you off smiling the whole time. Leave the repairs to the qualified persons in a reputable shop. Do your homework before you take your vehicle to just any repair shop in town.

gccs14r 8 years, 6 months ago

Right. I've been doing auto repair since I could bend a wrench, which is over 30 years now. I let the dealer do it for a good long while when I got tired of it, but then I got screwed over good and hard a couple of times and went back to doing it myself. If it's out of warranty, I'm the one doing the work, not some R&R monkey who doesn't know how to follow a logical diagnostic procedure.

verity 8 years, 6 months ago

Some people are good at fixing things, but that doesn't mean that everybody is or can learn. Some of us just don't have that ability.

Kudos to all you do-it-yourselfers. I admire and envy you. My own experience has been that it's a lot less expensive and time consuming for me to hire a professional for almost anything than to try to do it myself or to have a friendly and helpful neighbor or friend do it.

I do have a talent for breaking that which weren't broken while trying to fix that which is broken. And I have neighbors and friends who I will never let touch anything I own again.

kmat 8 years, 6 months ago

I have an Altima and replacing the tail lights is easy. The front headlights are a real pain in the ....

A great shop you can trust in town is Fred's in N. Lawrence. They won't screw you around, have good rates and I personally know the staff. A bunch of great guys who have helped me out many times.

Anyone that takes their car to a shop to have the lights replaced needs their head checked. The bulbs are super cheap and the manual tells you how to do it. Even when it is something like the pain in the .... headlights on an Altima, it's still worth the time it will take you vs paying the shop to do it. The important thing is reading the manual to see how to do it correctly so you don't break anything.

verity 8 years, 6 months ago

Oh, I can pull it out all right---it's the replacing part I usually fail at. And then there are always those leftover pieces that don't fit anywhere.

Alexander Neighbors 8 years, 6 months ago

Should have called the dealership and asked how to remove it. Or went to google and searched how to remove tail light....... instead of prying it off........thats Lawrence for ya

pfunk81 8 years, 6 months ago

google usually has 90% of the answers you are looking for, at a mere fraction of the price.

Darth_Vader 8 years, 6 months ago

In my best NPR voice - This story has been underwritten by the Auto Repair Shops of Lawrence.

gccs14r 8 years, 6 months ago

Some folks apparently didn't notice that the taillight smasher is in Indiana.

jaywalker 8 years, 6 months ago

Yo! Mechanics:

I've done a lot of my own repairs, fairly handy and I've had some good teachers, like my grandfather who was a lifelong mechanic.

Now...I've got a Nissan Frontier Desert Runner, 'bout time for a tune up, and I was considering doing it myself. Will I need a timing light for that model? Any other advice?


Reuben Turner 8 years, 6 months ago

i had to learn the hard way myself. i had my dad fix my car and he was rigging it up. so when i finally took it to the dealership, they had to fix all the stuff he had done and then fix the problem. after that i vowed that i wouldn't go that route again.

notajayhawk 8 years, 6 months ago

blue73harley (Anonymous) says…

"jcomp - you may be a mechanic but you lack reading comprehension. It does NOT take a certified mechanic to replace a tail light bulb. Just a little common sense and an owners manual. How about changing a serpentine belt? Real difficult there, huh buddy? The point is you can do some basic maintenance and save some $."

Apparently it's you that missed the point of the article. Nobody is suggesting that a person with some mechanical aptitude can't change a tail light bulb. The point of the article is that not everyone has even the most rudimentary skills in that area - like for instance someone who would try to pry off a tail light lens with a screwdriver to change the bulb. That kind of person would likely use the same tactic to change the serpentine belt - probably with equally successful results.

Most people should avoid trying repairs that are any more involved that basic maintenance unless they've at least helped someone else do it before and understand the process. It's not a lot of fun when your engine is in pieces and you discover you need a manufacturer-specific special tool for that next step.

jcomp98 (Anonymous) says…

"As a mechanic I would like to say thank you to the idiots who think this article is a scare tactic. Go ahead with repairs on your own, with no idea of what you are doing. Feel free to cause more problems and do more damage. We will fix it, bill you for your stupidity then send you off smiling the whole time."

We had a sign up in our shop (you've probably seen it - or have one yourself):

Labor Rates

Standard rate - $28/hour (this was a while ago) If you watch - $38/hour If you help - $48/hour If you worked on it first - $98/hour

I do my own repairs when I still have the time and inclination to twist - but then I don't use the Chilton's book, I have AllData on this computer.

kansasmutt 8 years, 6 months ago

I must agree. A good honest tech is very hard to find. As a tech i have 35 years in and a following that is very large.90% of the people i meet can do basic stuff with no problems. The 9% even admit they shouldnt touch a wrench nor look into fixing something themselves. The 1% who try and dont have a clue are the ones who spend 10 times more to get a repair due to damage done while trying to fix something wrongly. The one i see most is the person who thinks he or she can change the brake pads. Brakes are pretty simple, but a vital parts of stop and go driving.Leave the brakes to a pro , or at least find a buddy who knows what they are doing. As for those who feel a labor rate is too high, i say this.You pay for what you get and if you think it is too high, think about what it cost to run a shop. Most shops clear less than 15% on the hourly rate. So if the rate is $100.00 hr the real profit is about $15.00 an hour in the black.One tech with schooling, ins , tax,s and so on can cost a shop $100,000.00 a year to keep them. It aint like it was back in 19dickety doo.

mrbig 8 years, 6 months ago

Kansasmutt- Too bad most of the shops in town don't give insurance to their techs... or they promise they will after so many days, then it turns into years, etc. Or what about the chop shops here in Lawrence that pay cash & give no insurance whatsoever, but still charge full price to the customer? I'm sure the profit margin for them is much greater- just like back in 19dicketydoo huh?

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