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Why Do I Have An Expensive Car Repair If The Parts Are Cheap?

One question we get often at “Ask My Car Guys” is “Why did I have such an expensive car repair? I found the part online and it is only $XX.XX, but the shop wants $XXX.XX to do the job?” And while it is easy to scream “THE SHOP IS RIPPING ME OFF!!” the explanation is quite simple: parts and labor are separate costs.

Take for example the lowly rear main crankshaft seal on your engine. The rear main seal’s job is to keep the oil inside the engine while allowing the crankshaft to rotate freely and send power to the transmission. The seal itself is usually less than $20 for most vehicles, but the labor involved is usually several hundred dollars. Why the disparity? Because in order to change the rear main seal on most vehicles the entire transmission must be removed from the vehicle. Now we are talking about needing a lift and special transmission jack just to get to a piece of molded rubber. Gaskets & seals are particularly bad offenders, as they are usually fairly cheap to buy but getting to them can be hours of labor. Speaking of labor…

Labor time is actually standardized across almost every repair. Mechanics use an industry standard to estimate the time that a competent mechanic should take to do a specific repair. The labor payment rate is up to each individual shop, but the time required for a repair will be fairly even across the board. This means that if a shop gives you an estimate of 2 hours do perform a job, the shop across town should give the same time estimate as well. The number of hours necessary should be about the same, but again, it is up to each shop to decide how much they charge per hour for that labor.

There is an exception to the estimation rule, and that is some mechanics can actually complete a repair faster than the standard estimated time. This is where being a skilled mechanic with the right tools pays off. The mechanic still deserves payment for the estimated repair time because they have invested their own money in training and specialty tools that make them highly skilled. The payoff for the customer is a repair that takes less time and gets you back on the road sooner. Some mechanics will pass the reduced labor time on to their customers, but that is solely at their discretion. Look at it this way, do you REALLY want the cheapest, least competent person fixing your car? Didn’t think so.

Let’s talk about part pricing for a minute. Most shops are able to give a “good, better, best” range of options for repair parts they install. Sure, you can go online and find a part cheaper, but that isn’t the same part that a shop is going to install in your car. Why doesn’t the shop want to sell you the cheapest part you ask? Because they don’t want to do the job twice. Shops don’t make money on a “come back” repair, they work with their suppliers to make sure they are installing dependable parts. If a part fails it isn’t the part manufacturer that looks bad, it’s the repair shop!

Just for fun, here are a few examples of common parts that fall into the expensive car repair “cheap to buy, expensive to install” category:

  • Intake manifold gasket
  • Starter (if mounted under the intake manifold)
  • Oil pump
  • Oil pan gasket
  • Clutch throwout bearing
  • Water pump
  • Heater core

There are far more, but those are ones we hear a lot at “Ask My Car Guys” central.

So before you fire off that angry Tweet or Yelp review following an expensive car repair, take a minute to think about how complex a modern car can be, and realize that paying to have a job done right isn’t a necessary evil, it is an investment in your safety and your vehicle’s future.

Photo courtesy of Morgue File.

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Broken Timing Belt – Is My Engine Dead?

The news from the mechanic was grim: our friend’s car had probably suffered a broken timing belt. The car quit while driving down the highway. One minute they were cruising along, then the next minute the engine had completely stopped and they were coasting (thank goodness it was an automatic transmission). After wrestling the now (un)powered steering car over to the curb a futile attempt was made to restart the vehicle. Eventually the battery was drained and a tow truck was called. Bummer.

To be fair, our friend only asked his mechanic for a quick diagnosis, which the mechanic did for free. Peeking behind the timing belt cover confirmed the worst: a broken timing belt. Now things were getting serious, which meant it was “Ask My Car Guys” time. After getting the year/make/model and engine specs of the car I quickly found that my friend may have been lucky, as this was a non-interference engine. But what does that mean?

In simplest terms the interference part has to do with whether or not the piston will strike a open valve as it reaches the top of the cylinder. A non-interference engine means that even if a valve is wide open as the piston goes by, it won’t touch it. Now for the bad part. An interference engine means that if a valve is open as the piston goes by, it will at minimum bend the valve, but at worst it will snap the valve head off and proceed to bang everything in the cylinder to pieces. Kind of like making egg salad with a jackhammer.

My friend’s car had a non-interference engine. When his timing belt broke the valves of the engine stopped opening and closing in sync with the movement of the pistons. The valves simply stopped wherever they were when the belt broke, making internal combustion impossible. But even as the engine coasted to a stop the pistons never touched the valves. The mechanic was able to install a new timing belt after rotating the camshaft pulley to its correct position (which had fallen out of sync after the old belt broke). With a new belt in place and the pulleys timed correctly the engine started up happily.

This time the story had a happy ending, but for many engines out there a snapped timing belt can mean complete disaster. Damage can range from a few bent valves (requires a new or rebuilt cylinder head) to complete destruction of the engine (pistons, cylinders, cylinder heads and more). Repairs costs can range between several hundred to several thousand dollars. Even just replacing a single cylinder head can incur a few hundred dollars in shop labor costs plus the cost of parts.

The key is preventative maintenance. Each manufacturer has a specific replacement interval for the timing belt (usually in miles). Always check your owners manual for specifics. It you are unsure of the number of miles on your current timing belt, it may be worth having it replaced regardless. This is especially important if you have an interference engine (see footnote), as a few hundred dollars in preventative maintenance may save you thousands later on, plus it buys you peace of mind knowing there isn’t a ticking time bomb under the hood.

Image courtesy of Flickr.


NOTE: So how do you know if you have an interference or non-interference engine? This site has one of the best lists I’ve seen. You will need to know your engine manufacturer and size.