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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.

One thought on “Why Do I Have An Expensive Car Repair If The Parts Are Cheap?

  1. Keeping in mind that parts and labor are separate costs is a solid piece of advice. A lot of people are shocked to see that labor can cost so much when parts are cheaper. You might be able to save a little bit of money by buying your own parts online too. Thanks for the awesome info to keep in mind!

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