Expensive Car Repair Bill? Don’t get Taken. Get a Second Opinion!

Everyone is familiar with the advice to always get a second opinion if you get bad news from a medical doctor. The same applies to car mechanics which is fitting since in a lot of way doctors are mechanics for the human body just like auto mechanics are for our vehicles. Recently I made very good use of this advice which saved me a few thousand in repairs. If you know how to repair your own car or it’s still under warranty, this article might not be of much value to you. But for everyone else I hope my saga of car repairs might give you a few tips and maybe even entertain you at the same time.

A few months back it was time for an oil change. My car had been having some issues and I decided to mention those at my oil change since it was due. My car is older but not an old car but it’s not under warranty. It has pretty low mileage for the year at a little over 100,000 miles and I have been very diligent about all recommended maintenance. At a certain age some things just start going wrong on cars but I’m very happy with my car and have no desire to buy a new one just for a few minor hiccups.

I am not really a “car guy.” I can’t repair them and am not really all that interested in them beyond doing their job and getting me reliably, comfortably, and safely from point A to B. But I am very good at research and doing due diligence and a quick study. Several years ago I used to own a DLP type Hitachi 55″ TV. It was a very expensive TV and broke right after the warranty expired. Don’t they always? A repair estimate was $900. I went online and found a forum where people had the same TV and issue I was having. I ordered a $45 part they suggested. It took four hours to remove all the guts of the TV and replace the part then reinstall everything, but it worked and I saved $855 and I had a working TV again. It still works to this day and that was six years ago. But cars are a whole lot more complicated and require tools I don’t even have.

I found a car forum and went into great detail on the symptoms I had experienced. They immediately said it was likely the alternator. Since I was due and oil change anyways I asked the Firestone in Macon to check. After close to four hours of waiting for my oil change, they finally told me my car was ready. They said the alternator was fine but they found other issues. My heart sank at that moment because you know instinctively it’s going to be expensive. Specifically they said my battery was dead and needed to be replaced. They also said my Tie Rod Ends on my wheels were bad. I had no clue what a Tie Rod End even was before they said mine were bad. They threw in a few other dubious recommendations and came up with an estimate of around $2,300 range with all the various repairs.

I am by nature a skeptic. They said the battery was urgent but the tie rods could wait a few weeks. When I went home I looked up the price of Moog tie rod ends they were only $22 a piece. This was a pretty labor intensive job though but I still couldn’t fathom how they came to $2,300 even with a new battery and the other small repair items suggested. My next step was to take it to the local Nissan Dealership. I had to get a factory airbag replaced from a recall anyway so I showed them the repair sheet from Firestone and asked them to confirm these issues.

After they had replaced my airbag and my car was ready. They said my battery was fine which I had suspected since it wasn’t that old and my issues weren’t consistent with a dying battery. They also said my tie rod ends were fine but it was actually my hub assembly on the right front wheel that was bad. Like Firestone they also said my alternator checked out fine even though all the symptoms pointed to it needing to be replaced. They gave me a quote higher than Firestone for replacing the hub assembly along with their own list of some non-essential suggestions thrown in.

voltmeter

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Undaunted I decided to take matters into my own hands. I first wanted to confirm that the voltage was off which would further confirm a bad alternator but didn’t own a voltmeter. I had already slow trickle charged my battery but it died after a few weeks but the battery itself seemed fine which is why I suspected a bad alternator. But I didn’t want to replace the alternator until I checked the volts.

The voltmeter took around a week to arrive but it wasn’t a real emergency at this point as I have another vehicle.  I advise everyone to buy one of these handy little devices because they really are extremely useful. Once it arrived I confirmed that it was registering way below what it should have been even on a fresh charge. I needed to do this to rule out some other electrical problems.

I then began calling around for alternator repairs. Most of the estimates were anywhere from $550 to as high as $1,000 at one place for parts and labor. What was worse is they only wanted to use refurbished parts which are basically rebuilt alternators that have gone bad. I went back to the car forum experts who had been right all along and they advised me to stay away from rebuilt and buy a new alternator.

After a lot of research and reading reviews I settled on the Quality-built 15844N Supreme for $112. This is the identical alternator Pep Boys and some others sell with a different name and model number for around $350. I also ordered a pair of the Dura International Hub Assembly Kit because I knew that would be my next repair though less urgent. Even though only the front right wheel was having problems these usually go bad together so it’s a good to do both wheels at once. I knew it was only a matter of time before the left one went bad as well.

The parts arrived so now I needed to get them installed. A brand new alternator only set me back $112 and the two hub assembly kits were $90 total with free shipping so my total cost so far was only $202. Most shops refuse to allow you to bring in your own parts because they want to make more money off of selling you parts at a highly inflated price. Inflated car parts are a big part of bills.  But I like to know the make and model of parts and will try and stick with new and quality name brands like Moog when possible. You have no idea what you are getting at shops.  In this case Moog wasn’t the best option for the parts I needed.

Disgusted at some of the inflated quotes from local shops I turned to Craigslist for a private mechanic.  I emailed and spoke by phone to several mechanics before I decided on one guy that seemed extremely knowledgeable. He gave me a quote of $100 and even better he was a mobile mechanic and would do the repairs at my house. A few days later he came over and replaced the alternator and it has been working beautifully ever since. It took him around two hours total though he wasn’t rushing.

I asked him about installing the hub assembly but that was a more difficult job because it requires a machine press for the bearings and he would need to get a shop to do that. I called all the places I could think of and finally settled on Express Oil on Forrest Hill Rd. based on online reviews and my conversation with them on the phone. They gave me a quote of $450 for both wheels with my parts which seemed about as reasonable a price I could find. They did a great job on the hub assembly installation so I was very pleased. My car drove much smoother on the way home. I hadn’t noticed the rattle until it was gone. I thought my troubles were finally over. They weren’t.

A few days later I turned on the car AC but only lukewarm air came out. The AC had been working fine before I had the hub assembly replaced so I called Express Oil up to let them know. They said I could bring it over and they would take a look. I wasn’t necessarily blaming them for causing my AC to suddenly not run but it did seem awfully coincidental. They had me open the hood and said my R134a was empty. They hooked it up to a machine and told me they were draining then filling it up with new refrigerant. The machine did it’s thing for around 15 minutes or so. After a while they then had me run it at 2500 RPM but it was still blowing hot air. They looked around more and went under the car and after a lot of poking and prodding gave me some bad news.

The supervisor I had dealt with for the hub assembly wasn’t there that day and instead a manager from their Log Cabin store was filling in and told me since the compressor wasn’t turning on this was the issue and gave me a $650 quote to repair my AC which would require a new compressor. They didn’t charge me for this diagnostic but strongly encouraged me to use them for the repair which I found off-putting.  Hard sell techniques have the opposite effect on me. I knew it was back to the forums for some more advice from people I could trust because they had no dog in the hunt financially.

They suggested I first confirm the R134a levels to make sure Express Oil really had filled it up because this was the likeliest problem. They also suggested I look at the main hose on top and  see if it was fully expanded or looked shrunk like it was compressed because of vacuum pressure. Is looked shrunk.

They then said the most likely possibilities were the refrigerant pressure switch, magnetic clutch on compressor and/or fuse, or  a bad compressor. Less likely possibilities were ambient temperature sensor, a/c relay, or a/c auto amp (dash control panel).  At least now I had some good solid info and knew the cost of the parts. I also had a list of cheaper options and parts to try before I replaced the compressor which is much more expensive.

To have someone take a look at your AC they charge around $75. Though they will apply that to the repair bill, I thought I would give the guy that replaced my alternator a call. Luckily he was free that day. I drove to his house and he quickly went to work. He immediately noticed and showed me an electrical connector to the compressor that had been disconnected somehow. He then ran some tests to check the  R134a levels and it was completely empty. I told him Express Oil was supposed to have filled that up when I had them look at it but he said because the tube was compressed that was unlikely. That suction only happens when the R134a is drained and a vacuum remains. He also said even with a leak it wouldn’t have been that empty that fast without a very big leak.

He suggested we buy a can of R134 with UV dye but without the leak sealer ingredient just in case there was a leak somewhere this would help nail down the location. After topping up my car with two cans of R134a and running in neutral around 2,000 RPM, a few minutes later cold air started blowing.

My compressor far from being broken as I had been told was fine and running like a champ. The only thing that was wrong apparently was a power connector to the compressor that had somehow been disconnected the private mechanic noticed 30 seconds after opening the hood that Express Oil had missed and it had no R134a. The R134a was around $20 and he charged me $65 for his labor for a total cost of $85 or a savings of $565 over the quote from Express Oil. That’s not chump change.

Lessons Learned

My advice if you have an out-of warranty car repair is to spend a little bit of time educating yourself on the problem and don’t take the first quote you hear at face value. Upselling and wrong or unnecessary repairs are not uncommon at car repair shops. Especially when they think you don’t know a lot about cars like me. They can spot a sucker a mile away.

Had I simply listened to the first repair estimate and had it done at Firestone I would have replaced a perfectly good battery and tie rods and the real issues of the hub assembly and alternator would still have needed to be repaired likely adding on thousands more to a final bill. I’m sure those problems would have been discovered once it was in their hands. The same applies with paying $650 for the quote I was given to replace the AC compressor at Express Oil. Getting some advice from forums and a second opinion saved me a lot of money.

All told I paid $85 for the AC, $212 for Alternator (parts and labor), and $540 for Hub Assembly (parts and labor). That works out to $837. That is a lot better than quotes that were around $3,000 for the same jobs.

I will say that I was very pleasantly surprised at both the speed and price of Raffield Tire-Master downtown on an oil change on a different car recently and will likely use them again. $25 with Castrol GTX and I was in and out of there in less than an hour. Fastest and among cheapest oil changes I have had in Middle Georgia so I will likely be using them again.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions either. Ask your friends or coworkers for recommendations of mechanics or shops they trust or would recommend. If you have a good mechanic or shop that you trust feel free to share it in the comments. Do you have your own car repair horror stories? Know a good mechanic or shop? Then let us know in comments or on Facebook.

 😀 Some suggestions from our Facebook readers for trusted shops and mechanics in Middle Georgia.

Harrison’s. 900 Old Clinton Road Macon, GA. Phone is 478-743-1594. Great and honest service.

Danny Hinton “Bernie Prince in Bolingbroke is outstanding.”

Tony Garrett Yancey Tire on Interstate Drive, good honest people with fair prices. They won’t tell you something needs to be replaced, unless it needs replacing.

Arthur Thompson I always use Wendell Adkins

 😡 Some suggestions from our Facebook readers of who NOT to Use

Alicia Grinsted I only have a recommendation for who NOT to use. And that’s Autotech of Macon. Considered filing a suit against them actually. Paid over $2500 to replace the motor. Over a MONTH of BS lies later, I was able to pick up my car. Which suddenly had transmission slippage, door locks/radio didn’t work, and within 2 days I had to replace the water pump BC they failed to put back in the support bolt. Hands down the worst people/business I have EVER dealt with!

Express Oil

Firestone Macon Eisenhower Pkwy.

Any Dealership if you are out of warranty. They are called “stealerships” for a reason.

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