7 Ways to Reduce Your Car Repair Costs

Throughout the years, I have spent way more money on car repairs than I should have. Because of my limited knowledge of how a car works, I surrender my credit card to the mechanic and pay whatever they charge. In the last few years, I have started thinking about what steps I can take to prevent myself from unnecessary repairs or being charged too much.

I’ve looked at other articles on the topic and they all seem lacking. They all boil down to keep records and do your homework. I kept records for years and they did me no good until I transferred them to a shareable format (more on that later). As for doing homework, I think the generic advice of calling around for a lower estimate is fine if your car is driveable and you know exactly what is wrong. Often that isn’t the case.

#1 Create a Car Repair Spreadsheet on Google Docs

I did an entire post on this. See Car Repair Spreadsheet – Why Didn’t I Think of This Earlier?

Having a folder stuffed full of maintenance records is useless to you when a mechanic is on the phone asking if it is OK to proceed on the XYZ repair. You want to quickly scan a spreadsheet to see if that repair was already done or something similar. Also mechanics often tackle the symptoms and not the underlying cause. Being able to quickly share a spreadsheet with everything ever done to your car can help them diagnose better. Doctors request full medical records to help. Show the same care with your auto.


Periodically review your spreadsheet. You can even add a tab for scheduled maintenance.

#2 Buy the Haynes Repair Manual for Your Car

You can go to Amazon right now and purchase the Haynes Repair Manual for your car. Even if you never open it, having it in your car is well worth the $20 you’ll spend. When I walk into an auto repair shop for the first time, I come in holding my Haynes Repair Manual. Inside that manual, I pull out a print version of the car repair spreadsheet. Without saying a word, I just set myself apart from 99% of all the customers who walk into the shop. I am less likely to receive a misdiagnosis or an inflated estimate.

The other reason you want the Haynes Manual is to help formulate questions. When the shop calls you up with their diagnosis, jot down a few notes and then tell them you will call them back in 15-30 minutes. That is enough time to read those pages and do a few searches online. You’ll be able to ask better questions. The Haynes Manual helps you learn more about your car. You’ll be aware of symptoms sooner and be able to address them before they become more expensive problems.

VW Golf, GTI, Jetta and Cabrio, 1999 Thru 2002, Gasoline and diesel engines (Haynes Repair Manuals) by Jay Storer

#3 Use the Word “Curious”

I first shared this trick in the post How to Deal With Comcast. It works for mechanics as well.

Customers often get irate at the auto repair shop. The bill is too high or the work is too slow. I’ve been a witness to many tense situations. Using the word “curious” even when you know the other party is wrong puts them into a problem solving mode and also provides a way for them to save face and change positions. Every interaction you have is a negotiation. You want to give the mechanic a path to win you over. Confrontation should be the very last resort.

I explain this in greater detail in You Missed the Point of My Comcast Post.

#4 Research Before You Need Work Done

I don’t have a primary care physician, but I have 3 mechanics on a short list that I have vetted. Depending upon where I am and the repair severity, I know who I will reach out to fix my car. Start your search with auto forums specific to your car. I own a VW diesel, so the greatest mechanic in my neighborhood is useless to me if the repair I need is specific to diesel engines and they don’t work on them.

Once you are outside any warranty period, I wouldn’t use the dealer for repairs unless you really trust them. They have an incentive not only to ring the register for repairs, but to get you to buy a new car. My experience is that mechanics that specialize in certain cars tend to do the best work. When I had a Civic, I used a garage that only only worked on Japanese cars. When I was in Ballard, I got amazing work done by a mechanic that specialized in diesel VWs. These mechanics get extremely good at the models they work on daily.

#5 Say the word YELP on the First Meeting

When I connected with my most recent mechanic, I volunteered that I picked his garage because I read a nice review from a fellow VW driver on YELP. At this point the mechanic doesn’t know if I also write reviews. I don’t, but he doesn’t need to know that.

#6 Get an OBD-II Scanner

When the check engine light comes on in my car, I pull out my OBD-II adapter and I know instantly what is wrong. Don’t waste your time and money taking the car into the mechanic every time the check engine light comes on. Scanners are cheap. The one I have is wireless and connects to my cell phone. Costs me less than $20. See the post When the Check Engine Light Comes On for more details.

VIMVIP ELM 327 Bluetooth Obdii Obd2 Diagnostic Scanner Scan Tool Check Engine Light CAR Code Reader
VIMVIP ELM 327 Bluetooth Obdii Obd2 Diagnostic Scanner Scan Tool Check Engine Light CAR Code Reader

#7 Use YouTube First

We live in wonderful times. There are some great mechanics making videos that walk you through basic repairs. I went from not knowing or doing anything for my car to replacing bulbs, the cabin air filter and even a fuel pump (with help from a neighbor). Watching these videos takes the mystery away from many repairs. Even if you don’t do the repair, you’ll be able to communicate better with your mechanic.

More Ideas?

Do you have another idea that you’ve used to reduce car repair costs? Drop a comment.


When the Check Engine Light Comes On

This post is a departure from my usual topics, but I think what I learned this week will be of value to those with limited knowledge of how a car works. This post could save you a few hundred dollars.

Wednesday evening the Check Engine light came on in my car. I’m the original owner of my 2001 VW Golf TDI and that light has never turned on before. Considering I just spent $1500 in car repairs, a slight panic came over me. Since I was a few blocks from my mechanic, I pulled in and inquired. He said as long as the Check Engine light wasn’t flashing, it wasn’t critical. He also invited me to come back later so he could hook it up to the computer to see what the problem was.

I didn’t like the idea of spending $85 just to learn what my engine was trying to tell me. So I did a little research and learned that cars have something called an OBD-II connector that is usually located under the steering wheel. With a reader you can purchase on Amazon, you can read the codes yourself and even reset the light. Since 1996, the codes that are thrown have been standardized across all car manufacturers, so I don’t need a special reader for my VW. Any OBD-II reader will work.

I stopped in my local auto supply place thinking I was going to buy an auto scanner, but I was fortunate to learn they will loan you one for free. I handed them my drivers license and a credit card and they handed me the scanner. I found the port under my steering wheel, plugged it in, turned the key without starting, waited 20 seconds and the code popped up on the reader. I returned the device and they handed me a printout for my code.

I learned that one of my glow plugs might be having an issue. Having just read Auto Repair For Dummies, I knew that glow plugs are used to generate heat when starting a diesel engine. Having a non-working glowplug might make starting the engine in the winter difficult. Thankfully it is June. No more panic. I now have the luxury of researching this problem more or doing comparison shopping with mechanics. I even found this detailed tutorial on TDI Club outlining how to fix this problem should my car knowledge and confidence grow before winter arrives.

Auto Repair For Dummies
Auto Repair For Dummies by Deanna Sclar

Readers, Laptops, Android Apps

The more I looked into this, the more interested I got. Not only does Amazon sell readers, but eBay sells adapters that allow you to connect your car to your laptop. And I just learned this morning, you can buy a Bluetooth OBD2 adapter to talk to a $5 Android app called Torque Pro. Real time data. 🙂

I’ll be ordering an OBD2 Bluetooth device this week. The next time the Check Engine comes on, I’ll know what is wrong the moment it happens.


Car Repair Spreadsheet – Why Didn’t I Think of This Earlier?

I recently got nailed with a $1500 car repair bill. The big ticket item was replacing an EGR Valve. Now I know very little about cars and tend to tune out when mechanics start getting technical, so I didn’t recognize that this was the third time that I had to have my EGR Valve replaced in the last 3 years.

Now I keep meticulous records on my beloved VW Golf TDI, which I’ve named Silver Surfer. By meticulous records, I mean that I have this bulging folder with every receipt going all the way back to September 2001 when I bought the car.

Clearly my system failed.

Even knowing nothing about cars, I should have caught that the same part was being replaced 3 times in such a short period. Something else was causing the part to fail. My thick folder of receipts from six different mechanics across two states was too cumbersome to be useful. So today I spent a few hours doing what I should have done years ago. I created a spreadsheet for every service call done to my car. I created it using the spreadsheet option on Google Drive, which is free.

Car repair Spreadsheet

After I created my auto spreadsheet, I chatted with my mechanic about Google Drive. Then I shared the sheet with them. Now he can see the what work has been done, when it was done and who did it. That is another diagnostic tool they can use the next time my car needs to be serviced. And because they know I’m tracking every action, they will be less likely to inflate the service requirements.

Even the act of creating this spreadsheet has made me more knowledgeable about cars. I was forced to look up a few items to increase my understanding before entering the data. I can now start intelligently being proactive about the needs of my car and not just blindly trusting the mechanic.

If you drive a car, I highly recommend that you create a quick spreadsheet for your car. You could save thousands. I would have.


My Car Battery and the Science of Good Luck

Last winter when I was spending a bunch of money on auto repairs, the mechanic advised me to also replace my battery. He gave me an estimate of $200 for a new battery installed. That sounded high, but when you own a diesel you expect everything to be a little higher. I decided to hold off on getting a battery. For the next few weeks I stopped off at different auto places to get quotes on a new battery. Every place I went didn’t have a battery in stock for my car.

My battery was only failing when the temperatures were very low, so I decided not to replace the battery right away. Throughout the spring, summer and early fall my battery ran like a champ. Then recently as the temperatures started dropping, I noticed it was struggling to start. So once again, I started the process of looking for a new battery at a good price.

Before I go through the chain of events of what happened next, let me tell you about the book I was reading during this time period.

The Luck Factor
The Luck Factor by Richard Wiseman

The Luck Factor is about the science of luck. The author has done numerous experiments on people who consider themselves lucky and those that consider themselves unlucky. A lot of luck is how we interpret and respond to a situation. “Lucky” and “unlucky” people will respond to similar situations differently, which affects the actions they take or don’t take, which affects the outcome. This was the section I was reading that Saturday morning:

Principle Four: Turn Bad Luck into Good

With that in mind, let me resume the car battery story.

My car battery would likely not last another month, so I went to a Walmart hoping to get a good price on a car battery. Plus they had free installation. A grizzled old Walmart mechanic looked under my hood for a good 30 seconds before asking me “Where is the battery?” and “Did you drive here with a battery?” I’m not kidding. Not a good sign. BAD LUCK. Then his side kick appeared and let me know they didn’t have a battery for my diesel. Now normally that would be BAD LUCK, but given that their mechanic couldn’t even locate where my car battery was, I left with a sign of relief. GOOD LUCK.

Then we had another week of warmer temperatures, so I waited until last Friday to resume my battery quest. I had thwarted the Car Battery Gods for too long. It was time to get a new one. When I went to start my car, it was dead. I had waited one day too long. BAD LUCK. Now I needed a jump. The day before I met one of my neighbors at Trader Joe’s. We had been neighbors for two years, but we never formally introduced ourselves until that day. Saturday morning I was able to get my newly met neighbor to provide me with a jump. GOOD LUCK.

Photo by Mohammed Alnaser

Unfortunately, my car battery was completely dead. It wouldn’t even take a jump. BAD LUCK. Now I would have to pay for a tow. I’d also have to cancel my Espresso Road Trip event to Tacoma scheduled for Sunday. When I cancelled, I got an email from a member volunteering to come over and help me get a new battery and assist with the install. GOOD LUCK.

We got an inexpensive battery at Sams Club that actually fits my car. He was a member. Unlike Costco which is a zoo on weekends, very few people shop at Sams Club in Seattle. There were no lines. GOOD LUCK. He also bought some tools to help with the install. When we got back to my car, I popped my hood and ran into the house to get some scissors to open the tool package.

When I returned to my car, my friend was chatting with a guy who we thought was changing a flat tire nearby. The guy looked at our tools and said they that we had purchased the wrong ones and that we needed metric tools. BAD LUCK. Then I looked into his car, which had tons of tools. I learned he wasn’t fixing a flat tire, he was a mobile mechanic. He had every tool under the sun in his car. I hired him on the spot to install my car battery. GOOD LUCK. He wanted $50. BAD LUCK. I countered with $20. He accepted. GOOD LUCK.

I thought installing a car battery was a simple task. Not for my car. I watched as this guy changed my battery. His hands moved like a surgeon. My friend and I later chatted that we only thought we could change the battery, but after watching him work, we knew finding him was a Godsend. And we only found him, because he parked directly in front of where my car had died the day before. AMAZING LUCK.

In the end, I spend $98 on the battery and $20 on the install. A sweet bargain. At every turn where there appeared to be BAD LUCK. I thought about the lessons from the Luck Factor.

Lucky people see the positive side of their bad luck.

When Walmart didn’t have my battery it was bad luck, until I met the incompetent mechanic that was going to install it. Then it was a blessing.

Lucky people do not dwell on their ill fortune.

Despite numerous setbacks, I kept my eyes focused on solving the problem without focusing on everything that had went wrong. The result was my car was up and running by Saturday afternoon and I was able to attend my Espresso Road Trip event the next day. There are some excellent lessons in the The Luck Factor, which I will cover in a future post.


Getting Hit By a Car

On Saturday evening I was walking across a street in Capitol Hill inside the pedestrian walkway. A large white SUV came up from the side street towards me. It appeared the car was slowing as there was a Stop sign. But it didn’t. By the time I realized the car was going to run the Stop sign, I was already in front of it. I straight-armed the car so it wouldn’t hit my legs and run me over.

White SUV

I was hit by a white SUV. It looked a lot like a Ford Excursion.

At that point the car stopped. I was stunned that I got hit, but I appeared to be OK. For some odd reason I didn’t get upset or even say anything to the driver. Maybe I’m getting too forgiving in my old age. So I just continued walking down the sidewalk. The driver didn’t check on me and kept going.

About an hour later my arm started to get numb and sore. A friend suggested that I might want to go to the Emergency Room to have it checked out. I thought about spending hours in the ER on a Saturday night, paying for X-Rays and getting a script for painkillers, but decided I wasn’t that hurt and my body was fully capable of healing itself.

I went home and applied an ice pack to my arm for 20 minutes. I also knew how helpful the bone broth was towards healing my back injury, so I sipped on a large mug of that magical elixir. Then I slept for 8 hours. When I woke up I was fine, except for a bruise on the base of my hand where I made contact with the SUV.

My friend that suggested the ER to me asked if I would go to the hospital if I were shot. My response to her was: that would depend on where the bullet hit. 🙂