No matter how smart you are or how hard you try, you have the feeling you're get taken for a ride, don't you?
For decades, car shoppers had that sinking feeling in their stomachs when they approached the dealership. Even the coolest hostage negotiator felt squeezed by the grip of the car salesman, who either wrangled more money out of the buyer or handed him off to the finance manager for further cash extraction.
But the internet changed all that. Now you're able to research beyond the MSRP, finding the exact invoice pricing the dealer paid and even letting the various dealers work against each other as they try to email you their best offers. For new car shopping, the internet has been incredibly helpful to buyers.
The Next Frontier
But one aspect of the automotive experience still leaves people feeling uneasy: car repair. With an inability to know exactly what's wrong (and furthermore, without the proper computer and wires, the ineptitude to actually fix anything), haziness surrounds most transactions. Internal monologues travel from "$600 for a new alternator? Really?" to "I guess this guy knows more than me -- he's wearing a uniform and a nametag."
But finally it seems that the long arm of the internet is catching up with car repair. Now, if you have to get your car fixed, you have real knowledge with which to arm yourself.
Here are a few of our favorite ways to sort out car repair pricing so that you can get the edge, not the repair shop:
RepairPal launched just three years ago but has already had a significant impact on the car repair scene. The company provides a price estimator for parts and labor so that you know what's a good deal and what's not.
The 100 or so most common repairs are listed for every car going back for the last 20 years. What's great is that the prices are specific to your location (yep, that alternator that goes for $400 might actually run $600 in other parts of the country). Once you find the estimate for the repair you're looking for, you can see local shops and get reviews on the work they've done. Tech blog TechCrunch calls RepairPal the "Google Health For Cars."
If you want to take the info with you on the go, we recommend RepairPal's excellent mobile app. It's iPhone only at this point but the people at RepairPal tell us that a version for the Android is on the way.
If you don't know exactly what's wrong with your car, RepairPal's community will likely be able to answer your question. The website's Encyclopedia section is useful and comes packed with simple answers.
AutoMD is a little older than RepairPal (it started in 2004) but it's one we're continuing to keep our eyes on. The site offers repair estimates so buyers can get the inside scoop.
One interesting part about AutoMD is that it provides not only repair estimates for work done by a shop, but it also gives a pure parts estimate if you're a "shadetree" mechanic. Many common repairs also have how-to guides with photos to walk you through the process.
Because of its attractiveness to do-it-yourselfers, it was no surprise to us when AutoMD was acquired by online parts company US Auto Parts a little over a year ago.
AutoMD says that its data goes back to 1980, so if you have an older vehicle it might be a good place for you to start. Unlike RepairPal, however, you have to use the AutoMD site -- there's no mobile app at this point.
One of the best parts about AutoMD's experience is that they start with some very common language in order to help you diagnose your problem.
"If you're not sure what the problem is, start by describing the symptoms," the site reads, with everyday phrasing like "Ugh! It Won't Start" and "Hear -- I hear it (i.e. a rattle, a knock, or a squeal)." If you know specifically what you need fixed, it also offers clear direction on parts and labor pricing without the diagnostic steps.
DriverSide covers a little more ground than RepairPal and AutoMD, although it still provides valuable info in order for you in your battle against the car repair shop.
The site (there's no mobile app at this point, although our friends at DriverSide tell us they're working on them) focuses on your specific car, going all the way back to 1946. Once you register your vehicle, you can find a wealth of information, including recall notices, what accessories you might want to think about and tips on servicing. The site has become popular, especially in light of the recession.
"Our research shows that 82% of car owners are holding onto their cars longer due to the recession, while 41% of those surveyed don't do even the basic maintenance on their cars," said Jon Alain Guzik, Editor in Chief of DriverSide. "We think that 2009 was the year of maintenance – oil changes, tires, tune ups – while all these services have stayed steady in terms of price, we've been seeing a lot more of these types of service done."
One of the things we like a lot about DriverSide is that they have expert mechanics on the site (you'll note them by the badge next to their name), so if you ask specific questions about your car you will get an expert to provide his or her feedback. We've seen response times by mechanics as quickly as within the hour.
Whichever app or site you choose, the message is clear: now you have the ability to get the kind of pricing info on car repairs that was previously hidden. The transparency expected in new car shopping has been brought to bear in car repair and maintenance.