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Article posted: 9/30/2012 5:00 AM

Tough to compare phone estimates of car repairs

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By Doug McAllister

Q. My car has not been riding quite right lately so I started researching what might be the cause. From my research it seems I might need to have the shocks and struts replaced.

Why is it when I call around for prices to replace the shocks and struts on my minivan the amounts vary so much from shop to shop? Then to add insult to injury, I can buy these parts dirt cheap on the Internet. If I can buy parts that cheap why can't the shop?

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A. First of all we need to begin at the beginning. That would be for me to encourage you to find a shop you can trust to take care of all your automotive needs, from oil changes to repairs. Once you have that trust relationship, you don't have to call around because your trusted shop will give you the best information and all of the possible options. This actually may be a good opportunity for you to find that shop.

I would encourage you to visit a few by actually driving over and meeting the folks. Ask them to drive your car and inspect it for you. See how you are treated and get a feel for the shop and how well it works. Is it clean and organized? Is the staff clean in uniform and professional? Are there signs for memberships to trade and community organizations, like the local chamber of commerce, the Better Business Bureau, the ASA (Automotive Service Association) and the ASE (National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence)?

There really is no way to know what is actually going on with your car without having a trained technician drive it and inspect it. Furthermore, to call shops and get prices on specific jobs really does not help you. Shop A might be giving you a price on the strut job with replacement mounting plates included and an alignment (which would be the correct way to do the job), while shop B may be just giving you a bare bones price. Which price is right?

You won't know until they inspect the car; Shop A might actually be a better value when all is said and done. I would submit that a shop that resists giving you a price over the phone and encourages you to bring the car in for an inspection and estimate is probably the shop you want to go to first.

Finally, how would you feel if the shop that encouraged you to bring the car in for inspection -- after all the phone calls and expensive price quotes -- found something very simple causing the problem and nothing at all close to what you feared?

Let me see if I can help you with your last question about buying parts. Buying parts and hiring a shop to provide you with a service are two very different transactions.

When you hire a shop to provide you with a service, the price they are giving you is all inclusive of the part, the labor, his cost of doing business and hopefully something called profit, which will allow him to cover a warranty on the part and labor in the event something goes wrong down the road. When you are purchasing just the part, that's it, that's all you get.

The business has also factored in the things mentioned above. Sometimes clients call and want to bring in their own parts. When you do this, you undermine the shop's ability to meet his cost of doing business by forcing the parts supplier's cost structure onto the shop's cost structure, which are two totally different animals.

I hope this was helpful and I can't encourage you enough to find a shop you trust and then trust your shop!

• Douglas Automotive is at 312 S. Hager Ave., Barrington, (847) 381-0454, and 123 Virginia Road, Crystal Lake, (815) 356-0440. For information, visit douglasautomotive.com. Send questions to underthehood@dailyherald.com.

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