Dealing with car dealers on repairs and warranty work

Updated February 17, 2016

Some dealers are quite honest and well-intentioned; others lie and cheat — within any brand, from Audi to Volvo. Here are some tips if your dealer falls into the first category - and the list of dealer lies for your amusement.

Before we go on, though, let us set out two ground rules:

  1. The service guy is sometimes right, after all.
  2. Always be calm and courteous, even when you are not treated well.


Separating the dealer from the company

Nearly every car dealer is independently owned. Usually, if you are gouged by, say, a Volvo dealer, the Volvo company did not gouge you - the dealer, a separate company, did.

While automakers often spends a great deal of time and money trying to get their dealers to be honest, helpful, and competent, some push dealers to cut corners on warranty work, and some dealers try to make up for it by converting low-margin warranty work into high-margin customer-paid work by pretending that the automaker will not pay for the repair.


If you have a problem not covered by the normal warranty, see if it is covered by a Federal warranty. Some of these go up to 100,000 miles, but some “service advisors” don't admit (or know) that they exist. See your owner's manual for details (many automakers now post them on-line.) Dealers may think something is not covered when it really is; you can politely ask them if it would be covered under the emissions warranty (if applicable, e.g. if it is an emissions-related part).

Most automakers and many dealers sometimes authorize repairs after the warranty is over, depending on the circumstances and their mood.

Read your owner's manual thoroughly, particularly the warranty sections, before speaking with a dealer, so that you can calmly and politely say something like, "I thought the warranty covered spark plugs until the first recommended change interval. Would you mind if I checked the warranty in my glove compartment?"

If cases where the service person is sure something is not covered, ask if they would mind if you called the company to see if you could get an authorization for them. Make sure your attitude conveys the message that "I'm trying to help you to get paid for this by the company" rather than "I'm going to complain about your miserly tactics." Service people usually do not mind your calling the company if you say up front that you are doing it to get authorization for them. 

Service intervals

If a dealer tells you that it’s time for a service, look in your owner's manual and check it out. Many try to service the car more frequently than needed, and make huge profits doing it We've seen $800 tune-ups, done years ahead of schedule, using $50 worth of parts and less than an hour of labor. Many cars also now require oil changes as far apart as once a year, using a computer to tell you when to get service — GM and Chrysler tend to have these. So beware (and see our larger maintenance-scam page).

oil change


As for choosing the dealers, nothing beats the recommendation of a knowledgeable friend or acquaintance - except your own experience. The sales and service staff may be night and day in terms of quality and the "user experience," so never assume that a friendly salesman in front indicates friendly and competent mechanics in back (or vice versa).

Buy from dealerships with good service departments. Have your car serviced consistently at the same dealer, if you can, and buy from them if they excel. That said,

You do not have to have your car repaired by the dealer you bought it from.

There are many resources for those who are having a dispute with a dealer or a car company, including, for people who have lots of problems with a new car, lemon law replacement; each state's lemon law information is in your owner’s manual package.

In some small claims or special civil courts, judges and lawyers are over-eager for settlements, no matter how strong your case is, because they want to save time. If you pursue a claim, you run the risk in court of losing and having to pay massive legal fees, and if you are angry, you also run the risk of a contempt of court citation. In some cases, saying you still plan to have the case heard will get a much better settlement.

Used car guides are interesting but can be inaccurate or misleading. Consumer Reports' statistical methods are questionable, and the others tend to be high on opinion. Consider all sources, including Internet forums (though beware that people will generally only state negative opinions, there are paid “complainers” from competitors, and problems do get solved). The on-line TrueDelta service tends to be updated frequently and can be more detailed than any other source, for American and Canadian buyers.

Note. Research shows that some dealers have a terrible employee loyalty rate, and their mechanics may have low morale and little experience. Though many dealers do have excellent mechanics, don't assume that the dealer is always better than the garage across the street.


Contacting the automaker

See your owner's manual for addresses and phone numbers.

If you suspect your dealer has defrauded the company with false warranty claims, report it and ask them to let you know what happens.

Be polite and calm but assertive at all times. Do not take no for an answer but do not act angry or threaten them. This will make matters worse. They are often sensitive, defensive, and uninformed. If all else fails, call back and speak to someone else.

One key with out-of-warranty repairs is whether the problem existed during the warranty period! That's a good reason to get all your complaints acknowledged by the dealer in repair forms and to keep them (and keep 'em well-organized).

Never say bad things about your dealer or anyone else unless you absolutely must. Do not subject them to the anger caused by your dealer or their employees. This will only hurt your case!

It is easy to be pegged and written off as a "bad customer." Don't let them put you into the loony category.

Is the problem with your car or your dealer? 

If your car has lots of problems, your dealer or mechanic might be screwing it up when trying to find other problems.

If you have problems immediately after having your car serviced, it may have been the mechanic's fault. Examples:


Find out the oil you need from the manual and demand that they use it. You may need to ask them when they’re done — and have them drain and refill. Some dealers actually fill with the wrong fluids to save money.

Always use the recommended oil and trans fluid. Never take the oil change place's or the dealer's word for it. Look it up yourself.

When they can't find or fix it... 

When the service people cannot find problem, ask to take a drive with the mechanic or a service advisor. If they cannot solve it, ask the service advisor to escalate it; if they don't know the term, suggest trying new steps, such as requesting support from Toyota or checking the service bulletins. You can also call the Customer Center and ask them to provide technical assistance to the dealership.

Trying another dealer often works.

You may wish to bone up on the technical service bulletins, available from Alldata. Keep in mind that if you tell them you looked up the bulletin, you will likely be marked as a crank; but if you attribute the information to "a friend with the same car," you'll probably be OK. 

Step by Step 

Even if you are in an adversarial relationship, act in a friendly, nonthreatening, non-angry, non-adversarial manner -- but don't take “no” for an answer.

When you have a problem: