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Dealing with car dealers on repairs and warranty work

by David Zatz. Use at your own risk.

The people who sell and service cars never seem to come up to the high standards of the cars themselves. Some dealers are sleazy and lie incessantly, others are honest and competent - seemingly within any brand, from Audi to Volvo. Here are some tips if your dealer falls into the first category - and a link to a central list of dealer lies for your amusement.

Separating the dealer from the company

Most customers do not often think about the fact that dealers are independently operated franchises, and that often, the automaker spends a great deal of time and money trying to get their dealers to be honest, helpful, and competent - to no avail. Part of that is because the automaker is also trying to squeeze every last penny out of their dealers, while cutting warranty costs as much as possible. The resulting price squeeze causes many dealers to cut corners on warranty work, and to try to convert low-margin warranty work into high-margin customer-paid work by pretending that the automaker will not pay for the repair.

In any case, if you are gauged by, say, a Volvo dealer, understand that the Volvo company did not gauge you - the dealer did. Likewise, if a dealer provides you with standard service intervals, look in your owner's manual and check it out. Most dealers seem to believe in servicing the car more frequently than needed - because they make gobs of money doing it! We've seen $400 tune-ups that would have cost $160 from the garage down the street, using $50 worth of parts. So beware.

Common scams: 3,000 mile oil changes when the factory recommends 6,000 or more; annual antifreeze changes when the factory recommends every 100,000; throttle body cleanings; early spark plug changes; “scheduled tuneups” on modern cars that have nothing to tune, where every drop of fluid costs $20 and no actual work is done.

Warranties

If you have a problem not covered by the normal warranty, see if it is covered by a Federally mandated warranty. Some of these go up to 100,000 miles, but dealers don't always admit that they exist. See your owner's manual for details - and if you don't have an owner's manual, borrow one for your model year.

Most makers sometimes authorizes repairs after the warranty is over, depending on the circumstances and the staffer's mood. While dealers can do this in some cases, few will take the risk.

Dealers may think something is not covered when it really is. This is often due to their own misunderstanding. Politely ask them if it would be covered under the emissions warranty (if applicable, e.g. if it is an emissions-related part).

You should 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. 

Resources

There are many resources for those who are having a dispute with a dealer or a car company. For some, you will have to wait until the end of this page, or visit our auto links sections. But since I think you should read the rest of this page, I'd appreciate your not going there now!

Ralph Nader's Center for Auto Safety, at (202) 328-7700, has information on hidden warranties, common problems, and a directory of lawyers who can handle auto fraud cases. The quality of the lawyers themselves is hard to judge - that doesn't mean we have received good or bad reports. A similar referral service is run by two lawyers in Boston, who head the National Association of Consumer Advocates (617-723-1239), but your chances of reaching CAS are higher.

Watch out in small claims or special civil court because many lawyers will be over-eager to settle, when you have a strong case. This is because it is easy to grab the quick buck and move on to the next case, and more trouble to actually sue. Of course you run the risk in court of losing and having to pay massive legal fees. In many states you can handle cases by yourself.

Used car guides are interesting but rarely too helpful, because they are often inaccurate or missing key information. Consumer Reports' statistical methods are questionable, and the others tend to be high on opinion. Consumers Guide's book has concise write-ups and details on resale value and some specs. Jack Gillis' Used Car Book is interesting, but some of its conclusions are questionable, and we don't find it worth the money. If you're serious about spending a real chunk of change for a used car, consider all sources, including mailing lists (which are usually more reliable than newsgroups).

When looking for used car prices, remember the difference between retail and wholesale. Kelly's Blue Book is the one most often used by car dealers; they buy at wholesale and sell at resale, and pocket a nice chunk of change, figure about $1,500, along the way. Sell privately if you can!

The Lemon-Aid Used Car Guide, by Phil Edmonston, has been recommended but we’re leery of some of what we see as oversimplifications and bias; that said, Phil is the founder of the Automobile Protection Association (APA), a former member of the Canadian Parliament, and Canada's best-known consumer advocate.

Choosing a dealer

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.

Buy from dealerships with good service departments. Avoid dealers with raucous ads on the radio where the announcer screams at you.

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

Note. Some people think dealers hire the best and the brightest. In fact, according to some research I've been reading, dealers have a terrible employee loyalty rate, and their mechanics may have low morale and little experience. Though there are many dealers who have excellent mechanics, with lots of experience and a desire to do the job right, many others do not. Don't assume that the dealer is always better than the garage across the street.

Prevention 

Get a copy of your complaint even if no problem is found by the service techs, so you can, later on, show that a problem existed earlier. That may convince the automaker to make good after the warranty ends, or increase a lemon law settlements.

If there is a "small accident," insist on seeing the damage in person and get everything in writing. Otherwise you have little protection against shoddy repairs and peeling paint. Take my word on this one!

Do not blindly believe anything your dealer tells you. Get everything in writing. Check questionable statements.

If you bring in your car, do not accept the "I don't hear it" or "They all do that" defense. Ask for a test drive with the manager or a mechanic. Be assertive without being aggressive or hostile.

Treat your dealership and service advisors well. They have a lot of discretion in providing extra service. If they like you, they may also give you a better mechanic.

Only use the recommended oil, brake fluid, and transmission fluid. There are no "universal" fluids.

If you get a bad dealer, be sure to fill out and return your survey (knowing that dealers see negative surveys!). See the note at the bottom of this page.

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:

  • stalling after a tune up
  • brake noises after a brake job
  • oil leak after oil change
  • transmission problems after transmission servicing or fluid change. (On any car, check the antifreeze and/or oil a few days after any change.)

Solutions:

  • find out what the problem was and fix it yourself or demand that the mechanic fix the car (may be risky).
  • ask for your money back
  • find another mechanic
  • report the incident to your Consumer Affairs Department, Attorney General, and/or the automaker (we generally ignore the BBB which tends to close complaints at the dealer’s request, since the dealer pays their dues and you don’t).

Many new cars cannot use 10W40 or 10W30 oil. 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.

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:

  • Try to resolve it through discussion with the service advisor.
  • If needed, ask to speak with the service manager.
  • The next step is to call the automaker, from a pay phone if you have to. Often, work suddenly becomes free or your car gets fixed days or weeks ahead of time.
  • If your dealer keeps fixing the same thing over and over again, get another dealer, or ask the service manager to escalate the problem (as mentioned earlier).
  • If your dealer treats you badly, lies to you, etc., get another dealer.
  • If you have a continuing problem, speak to the people at your zone office (in your owner's manual). Be polite but assertive. Do not threaten them. If they still don't fix the car, politely begin to negotiate.
  • If you are still having the same problem despite several attempts at repairs, read your lemon law guide (in your glove compartment). File an official lemon law complaint with your state if possible. This will get Toyota's attention and help your negotiation along, but chances are your problem is not serious enough to merit a legally imposed solution.

Important: File any lemon law complaints while you can! There is usually a time and mileage limit

  • You can also try going through the Customer Arbitration Board.
  • If all else fails, look through your Yellow Pages to find a lawyer *specializing* in lemon law problems. A good specialist lawyer will probably cheaply negotiate your way to a good settlement. If negotiation is not their first move, they are not the right lawyer. Negotiation yields better settlements than the courts, IMHO.
  • West's Causes of Action, Volume 11, contains tutorials and sample complaints for suing auto companies. Blashfield's Automobile Law contains information on car-related lawsuits. Nolo Press more information and publications.

Your chances of getting cash are slim. They will probably buy back your car, giving you credit towards another instead of cash. You will probably not get all of your money back (even as a credit). Most states impose a penalty on each mile of use before the first lemon-type complaint.

  • If all else fails, or if there is an emergency or a serious issue which cannot be resolved through normal channels, call the state department of consumer affairs immediately. If they are unresponsive, or if the dealer has done something truly offensive, call the state Attorney General's Office. Do not be afraid to call your Congressman; many will help out to get your vote. If the State helps you to get justice, think about it during the next election - would you rather have "no big government interference with business" or "customer protection?"

Why are there so many bad dealers?

Blame it on greed, the worship of the dollar and small business, our culture, the automotive world's culture, or poor local small claims courts (or policies that you cannot sue for damages in small claims court).

Zone officials are often too lenient on bad dealers, but let's be fair - they may not have all the power they need.

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