Don't be a product repair victim

By Features Consumer Reports

This is the first part in a two-part series on product repairs. This installment explains what you can do to reduce or prevent problems before authorizing a repair. Part two will discuss your rights and what you can do if, despite your best efforts, things go wrong.

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After a mechanic charges you hundreds of dollars for a new transmission for your car, you drive off only to find that your vehicle still has the same problem it had before you went to get it fixed. You pull over at the closest garage, which discovers that the real problem was simply a bad spark plug wire.

Whether it’s a broken refrigerator, television or any other product, you’ve probably been a repair victim due to a technician’s poor training, mistake, or outright fraud. Or maybe you found out later on that you paid too much.

So what can you do when repairs go wrong, and how can you prevent problems from occurring in the first place?

Start with research. When you first encounter a problem, contact the product manufacturer. The issue may be a common one for which the company has developed a fix, perhaps at no cost to you.

Also, search the Web using keywords that include the type of product that is broken and a short description of the problem. For example, you might type: “freezer stays cold but refrigerator is warm.” That alone might produce results that suggest what the problem is and how to diagnose it, as we found on Repairclinic.com.

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Try narrowing things down further by repeating the search using your make and model. You also can try posting the problem on a message board for your product. Some are frequented by pros and knowledgeable users.

If you’re mechanically inclined, you may find that you can do the work yourself using the many videos and other tutorials experts and amateurs have posted online. Or the information simply may help you anticipate what to expect from a technician and evaluate the diagnosis.

Find a pro. If you haven’t already established a relationship with a trustworthy repairer, ask people you know to recommend someone. Even then, be sure check out the company to make sure it's reliable. Here are some factors to consider.

  • Reputation. Look for a company report at the Better Business Bureau, and use a Web search with the company name and terms such as “reviews” and “complaints” to see what others are saying.
  • Licensing. Some states require the licensing or registration of some technicians, such as those who do car repairs, general home improvements; and electrical, plumbing, and heating equipment work. Check your state’s requirements, and verify the repairer has met them
  • Certification. Some types of repairers can obtain professional certifications indicating they have met industry standards. For example, car mechanics are certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. Appliance technicians may be recognized by the Professional Service Association. To find more certification programs, use a Web search with the type of repairer and “certification.” Don’t hesitate to ask a repair shop about the credentials of the technician who will be assigned to your repair, says Don Pierson, who heads the Certified Service Center program, which certifies electronics and appliance repair shops.
  • Manufacturer connections. You’ll probably have to use a dealer or and other factory-authorized repairer if the product still is covered by the manufacturer’s warranty or safety recall. Factory-authorized repair shops often have access to so-called technical service bulletins and other product-specific information that may not be available to nonauthorized repair shops. And they may be in a better position to negotiate with the manufacturer for a free out-of-warranty repair on your behalf. But factory-authorized shops may charge a premium.

Have a repair nightmare? Please tell us your story, which we may use in a future report. And for more repair advice, read: "Repair or Replace? Find Out When You Should Fix It and When You Should Nix It."  

Get a diagnosis. Ask in advance what the shop expects a diagnosis will entail and how much it's likely to cost, including a trip to your home, towing, or anything else that might apply. Provide as much detail about the problem as you can and describe any recent repairs you have made to the item (but never offer your own diagnosis). You may find that the diagnostic charge justifies buying a new product instead of repairing an old one. If the shop can’t tell you how much the diagnostic charge will be or if it seems unreasonable, check with other shops or ask for opinions on one or more online forums that focus on your product.

After obtaining a diagnosis, ask how sure the technician is that he has identified the cause of the problem and whether he’s guaranteeing that the repair will correct the issue. If he is, find out if he'll put it in writing, advises Dan Blinn, founder and managing partner of the Rocky Hill, Connecticut-based Consumer Law Group. If the repair doesn't fix the problem, a contract that contains such a guarantee may give you stronger legal rights than one that simply says the technician will replace a certain part or perform a specific service. If the technician seems unsure about his diagnosis, be careful, you may be dealing with a so-called parts replacer, a technician who begins replacing parts in hopes of stumbling on the problem, says John Nielsen, AAA’s managing director of automotive engineering and an ASE-certified automotive technician.

Decide whether to obtain a second opinion. A second opinion may be worth it if it’s a big-cost repair or your gut tells you that the diagnosis may be wrong. Of course you’ll likely have to pay the first shop’s diagnostic charge, as well as another one for the second shop. And second opinions sometimes are impractical, for instance if the first shop disassembled your transmission into a thousand pieces trying to figure out the problem.

Verify the price. Find out whether the price is fair by checking with competitors, use a web search, or ask on online forums for your product. If parts are involved, review prices online to verify the shop isn’t marking up the part unreasonably. But be sure you’re comparing the same parts. A technician may be basing his estimate on factory parts while you’re online quote may be for aftermarket ones. For car repairs, the website RepairPal provides price estimates.

Get a written estimate. Read the estimate carefully, checking the guarantee for parts and labor and any fine print. If the price is only an estimate, ask how much it can change. Be sure the work contains a clause requiring the shop to get your approval before exceeding the estimate. And never sign a blank work order. The estimate should specify the type of parts: New, used, genuine manufacturer replacement, or aftermarket.

Ask for the old parts. While you’re at it, tell the shop that you want to retain the old parts, if practical. That may reduce the likelihood of fraud or provide an extra incentive for the technician to make sure the part really is defective. Of course, some parts simply may be too big or bulky to keep, or the shop may have to return it to the part manufacturer for a credit. Some states require certain repairers to returned replaced parts, although you may have to make the request in writing.

Use a credit card. Use a credit card for any deposit and payment. That way, if the shop tries to pull a fast one, you can contest the charge with the credit card issuer.

—Anthony Giorgianni


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