Pump the brakes: Keeping up with auto maintenance is a must, overpaying isn't

Associated Press

The flashing light on your dashboard is telling you that it's time once again to give your car something more than a wax and TLC.

Maybe your car needs an oil change, or perhaps something more costly, like a tuneup. Either way, it's likely you could be doing more to ensure you're getting a good deal, whether it's at your car dealership or at your neighborhood mechanic.

Continue Reading Below

Consider that the price of the parts or fluids being replaced is just one factor, labor costs can vary from one repair shop to the next, and especially between independent mechanics and dealerships.

Consumer Reports' 2015 survey of auto repair satisfaction found that a majority of its subscriber respondents were more satisfied with the prices they were charged at an independent repair shop than at a new car dealership's service department.

"The hourly rate is often what makes the difference," said Jeff Bartlett, deputy editor of the cars division at Consumer Reports.

Several websites offer ways to shop around for the best deal. Here are four tips to consider before you take your car to get serviced:

1. KNOW YOUR OPTIONS

If your car is still under warranty, keeping up with the car's maintenance schedule is key, or you may risk invalidating the warranty.

That's one reason that many car owners reflexively turn to the service department at the dealership where they bought their car. And the dealership will document the visits and repair work automatically. It may also provide a loaner car if necessary.

Still, it pays to remember that you don't have to go to the dealership to have your car serviced. You just have to hold on to the paperwork when the time comes to make a claim on your warranty.

Beyond price, it's also worth considering that a dealership may be better qualified to tackle more complex repairs than a smaller repair shop that may not specialize on your car model. "You may pay more, but at the same time you're also paying for that expertise and the tools," Bartlett said, "and, these days, that includes a lot of computer hardware as well."

2. HEED THE OWNER'S MANUAL

Your car likely has sensors that warn you when it's due for maintenance. But you can also refer to the owner's manual. It will offer service recommendations based on mileage. This can come in handy the next time you're getting the car serviced and the mechanic recommends a few costly extra items.

To push back on such maintenance surprises, insist on a good explanation from the mechanic as to why a repair is needed. If it's a big-ticket item and you question it, go elsewhere and get a second opinion.

3. COMPARISON SHOP

Assessing where you can get the best deal and the best service is easier than ever thanks to websites that let users compare rates or host customer reviews of specific repair jobs.

AutoMD.com will let you estimate the cost of a variety of repairs and maintenance jobs, including changing the oil and replacing everything from oxygen sensors and drive belts to the engine mount on vehicles going back to 1980.

It boasts real-time estimates based on more than 400,000 accredited U.S. repair shops. The estimates include average labor costs, how long the repair should take and the cost of parts. AutoMD also provides an estimate of how much the repair would cost if owners opted to fix the car themselves.

"It is also important to understand what parts are being used when looking at comparative quotes as that pricing can make a huge difference," said Brian Hafer, vice president of marketing at AutoMD.com.

A recent search showed a range of prices to replace the oil and filter for a 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer. A local dealership charges $60 for the service. AutoMD's price quotes tool suggested the job should cost between $50 and $100 and provided price quotes from 25 repair shops within 10 miles of the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz.

A similar portal and mobile device app, RepairPal.com, provides repair estimates on vehicles going back to 1990, as well as rankings and reviews for repair shops. It also powers a car repair estimator tool on Consumer Reports' website.

For the same oil change, RepairPal came up with an estimate between $27 and $60.

4. CONSIDER TIRE SPECIALISTS

Comparing prices on tires is also a good strategy.

Wholesale tire sellers Tirerack.com and DiscountTireDirect.com are major sites that can provide pricing benchmarks for the specific tire you need. Just bring the prices to your local tire shop or mechanic and haggle for a matching price.

Be on the lookout for extra perks that you can get in lieu of a matching price, such as free lifetime tire rotation. That's can save you a lot over the life of your car.

Dealerships may have plenty of tires for your car, especially if it's a popular model, since they often buy in large volumes. But it still pays off to check the wholesale prices and haggle.