How to prevent ‘the five o’clock surprise’
by Bob Cerullo
Aside from oil changes and state inspections, most people don’t plan for auto repairs. Generally they are surprised when their brakes squeak because the brake pads have worn thin or the engine won’t start because of an ignition or fuel failure.
Suddenly the car owner is faced with an expense he or she did not anticipate. And, because they need their cars and know little about how cars work, they often become confused and a little desperate. When purchasing automotive repairs it pays to have a clear head. Ask around among your friends and relatives for an automotive repair shop they have used and trust.
Unfortunately there are some auto technicians who are less than completely honest in the assessment of what is needed to repair a problem. With many others it is more of a failure to communicate with the car owners and explain fully what is involved before the work is completed. Often the problem is related to the car owner not really listening to what the technician is saying.
In the business they call it the “five o’clock surprise.” The five o’clock surprise occurs when a car owner has not asked for, or been given, an estimate for the cost of repairs. Often a car owner who is, for example, getting the brake pads replaced does not bother to ask what it will cost. Nor does the car owner ask to be called if anything more than the worn brake pads are needed. They make the mistake of saying to the technician something like, “I need my car so fix it up and please have it by this afternoon.”
If in the middle of replacing the brake pads, the technician finds a worn brake rotor or cracked brake hose, he may not be inclined to call to get permission for the additional work. The car owner may have assumed the brake job would cost what it did three years ago and has a certain figure in mind. If the car owner has not instructed the technician to the contrary, the technician would repair the car and have it ready that day. When the car is picked up, the car owner is surprised when presented with a bill much higher than he or she expected.
Here then is how to prevent the five o’ clock surprise.
(1) When you bring your car in for repairs, ask for an estimate before any work is performed. Discuss the diagnostic charge and make sure that price will leave your car in the same condition it was when you brought it into the shop.
(2) Provide telephone numbers to the technician and make yourself available should the tech need to discuss any additional work with you.
(3) If the work involves major repairs and will cost several hundred dollars, ask for a written estimate before any work is authorized. If, for example, the engine has to be partially disassembled to determine what the final cost will be: agree on a price should you decide to not proceed with the repairs.
(4) Ask that the old parts be returned to you when you pick up the car. Understand that remanufactured parts like alternator or starters carry a core charge and must be returned to the remanufacturer, so don’t insist they be returned unless you are willing to pay the core charge.
(5) Understand that the technician may not always know precisely how much work is involved and could easily find an additional problem he may not have anticipated. Ask for a best-case scenario price and a worst-case scenario price. For example, let’s say your car is blowing white steam vapor out of the tail pipe and the mechanic diagnoses the problem as a blown head gasket. He may be absolutely correct, but there is a possibility he will find a crack in the engine block once he has removed the cylinder heads. This would change the price drastically upward. Make sure you discuss the possibilities with your technician and agree that he will keep you advised and will discuss with you anything that will raise the price of his original estimate.
Certainly there are dishonest technicians around; however, generally the problems that occur are not dishonesty, but a failure to thoroughly discuss the work that is needed. There will be times when it is impossible for a technician to determine the cost of a repair until he has spent hours finding the problem. Set a limit as to how long he will spend and how much it will cost per hour for him to find that kind of problem. Make it clear you want to be notified if finding the problem exceeds a dollar limit you have set.
It has been my experience that car owners who feel they have been ripped off have often failed to explain to the technician how they feel about knowing what it will cost to repair their cars. Many people who have a great deal of faith in their technician will give him a carte blanche to repair what ever is needed. Others want to know exactly what they are getting involved with financially. They have a right to know what to expect, but they need to make that clear before any work is performed. Technicians sometimes fail to understand exactly how their customers feel about cost. It is easy to assume the technician is being unfair when you don’t understand much about cars. Often the best way to learn is to ask the technician to explain what he proposes to do and why. And, most importantly, how much will it cost.
Before you condemn a technician because you think he may have ripped you off, ask for an explanation. If you are convinced the technician is being dishonest, take your car elsewhere. There are lots of honest, hard-working technicians eager for your business.
Bob Cerullo, a certified master mechanic who lives in Deltaville, hosted his own auto show on ABC radio network, appeared on the David Letterman Show and numerous other TV shows, authored a book titled “What’s Wrong With My Car,” and writes for Motor Magazine and others.