Comparison Shopping for Car Repairs

Last week, the dreaded check engine light came on while I was ten trafficky miles away from home. I think we all hate this light, because unlike the battery light or the oil light, we have no idea what it means. Is the car going to be damaged if I keep driving it, I wondered? I decided to take my chances and finished my drive home since the car wasn't making any odd noises or behaving strangely. That night, I ordered the an OBD-II code reader from Amazon for $65 so that the next time my engine light came on I would be able to at least partially diagnose the problem myself before dealing with the hassle and expense of visiting a mechanic. (By the way, OBD stands for on-board diagnostics, in case you were wondering.) But for the time being, I was stuck taking my car to the shop. For $50 I learned that I would need a new catalytic converter at a cost of $800 to $1000.

I'm not terribly knowledgeable about the cost of car parts and repairs, but for a repair that expensive, I wasn't just going to hand over my hard-earned money. I took the car to another mechanic for a second opinion. He confirmed the diagnosis, but gave me an estimate of only $700 for parts, labor, and taxes. Much better, but still no fun.

A friend mentioned that Hondas are notorious for having problems with catalytic converters (something mechanic #2 had also noted) and said that there might be an extended warranty for the part as a result. I called two dealerships who looked up my VIN and reported that there was an extended warranty, but my car was too old and had too many miles to qualify for it. I also called two other mechanics that had been recommended by friends and got price quotes of $700 and, finally, $660. In addition, I researched the price of a catalytic converter online and asked mechanics about options for getting a less expensive one (there are no good options for my situation, unfortunately).

I've also done some research on the problem, and I'm not convinced that the problem is actually the catalytic converter--I think it could be the second oxygen sensor. I'm going to take the car to the least expensive mechanic and tell him that I don't want a new cat unless it's absolutely necessary and to check the oxygen sensors first.

Moral of story? When dealing with expensive auto repairs, don't take the first mechanic's word for it. It never hurts to inquire about a manufacturer's extended warranty on the repair you need (if it's not routine), do a little internet research, and get a second, third, fourth, and fifth opinion.

Photo by salendron

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