Sunday, November 10, 2013

car talk

I had to take my car in for some maintenance earlier this week. (Not the suburban kid hauler, I already took that one in a few months ago, this time it was the car that I usually drive to work, a 2005 Toyota Camry that we bought used about four years ago and which has been remarkably reliable since, despite the fact that I rear-ended it squarely with another car the very next morning after finally getting my driver's license.) I had a flat back tire after rolling over some kind of screw, and while one would think that changing out a flat tire and putting on a spare would be the end of it, apparently I still had to take the car in to get a real tire on (the spare is not a real tire? Why?), replacing the spare in my trunk, and getting the wheels realigned.

This is exactly what I told the car people to do, but for some reason they took the liberty of hooking my car up to the FREE 27 POINT DIAGNOSTIC ROBOT (note: I did not ask for the robot) and shortly thereafter came into the waiting room with the lugubrious mien of someone about to inform me that my car had rectal cancer. Because apparently my car also had a (something something) leak, which was important because the (something) fed water to cool the engine (something something), not to mention that the (something) was missing four (somethings) requiring the whole works to be replaced, not to mention that steering (something) was totally jacked up and in sum, my car was destined to explode into a thousand fiery pieces unless I shelled out $3,500 to get all that stuff fixed.


Leave aside the fact that I just came in to get my tire changed. Also leave aside the fact that we bought this car used (though in excellent shape), so the total of the repairs proposed was more than a third of the price we paid for the car itself. Finally, apologies for the totally hackneyed "girls don't know nothing about cars" routine that I am personifying here--lots of ladies know a lot of stuff about cars, including how to change their own flat tires, but please forgive my stereotypical hand-fluttering in the face of impending automotive maintenance because I really, really know nothing about cars, INCLUDING HOW TO DRIVE ONE until about four years ago.

The mechanic left me with the price quote in that I'll let you have a minute to compose yourself way, saying that if I wanted to get everything fixed I would probably need a loaner to drive home so he would go ahead and get that for me. (He then added, with a tone of infinite largesse, that the loaner would be provided to me free of charge.) After unfreezing myself, I went to chase after the guy, because given that I had detected absolutely no problems with the driving and reliability of the car aside from, you know, the flat tire for which I came in, so barring any immediate safety concerns I would at least like some time to look over the diagnostic report and get a quote from a second car repair company.

Ten minutes later, he returned with the loaner. I told him that I'd like to hold off on repairs until we could get a second opinion. He looked at me for a beat, then called to the back workshop, where I assume my car was being fed through an MRI. "Yeah, the customer wants to hold off on the repairs. Uh huh. Oh. Really? Wow. Did you already...oh. OK." He turned to me. "They already started working on it. They took the water pump off the (something something) already."

"Already? Can know, put it back?" More phone conferrals. The mechanic then told me that they could indeed put it back, but that I was lucky because they hadn't taken the (something) off the (something) yet, because (something something) antifreeze everywhere!

"I would like my car back please."

Any hour later, it was returned to me, with the new tire, which was the only thing I wanted changed in the first place. The following morning, Joe took the car to a AAA down the street from us, where they hooked the car up to a FREE 36 POINT DIAGNOSTIC ROBOT--nine more points than the other robot!--and found very little wrong with the car at all. (Joe brought the service list and the quote from the first place so he would know what to ask them to check extra carefully.) They replaced some of the missing (something somethings--like some kind of a bolt) and swapped out another (something that was dirty), but in all the bill totalled $500, which, while still a lot for a car that I wasn't intending to have serviced at all, is a far cry from the $3,500 that I was originally quoted.

And now here's the question for you. How much of it was bad luck of the draw at that first car place, and how much of it do you think is the fact that I (know-nothing-about-cars lady) took the car in to the first place, and Joe (know-little-about-cars-but-looks-like-he-does man) took the car in to the second place? Unfortunate happenstance, opportunism, or a little of both?

(Aside re: the post title. I love NPR as much as the next PBS-pledge-drive-canvas-tote-lugging-to-the-farmer's-market liberal, but there are two shows that I could never, ever get behind despite the fact that everyone else loves them dearly. One is "Car Talk." Those braying Boston accents! Why not just sharpen a pencil in my ear? And the second is "A Prairie Home Companion." Not only is it aggressively folksy, but it actually isn't funny at all, and you get the sense that the people in the audience will just laugh at anything just to show each other how cultured and good-humored they are. Bah!)


  1. I also know nothing about cars, but I've had to bring mine in on occasion. I am always wary of car mechanics for EXACTLY the same reason why you are, and normally I make my husband bring the car in for that very reason. But then, last time he brought in my car, they told him we needed thousands of dollars in repairs, and he just had it done- so who knows, maybe they're pulling a fast one on him too. But then, I had to bring both of our cars in for inspections (at different times, a few months apart) and both passed with flying colors.

    So I have no idea what is going on- maybe my car did need thousands of dollars in repairs. I don't think they were going to let it pass inspection anyways- but hey, the car is 12 years old. It probably needed a little love. In the past, my husband has asked the mechanics to show him what was wrong, but if you don't know what you're looking at, I don't see how that would help. I wish that there was some magic way to just KNOW if these people are lying to you or not... but hey- maybe people feel that way about their physicians too!

    (Fortunately, I am a surgeon, so if I tell somebody they need their appendix out, they're usually happy that there's a solution to their abdominal pain...)

  2. I also know nothing about cars, but I've had to bring mine in on occasion. I am always wary of car mechanics for EXACTLY the same reason why you are, and normally I make my husband bring the car in for that very reason. But then, last time he brought in my car, they told him we needed thousands of dollars in repairs, and he just had it done- so who knows, maybe they're pulling a fast one on him too. But then, I had to bring both of our cars in for inspections (at different times, a few months apart) and both passed with flying colors.

    So I have no idea what is going on- maybe my car did need thousands of dollars in repairs. I don't think they were going to let it pass inspection anyways- but hey, the car is 12 years old. It probably needed a little love. In the past, my husband has asked the mechanics to show him what was wrong, but if you don't know what you're looking at, I don't see how that would help. I wish that there was some magic way to just KNOW if these people are lying to you or not... but hey- maybe people feel that way about their physicians too!

    (Fortunately, I am a surgeon, so if I tell somebody they need their appendix out, they're usually happy that there's a solution to their abdominal pain...)

  3. Okay, please know that I have done my breathing exercises, counted to 10, gone outside to look up at the sky and appreciate the insignificance our trials and trivialities, and come back down to earth to hammer out the most toned down response I could possibly modulate without breaking the keys off this tired (but very trusty) old laptop.

    Michelle, I adore you, but you are what the previous generation would call "a mark". Half of running any successful business involving cars is smelling people like you (er, us?) a mile away. While I admire your generous optimism and willingness to believe that perhaps this was just bad luck, or random robot badness, I must de-lurk myself to diminish your faith in fellow human beings by just one more increment.

    Most repair shops rip people off. Especially women people. Intentionally. Like, as a business model. It's not a tired old stereotype. They really *do* still work that way. This goes double in The South. Raise this to any exponent for people on whom they detect eau d' Car Ignorance.

    That they tried to screw you is, sadly, normal. That they began work without your authorization is potentially actionable, and perhaps cause for concern. If you haven't already done so, it might be a good idea to have the AAA people look at the parts that the first place dismantled to make sure that everything was put back together correctly. I have quite a few car people in my life, and some of the stories they've told about other shops would toast your earballs right off yer head.

    Much as it pains me to concede that you (maybe) needed rescuing, I'm glad Joe was able to bring it in to AAA. I've been super lucky to have car people around to take care of my stuff in the front driveway. During the few times I've had no choice but to hire a shop, I learned real fast that putting on the Bitchface and using the Dad Voice are absolutely required if I want both my car and wallet to come home with me unscathed.

    I'd like to blame this all on The South, but I'm pretty sure that the car repair business is like this everywhere. The only thing that seems to have changed is that men and women are now equal opportunity marks.

    1. I agree - and I do know something about cars. However, I will get scammed if I bring in the car myself (it's happened, was an emergency, cost thousands of dollars (more than the car was worth) AND still didn't fix the problem). We usually use someone here in our small community that we know who depends on us for repeat business. You need to find someone reliable and stick with them.

  4. Anonymous2:51 PM

    It's you being female. I know a lot about cars and it is done to me all the time. I only take my car to one guy who I know will not annoy me with the you're a woman so you know nothing crap. The dealers are notorious for this because that's where they make the majority of their money and almost all of their profit.


  5. Anonymous4:33 PM

    I am female and because I drive a lot (40-50,000 miles/year) I have had to learn quite a lot about cars. Find a local mechanic you trust and give him all of your business. My mechanic knows my cars well and makes a pile of money maintaining them. He's good about keeping track of routine work so I can plan ahead and his prices are fair.

    Car Talk is one of the best radio programs ever and the hosts are brilliant. If you tuned in occasionally you might learn something.

  6. Anonymous5:26 PM

    There was a recent sensationalist undercover news program about this very issue. They discovered that (shocker), women are indeed taken advantage of by mechanics. I usually make my husband or dad at least call the mechanic if they can't be there to help me in person. Sad, but true. I would also be an easy mark. New cars are so computer-dependent that most people don't really understand what goes on under that hood.
    Also, I laughed out loud about your NPR comments. I find the Boston accents kind of charming (I'm from the Midwest), but I CAN NOT tolerate A Prairie Home Companion. Was that ever entertaining?

  7. Anonymous5:54 PM

    Performing any service on your car beyond what you specifically authorized (the tire) is not something a reputable shop would do.

  8. Michelle, You are a woman. I consider myself (gasp) a feminist, and I would NEVER EVER EVER EVER take the car to the mechanic having learned the hard way more than one time. We are targets. I am so proud of you that you stood your ground and took the car elsewhere to get it looked at.

    Joe may get screwed over too, but it's going to happen less often and ergo cost you less in the long run if he just handles the car stuff.

  9. Anonymous7:04 PM

    I've always wanted to listen to Car Talk. I've never ever wanted to hear A Prairie Home Companion. I'll never hear either, being deaf, but Car Talk has always sounded pretty interesting.

  10. I'm based in the UK and provide admin support for the regional Trading Standards department. I can assure you that the first garage was trying to scam you, probably because you were a woman and they thought they could browbeat you into accepting the repairs without question but also because they thought they could get away with it. I don't know if you have a US equivalent of Trading Standards, but that first garage needs reporting to someone.

  11. Oh my. I went in to get an oil change before going on a short road trip in January (and did that only because I needed washer fluid) and spend 150+ dollars on some sort of belt. Which was promptly wasted when I totaled the car 90 minutes later on icy roads. I was so mad and decided never to do spur of the moment repairs again. I know it was just 150 dollars but still!

  12. Anonymous8:12 PM

    If you're feeling ambitious, you could report them to your Consumer Protection Office. ( If they've received a pattern of complaints against the same repair shop, they may take action. You could also report to the Better Business Bureau, but that's not necessarily going to do anything.

  13. Everyone who is saying this was because you are female and look young and the rest of it - they are absolutely, totally right. I could give you horror stories of my own experiences - most of which happened because I decided not to heed the advice of my mechanic grandfather and car dealer mother.

    You *need* to file a report with the Better Business Bureau - what they did, taking the pump off without getting your signature? That's actually straight up illegal. It's like operating without a signed consent form.

    I would try to find a good, old fashioned mechanic, preferably one who has been in business for at least fifty years. I know it seems like the old guys would be more sexist and likely to overcharge you, but people don't stay in business doing that! The mechanic I had in college was the nicest guy for these things, and he was Jim Bob the Third...his granddad had serviced Model T's.

    I'm so sorry you had that experience.

  14. That was very ambitious of them to go for $3500 on a 9000 dollar car! God bless them. Maybe you would have been more gullible if they only "discovered" $1500 worth of work.

  15. Anonymous10:28 PM

    I also recommend reporting them to the Better Business Bureau. I have never had a mechanic start work on my car without my explicit approval first, even if they are recommending phony repairs. I am a proud, staunch, feminist, and I call my husband to ask about any "computer recommended repairs" before I agree to anything (as he somehow knows intuitively what is crap and what is necessary, I swear that information is engraved on the Y chromosome). I laughed out loud about your Prairie Home Companion comment, I cannot STAND that show and do NOT understand why it has persevered or why so many people love it.

  16. It's def. because you are a female! I'm a single female living in a city far from family. I routinely call my mechanic uncle any time I need something done to my car. He gives me a run down of what to say and ask for in these situations.

  17. Anonymous1:32 AM

    It's because the first company was trying to scam you :)

  18. Anonymous1:56 AM

    I think it is less the gender of the customer and more the ethics of the repair shop. At the dealership, there is always "upcoding", while my neighborhood auto repair shop reads the robot read of "cold start error" as a red herring that deserves nothing more than a reset button unless it happens again in a short period (and doesn't charge me more than my usual oil change and check).

  19. I think the scam was for a higher dollar figure and more blatant because you're a woman, but that a dishonest shop is dishonest for everybody. I don't think the fix is to ask a man, it's to find an honest shop.

    Ask friends/neighbors/staff for referrals. For an older car you really don't care whether it's a Toyota shop or not - you want an independent mechanic whose customers feel some loyalty. Fixing cars is not so hard that you need a specialist.

    Noticeable things about my good mechanic:
    - leaves blatant cosmetic problems unfixed, and sometimes undiagnosed
    - he has a taste for after-market and used parts
    - has a huge stream of real work, doesn't look for trouble
    - when he gives me free stuff, it's stuff I couldn't possibly not want, like wiper blades, or topping up my fluids
    - small stuff that doesn't have a parts cost comes for free
    - his yelp reviews are spectacular, with a lot of specifics about work that he explained didn't need to be done, and stuff he did for much less than expected
    - sometimes I talk him into more work than he first suggests - stuff like "well, if this battery is at the end of its life, how about you just swap it now, rather than having me need another jump-start in a few months"
    - he is meticulous about getting my approval before doing work - if he had to take things apart to find the problem, he will call me while my car is taken apart, and have me approve what he's going to do about it

  20. LOL Sounds like the anesthetic equivalent of using Precedex and Remifentanil when Morphine would suffice.

  21. I don't know about Joe's experience, but I am certain your experience was that mechanic trying to take advantage of you (a woman who knows nothing about cars) (as proclaimed by you, I'm not, like, calling you names or anything!) You were very smart not to let them make the repairs and to insist they give your car back. A good and fair mechanic can be hard to find. I won't repeat what Camilla wrote above, but that is my advice exactly. I have an honest mechanic, which sometimes means that things are fixed as they break (instead of the mechanic presenting me with a laundry list of thousands of dollars of things that are about to break/need to be replaced), but he's quick, he finds parts for cheap, and I don't feel taken advantage of. He's always always always busy, with a parking lot full of cars to be worked on, which also is an excellent sign.

  22. P.S. agreed that they should never start work on the car without having presented you with the estimate and gotten your approval to make the repairs. I would've punched that guy, or at least wanted to punch that guy.

  23. Gah. A Prairie Home Companion is just painful. I'm sure Garrison Keillor is a lovely person and all but his voice makes him sound like a total creeper pervert.

  24. NEVER, EVER, EVER let the mechanics at the tire shop fix your car, especially if it isn't broken. I kid you not they tell every female that walks in their door their car is in need of major repairs. And by the way, my brother just replaced the water pump on my car. We got it at Auto Zone for $8.45 and it took my brother 45 minutes to do it. Find a mechanic that you trust and if anyone tells you your car needs repairs tell them that you will take it to your mechanic. Having run a limousine service in Atlanta, I know several of them all over the city and will be happy to give you a recommendation if you'd like.

  25. Anonymous1:11 PM

    Such mistrust among the hens. Maybe it was not the mechanic attempting to scam the helpless female - the robot was the authority in this story. Perhaps, it is a faulty or aggressive diagnostic program rather than attempts to rob the women of all their gold coins. People here are so easy to play the role of victim and disregard that it could have been a simple case of computer error.

    1. You are deluded. That was clearly a scam. It happens all the time. The last time I had to replace a tire at a shop other than the one I normally use the guy told me that I couldn't use an S tire on my car. I had to have a T tire. When I looked him in the eye and told him that I never drive the car on a race track and if he wanted my business he would put the tire that I specified on my car. After that I told him not to hook it up to the diagnostic machine. He knew that I was not going to play.

  26. Absolutely agree it was due to being a woman. I used to despise having to deal with car repairs, until I found a reputable, honest mechanic that fixes what you need and tells you that "well, you could fix this too...but it can wait" and provides a price for what it would cost. Get a referral from someone you know. For a regular oil change I go the random Jiffy Lube or such and always, ALWAYS they say my car needs such and such and when I take it to my regular mechanic it's a false alarm. Sheisters I say!

  27. Anonymous6:54 PM

    On the other hand, my husband took our Subaru to the dealer for an oil change and they told him it needed over $3000 worth of work (head gasket). However, before they even got back to us with an estimate, a guy from the SALES department called to tell us he heard we had a lot of repair work needed and we should talk to him about a new car before putting the money into the old car. Ha! We took it to a local shop, they kept it for 3 days, ran every test they could and said they found nothing wrong with the head gasket. That's after we took the car to them specifically so they could do the repairs (for $1800), and they didn't want to take our money. That's the shop we go to from then on!

  28. Anonymous8:56 AM

    SIgh. I too have experienced all sorts of scam efforts and once actual (expensive and dangerous) fraud in the repair itself. Unfortunately, the laws in my state at least (Maryland) are so weak that even if you can prove the fraud/malfeasance, if the garage reimburses you, the case is considered closed and no report is filled with the consumer protection bureau. So they just pay off the 'squeaky wheels' and go on their merry way. There are reputable mechanics out there, and the commentators have good advice on that. I would not mess around with anything but a good mechanic--too much hassle and time consuming to go to Jiffy Lube or even the dealer once your warranty is expired. Ask around your kids school listservs and I'll bet you can find someone trustworthy. What a pain, huh! Doesn't it make you miss the subway...

  29. Anonymous12:14 PM

    Oh man....this is scary.

    I'd second the idea to find a good independent mechanic. I try to only do the dealer when I am under warranty. That can be hard when you only have 1 car and you depend on their rides to work or loaner cars.

  30. Anonymous1:04 PM

    Just as effective as a BBB claim--maybe even more effective---is to go online and post your story to a big reviews website such as Yelp or Google.

  31. Anonymous4:49 PM

    Update please. Although it would no doubt be an inconvenience, there is value in doing something to try to help prevent this from happening to others either through direct punishment or by establishing a record for the future.

  32. Anonymous7:04 PM

    Sadly, even when I am sitting at the dealership waiting for the vehicle service to be finished, I have had to institute a policy of "don't talk to me, call my husband". I have found this also works really well with plumbers and A/C repair people, even when I am home with them --"Call my husband!" I thought I was a feminist and independent, but I have been scammed too many times.

  33. Anonymous8:04 PM

    I drive Toyotas and they are remarkably reliable cars. Yet the local dealer, with whom I've traded for 15 years and have bought two cars from, tries that crap on me on a regular basis. And it has gotten worse. I'm convinced that during the lean years (before this summer, when car sales finally surged again), car dealers figured this was the way to make money ... rip people off on enormous repairs. Very frustrating. Sadly, I've seen them pull it on men and women. They hand you this elaborate report, like it's a grail and you should be grateful they are saving you from imminent death in an exploding car ... yet half the report is expensive fabrication. At times, "private" mechanics can be worse, with less accountability, so I take my chances with the dealer. But it's a no-win proposition. And it sucks.

  34. Constance12:06 AM


    The fact that you went into a shop to get your tire changed, along that you were a young looking Asian woman, probably had a lot to do with getting scammed. And yes, I agree with everyone that said you were getting scammed, not just a flukey diagnostic computer mistake.

    It sounds like after you got a flat tire, you (or Joe?) replaced it with the spare aka donut tire. You're right in that you shouldn't keep a donut tire on your car longer than necessary and should replace it with a new full size tire sooner rather than later. You can drive on a donut just fine around the city, but you don't want to go highway speeds on that thing. When you (now general you, not specific Michelle you) get a new tire, the shop has to put it on your rim, but there shouldn't be any issues in putting the new tire back on the car yourself. When I got a flat tire, I replaced it with the donut, took the flat (just by itself, not the entire car - I drove my boyfriend's) to a tire shop, bought a new tire and had them swap it out with the flat on the rim. Yes, a shop has to do a wheel alignment, but it's not a do-or-die type of maintenance and I put it off until I had to take the actual car into a shop for something unrelated.

    Basically, I hate that some repair shops will automatically look to take advantage of women on car related issues, so I deliberately learned as much as I could about cars so I wouldn't be so easy to prey. Incidentally, I learn a lot from listening to Car Talk. As a teen learning to drive, my dad made me learn how to change a flat on my own and how to change the oil before letting me get my license. It was mostly so I wouldn't throw money away (either having to call a tow truck or paying a premium to have someone change your oil), but also partly because he didn't think being a girl exempted me from knowing these things.

    Learning just a little about cars and how to do some basic things- even if it's the routine maintenance stuff - can save you a lot of money. Seriously.

  35. Ugh. I read this and then my car wouldn't start the next day. I hope I have better luck than you did!

  36. Anonymous5:48 PM

    Totally unrelated, but can we please have a post sometime soon regarding the difference you've noticed so far with raising Nina versus the boys? It must be such a great experience to raise a daughter and I would love to hear about it. She is SO adorable!

  37. Nina updates pleaseeeee!

  38. Anonymous9:04 PM

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  43. Ugh. I read this and then my car wouldn't start the next day. I hope I have better luck than you did!

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