Our most frugal car repair ever

I’ll tell you up front that this is not really about frugal car repairs as much as it is about relationships with the people who repair your car.  I also wrote it several years ago, and we no longer drive a big van.  In fact, currently, we drive nothing.  We walk or take a bike or cab if we need to go somewhere.

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We drive a big van, and every year at the start of the summer the air conditioning needs to be reserviced.  Now, we have lived without AC in a vehicle before, but not in these same conditions- large van (12 passenger, which we need for transporting the extra two little boys we have most days, The Equuschick and her baby on Sundays when her hubs is working as usual, and the little old lady in town from time to time).  The back windows are for looking out of, for not for letting air in.  The very back windows do not even open, it’s just a couple of glass portals in the wall of the van.  The middle windows open about two inches.  In humid midwestern summers it can get really, really sick-making hot back there.

So we pay about a hundred dollars or thereabouts and have the AC serviced.  For the first two years we had the van this was free to us because the van was under warranty.   We did not really like our mechanic.  He seemed shifty.  The van always had to be aired out when we got it back because he smoked in our vehicle.  But he was the nearest mechanic covered by the warranty.   The third year, when it was no longer under warranty, we took it in to be serviced in the spring, and  the mechanic said that our air conditioner was really broken, leaking everywhere and needed to be replaced.  It was going to cost a thousand dollars.

We did not have the money, so we saved, skimped, scraped, and saved some more, avoided afternoon driving whenever  possible, and went all summer without air conditioning.  Happily, it was a mild summer.  We kept on scrimping and saving, and the following season, by about late sprint, early summer, we had enough money to pay his price.  But we still did not like him much, and we decided that if the unit was as broken as he claimed, then it seemed likely he had been kicking the can down the road the previous summers while the vehicle was under warranty and not doing a good job with it, and he seemed sleazy.

So.. we took it to a different town to a mechanic we went to church with.  We had not gone there before because he wasn’t covered by our warranty, he was in another town 45 miles away, and he was slightly more expensive than the sleazy dude in our tiny hometown.

He kept the car a week, and came back and told us, “I hate to say that other guy was dishonest, but I have run every test I can, and I’ve done it over and over, and I cannot find a leak in your van AC.  It’s in great shape. You just need some Freon…”

So we’d saved up something like a thousand dollars for a repair that ended up being a tenth that.  Yes, he charged maybe five dollars more than the old mechanic had for the freon servicing, but you know what?  He saved us nearly 900 dollars.  The added inconvenience of taking a vehicle 45 miles away and the small extra bit he charges is completely worth it to us because we trust him and he does honest, good, work.

It seems to be a mantra of sorts with the crunchy frugalistas (which I rather flirt with being myself), to shop local, and we have tried that.  But one thing we have found is that in our small town of 5,000, 45 miles or more from anyplace bigger (it is the county seat), what this means is that many of the small, local, independent operators act like each time they do business with a customer it’s the last, they are never gonna see that customer again, so it’s not necessary to build a relationship, to gain a reputation for quality, honesty, or commitment.  They figure nobody has a choice, I think, because it is a small town in a forgotten pocket of America and 45 miles seems too far to go most people here.

It saves us money, aggravation, and even resources to skip these local monopolies and go the larger town for car repairs, and it’s totally worth it to us.  Now, this is our small town.  Not all of them are like that, thank-goodness.  But ask around, wherever you are, and get good word of mouth recommendations from several people.

In our case, we were blessed because our mechanic sits on the pew in front of us at church every Sunday.  If you don’t go to church, you could rely on word of mouth among friends.

What about you?  What areas have you found that having a relationship with person with whom you do business compensates for any added cost?    How do you find a mechanic you can trust?

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One Comment

  1. lAnon
    Posted May 3, 2017 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Many years ago we bought a small, used Mazda truck. Short time later it seemed to develop transmission issues. Took it to a dealer and he said the whole thing had to be replaced at a cost of several thousand dollars which as students, we didn’t have. We asked around for recommendations someone who might be cheaper. Took it to the recommended person. After checking it out, he told us it was a common problem involving a float that needed to be replaced. Cost us less than $75. Nearly 20 years later we still have that truck and have replaced that float two more times but have never had to replace the transmission. We don’t deal with dealerships much anymore. Last year took our van in for annual emissions and inspections required by our state at a local oil change place. Claimed our brakes needed to be replaced at a cost of $200. Called our local mechanic. He adjusted them for $50 and they passed inspection. I have a hard time trusting anyone when it comes to vehicle repair. Similarly son needed an annual physical for upcoming scout activity. Saw his pediatrician (who has seen him for the past 14 years). Looking at his back he said, I see slight scoliosis. We might want to order x-rays. The same Dr ordered X-rays and a MRI two months ago for something else! He didn’t even check his chart before doing this physical. How do I trust any of his future recommendations?

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