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Dealing With A Car Breakdown and Paying Rip Off Repair Shop Prices

Published 6/10/08 (Modified 3/14/11)
By MoneyBlueBook

Well it was bound to happen and it finally did. My trusty 2004 silver Honda Accord that I purchased brand new during graduate school finally died on me. I think there are several valuable lessons to be learned here, and one of them is that nothing lasts forever. Particularly if it's a man made machine with moving parts susceptible to corrosion and wear and tear, the mechanical device is bound to break down sooner or later. No matter how reliable the vehicle brand, the quality of the materials or products used, or even how skilled the engineers that built the cars are, the fact of the matter is that cars, like all that is based on technology, inevitably wear down. But despite this inevitability, I'm still rather surprised that my car broke down so early on in its lifespan. My Honda Accord was only a 2004 model, with just 60,000 miles on it - the vast majority of the mileage accumulated through long distance interstate highway driving. I don't use it to commute to work so it's not like it was subjected to the rigors of stop and go driving, or exposed to the frequent acceleration and breaking style driving of bumper to bumper traffic. That's why I was so shocked when my car suddenly broke down this weekend.

Responding To A Sudden Car Breakdown and Engine Stoppage In the Middle Of The Night

For the last few days my car sounded sluggish and felt a tad underpowered whenever I stepped on the gas pedal, but I didn't pay it too much attention. I brushed it off as just some quirky engine performance issue - nothing to worry about, or so I thought. This weekend, while I was about 30 miles away from home, my car suddenly stopped running - the engine simply wouldn't start. At the time it happened I was waiting for my friend at a church parking lot with my car engine running when all of a sudden the engine stalled, much to my surprise and dismay. I futilely turned the engine key to get the engine started again but there was no response. The car radio dashboard lights flickered on and off a few times then went black with one last struggling gasp into darkness. Immediately my heart sank as I realized what had happened. The busted culprit - a broken alternator.

The same mechanical problem issue happened during my old college days with my old Toyota Corolla. Both times my engine was running normally when it suddenly shut down inexplicably for no apparent reason. Both times the cause of the system shut down was a blown alternator. The alternator is an engine component that converts fuel powered mechanical piston energy into electrical energy. It is the device that ensures that your car battery is continuously re-juiced and has sufficient power to keep your car running smoothly at all times. Without a proper and functional alternator to keep recharging the car battery while the car is in motion, electrical power would be drawn directly from the battery until it was completely sapped, at which point the car would immediately cease to operate.

Even though I could use my jumper cables hooked to my friend's engine to temporarily recharge my car battery to get it running again, the momentary charge would only be temporary. Relying on electricity drawn directly off my car battery without the benefit of continuous recharging by a working alternator, my vehicle would probably only be able to function for a few minutes before powering down. Driving on the open road at that point, even for a few minutes, could be exceedingly dangerous as it was unpredictable when the car engine would suddenly cease to function after the temporary charge.

Unfortunately at the time of my sudden engine breakdown, it was close to midnight - around 11 p.m. on a Saturday night, and it was pretty dark out. Tackling this unexpected and immediate transportation problem was going to be a major hassle, both personally and financially. It had been a while since my car had last broken down so I had to recall how to calmly respond to this dilemma. Thankfully for the moment at least however, my car was safe in the church parking lot, as it was situated in a proper parking spot with the engine running when it suddenly shut down. At least there was no danger of the vehicle's presence interfering with the flow of traffic or face immediate need to be towed to some other location. For the immediate future, I could leave my car parked where it was. Thankfully yet again, the night temperature was fairly warm and there was no danger of thunderstorms, rain, or anything that could hamper my recovery effort.

Since my car was in no immediate danger, the next step was to decide how to get the vehicle to the repair shop to get fixed. I had to find a way to get it towed to a nearby service center. Being unfamiliar with the immediate area I was in at the time and skeptical of random mom and pop repair shops, I decided I had to get it towed to a Honda car dealership, preferably one near my home. There was a Honda dealership and auto repair shop only a few miles away from where I was at the time, but who knows how long it could take the dealership to get the requisite auto parts and fix my vehicle. For convenience sake, I needed my car brought to a repair location closer to home that was also public transportation or Metro subway accessible.

Another problem was finding a reliable tow truck driver on the spur of the moment. I didn't have auto service membership through AAA or anything like that so I needed to find my own tow truck provider. I decided to dial 411 for general information and locate the local non-emergency phone line for the county police. After speaking to the county police over the phone, I secured the phone number for a recommended local tow truck company. Unfortunately, after calling up and speaking to the towing company, I learned that almost all local Honda dealerships chain up their front lots at night, preventing broken down cars that need repairs from entering their service parking lots. Until the morning at least, my car would have to remain at its present safe location. Fortunately at least, I wouldn't have to pay any immediate impounding fees or towing charges to get my dead in the water car off the road, or anything like that.

My Dealer Service Shop Experience and The Pain Of Paying Inflated Rip Off Prices For Car Repair

So the next morning I returned to my car and called the tow truck driver to show up with his flatbed and tow my broken car 35 miles back to my neighborhood Honda dealership. The price for towing certainly wasn't cheap. The cost for towing was a combination of $65 right off the bat for the initial vehicle hook up, and $2 for each mile driven. The final cost of towing came out to be $140. As much as I hate tow trucks in general, this particular driver was friendly and helpful. It certainly helped the trucker's credibility by the fact that his company was recommended by the county police and it also accepted credit card payments, as all reputable merchants should. In the past, I've encountered shady tow truckers that demanded cash payments only, even driving me to an ATM one time so I could withdraw the appropriate amount of cash for payment. This time, I felt slightly ripped off for having to pay so much, but considering the towing distance traveled and the rising cost of gasoline, it seemed somewhat reasonable.

However, after leaving my car with the Honda dealership for service evaluation and cost estimation, the rip off pricing began. I received a call the next day from the Honda dealership telling me that after looking under the hood, it was determined that I needed a new replacement alternator and car battery (as I had earlier surmised). The total cost for parts and labor - about $1,200 (almost as bad as the $1,000 speeding ticket I received nearly a year ago). I nearly fell out of my chair in disbelief when I heard the projected price quote. I had run my own Google search earlier to educate myself on auto part pricing, and my estimation for the price of a brand new factory alternator came out to around $200 - $300 at the maximum. The dealership was charging me a ridiculous $800 alone for what the service agent referred to as "a very expensive part". As for a typical car battery, a brand new car battery usually costs less than $75. For the cost of a new battery, the dealer was basically charging me more than double the normal retail price. Obviously I expressed my great displeasure at what I regarded as outrageously inflated rip off prices, but what could I do? I wasn't a car mechanic, I didn't have personal or referral connections with any reliable affordable car repair shops, nor did I know where else to get my car repaired reliably. Besides, having already spent $140 just for the towing alone, I wasn't too keen on paying another $100 or so to tow it somewhere else while I shopped around for better prices. So against my better frugal judgment, I grudgingly gave my consent, grumbling all the way.

Unfortunately, car repair shops are one of the greatest money making schemes around. The dealerships aren't exactly running scams because they usually do perform decent work, but the prices they get away with charging are completely outrageous. Dealerships receive a lot of service repair business because people such as myself tend to be leery about trusting unknown places for their car maintenance and service work. Because people who bring their broken down cars in for repair are often helpless folks like me, dealerships can and frequently do take great advantage of such desperation by charging like crazy for nearly every auto repair service and imposing greatly inflated prices for parts. If I had a cheaper alternative, I would certainly have taken it, but I didn't have another backup option. Because the alternator is a key component necessary for car performance, I ruled out the idea of getting the spare part from a local auto junk yard like I did with the auto glass repair of my previous vehicle.

A Few Things I Learned From My Car Break Down, Towing, and Auto Repair Experience:

  1. While I was somewhat upset at my car alternator suddenly dying on me, I'm extremely thankful that the component stopped working while the vehicle was situated in a parking lot, instead of somewhere along a busy highway during a heavy rainstorm or even during a snow storm in the middle of nowhere.
  2. After speaking to the tow truck driver, I learned that it's not always necessary that the driver of a vehicle show up to authorize the vehicle be towed to the dealer repair shop of his or her choice. Apparently, I could have simply phoned in the towing order and had my broken down vehicle towed to the requested dealership without the need to be actually present. Reputable car dealerships will usually gladly pre-pay tow truck drivers for bringing in broken down vehicles for repair as they get the opportunity to get a new customer like myself from whom they can rip off/make money off of. The pre-paid towing fee is usually recouped later on by tacking it onto the final service repair bill. Of course, the one downside of not being available to open the car door with your key is that instead of allowing the car to gently roll onto the tow truck ramp in neutral drive shift, the tow trucker will have to forcibly drag your parking braked car up the ramp with the towing crane.
  3. I need to find a reputable tow truck company in areas that I frequent. You never know when you'll need a tow truck to pull you out of a jam. However, it's important to beware and watch out for shady tow truck companies that refuse to accept credit card payment. They tend to be less trustworthy and prone to charging randomly assigned towing rates.
  4. I should seriously consider signing up for American Automobile Association (AAA) membership, at the very least for the peace of mind road side assistance they offer. The $50 charge for annual AAA membership to cover the cost of travel discount benefits and road side assistance protection is easily worth the price paid. If I can waste money on cable TV that I barely use, surely I can spare a few dollars on a road warrior service that will provide me free towing, free battery recharging, and free tire changing services as part of its annual membership package.
  5. I need to make friends with more auto repair shops and find a good and reliable local auto mechanic. I feel so ill informed when it comes to vehicle repair. I have friends who are police officers who can give me the genuine low down on the wheelings and dealings of the men in blue, but why don't I have any car mechanic friends?
  6. Honda's and Toyota's are not as reliable as I have long held them out to be. I'm starting to think that. Perhaps it's clever marketing by those companies or maybe it's simply my bad luck, but the Honda's and Toyota's I've had in the past have always broken down unexpectedly and prematurely. Aren't alternators supposed to last the life of the vehicle or at the very least for 100,000 miles? Why do they break down so easily? I don't get it.
  7. I definitely need to replace my cell phone battery to ensure that I always have a reliable phone on hand that can handle extended phone calls during such emergencies. For the last few months my phone battery has been slowly dying and refusing to hold a charge for longer than a few minutes of active talk time. Due to laziness, I failed to replace it timely since I was still able to plug the mobile phone into the electric socket and talk normally at home. However, during my recent car breakdown experience, I had great difficulty maintaining an extended conversation over my cell phone due to the phone powering down constantly only after a few minutes of talk time. Having a working cell phone with a fully functional cell phone battery is definitely a must have in emergency away-from-home situations.

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