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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14 Responses to “Dealing With A Car Breakdown and Paying Rip Off Repair Shop Prices” 

  1. Always Private says:

    after reading your story and the rather obvious self suggestions to have autoclub membership... and a functioning cell phone..all I can say is DUH !!!

    You can get a tmobile prepaid cell and put $100 worth of minutes on it keep it in your glove box and by buying a few minutes more have it for emergency use for 2 YEARS

    with auto club service you could have had your car towed HOME thus getting you and your car safely where you needed to be... and then started shopping around for repairs .. maybe at an auto club recommended service center

  2. omBRE says:

    I had similar problem few weeks ago with my 2001 Civic. Only my car was drivable (alternator was overcharging). At the dealership they told me it would cost me $750 to change alternator, so I went to Sears and they did same thing for little bit under $400. With 7 years old car I decided that its time to stop visiting dealership.

  3. Raymond says:

    I debated about sending my car to some other place to get repaired, but I have a long time habit of trusting dealers more to get my car repaired reliably. I figure they have more to lose should they perform shoddy work or try to perform unnecessary scam-like repairs. I trust them more to use genuine, brand new, and authorized OEM parts to get the job done.

    Maybe it's time I changed my mindset. Do dealership service shops really provide higher quality repairs? I'm not so sure anymore - but it's hard to break that long held opinion/habit.

  4. Brian says:

    Get the AAA package, for peace of mind and lower costs, with that membership you can have them run dianogstics on your vehicle, and it is unbiased info that you can then take to your mechanic. AAA also has listing of recommended shops that they inspect, and you are generally given a card to mail in after services are render asking for input on the quality of the shop, which makes it consumer driven.

    Ask around friends, other Honda drivers and people in general that you come across to find a shop that works on nothing but Hondas, here in California there are many, and others who specilize in Toyota's.

  5. Amy says:

    Dealerships will always charge you outrageous prices for car repairs. They will also usually try to upsell you if you are in the waiting room. I would only take my car to a dealership if it were the only option. With dealerships you know you're going to get ripped off. If you go to a mom and pop place at least you have a chance of getting fair pricing.

  6. Mrs. Accountability says:

    I'm no auto mechanic, but I've had cars long enough that the first thing I thought as I was reading was your alternator had gone bad. You know some of these parts can be taken off and replaced VERY EASILY by oneself. :-) I think owning a Chilton's and Hayne's repair books are worth their weight in gold. One time many years ago I had a battery go dead and went to an auto parts store to get a new one. One of the guys installed the battery for me, but he put it in backwards. He was beating the post onto the wrong side (I was alarmed and went in and told the manager but it was already too late by the time we got back outside). Well, it fried out my alternator and the manager of the store replaced my alternator while I waited, of course for free and he was probably praying the whole time that that wasn't the only thing that was fried. Anyway, my point is, the alternator is usually easy to get at, and once you have a few tools you can save yourself tons of money. I also keep AAA and pay for the premium service because I work 50 miles from my home and often am almost 100 miles from home. I also would not give up on my vehicle just because an alternator went out, but that's just me.

  7. Funny about Money says:

    Augh! Did this really happen to you?

    First, if I were you I'd want to know why a 2004 Honda, which is practically new, would crap out and require a $1,200 repair. Find out if Honda is having what is known as a "secret recall." You have to proactively ask the dealership about this--sometimes things go wrong that they don't announce publicly but they will fix if you know about it and ask for it.

    Second, the law of physics known as the First Rule of Road-Weary Drivers is "after your car is off the warranty, never, ever, EVER get repairs done at a dealership." Dealers are notorious for gouging on car repairs and maintenance. Find an honest, competent independent mechanic and build a relationship with him (or her!): get your oil changed there, and trot the car over to the shop for minor fixes. How do you find such a paragon? First, ask your friends and fellow churchgoers. Second, failing that, go to the PBS site of the radio program called Car Talk. They have a section where readers recommend local car repair mechanics. Or pony up a few bucks and join Angie's List, where consumers will tell you all about their car repair guys and every other trade & craft on the planet.

    Third, AAA is not the only outfit that will come tow your junk away, nor is it necessarily the best. Check with your car insuror to see if you can get towing insurance for a few extra bucks, which probably will be cheaper than AAA. Discount Tires used to have a towing service--if you buy your tires there, ask about it. If you live in the Southwest and have cell phone service through QWest, you can get towing service for an extra few cents a month. If you're superannuated, AARP has a towing service. These things are all over the place--ask around. AAA is pricey and you can wait upwards of an hour for their trucks to show up.

    Fourth, do not even THINK "leave your car there for some tow truck dude to haul off on his own." No, no, no, no, no.

    Twelve hundred freaking dollars sounds totally out of line. Go to a car mechanic's shop and ask if the piece of equipment the dorkuses put in there is really worth that much. If the answer is, as you suspect, that a new alternator & installation should cost somewhere between $300 and $600, raise hell and put a block under it. A very brief Google search brings up an alternator for 2003-05 Accords for $110; as Mrs. A. points out, replacing an alternator is not brain surgery. If you can confirm, with any degree of believability, that you were ripped off, call the manager of the dealership, complain to the corporate headquarters in writing, and if you don't get satisfaction real quick, complain to the the Better Business Bureau and your state attorney general's office.

    Next time, buy a Toyota. Though all of the above applies to all dealerships, you should at least have the satisfaction of not giving that particular covey of crooks your money.

  8. JoJo says:

    Its so sad that learning a lesson costs so much! A similar event happened to me just last week with my 1993 subaru legacy. OK. what do you expect for a 15 year old car, right? Well it is our local beater car and we love it so when it stopped running due to the alternator we wanted to fix it. The car would start up right away after jumping it so we figured we would jump it after returning from vacation. Of course when we came back to jump the car, it would stay on for a few minutes then die. Eventually it wouldnt even start. I dont have AAA and knew it would be very expensive to tow so what we did was take the old battery out in our driveway(it was gonna need replaced anyway) and put a new one in ourselves. After calling around was suprised to find out that our local sears had the battery for the cheapest price. Walmart was even more expensive. Put the battery in (my husband is NOT mechanically inclined so I will say ANYONE can do this) and jumped the car. Since it was a new battery it held the charge and we were able to get to our 5 mile destination without a stall out. Just saved 100 bucks on a tow truck doing that! Before vacation called a subaru dealer who wanted $380 dollars for the alternator but I remembered when my very first new car needed an alternator I went to this little shop who fixed it perfect and for a great price(as you see I am very cheap!) He didnt have the alternator that I needed but said to go down the road to Advanced Auto and buy the alternator myself, 118 dollars, then took it back to him. He put the alternator in 80 dollars for the labor, and I had my car in 2 hours! Far cry from 380 at subaru dealer (and it probably would have been there all day) and saved on the tow too! ( 50 dollars for battery) So I feel I got a good deal! It felt almost as good as hitting a sale at the local department store!
    It is time consuming but it really helps to call around to get prices and I always make a mental note of someone that did a good job since I dont have a regular auto mechanic. You need a car and they know that. So many places have very high unreasonable prices but when you are stressed and in need of a quick repair, certain buisnesses just feed off of your stress and your misfortune and take advantage of you. That is why it is so important to take a couple deep breaths, relax and think through what to do without doing something impulsively. Of course in your situation your stress was heightened by the fact that it was night.
    I agree that you should only go to the dealer if you are under warranty. I also agree with Mrs A that I probably could have saved the 80 dollars and got my husband to put it in but after the morning of replacing the battery I figured he used up ALL his mechanical abilities for the day!
    I was once told that parts and labor on foreign cars are always more expensive but I think that dealer was way out of line. Your car seems way too new to have such expensive problems. I never had a toyota or a Honda, and I know people who love them, but I will keep my 15 year old subaru! OH and get a AAA membership (or whatever auto club you prefer) I had one in the past but let it expire. Im getting it again just in case my car feels the need to act up again!

  9. SO LO says:

    K A R AUTO ON CHICAGO DR IN WYOMING MI . HE IS A RIP OFF HE CHARGED ME A ROTOR AND CAP PLUGS $520.00 NOW IS THAT A RIP OFF OR NOT. DO U THINK I CAN TAKE HIM TO COURT.

    OWNER NAME KIRT.
    KAR AUTOMOTIVEM INC

  10. Chris Janda says:

    I own an auto shop, we put an alt. on a 99 accord this week for $300+tax, I tow cars to my shop for $45.
    I want to write a book revealing the truth about car repair, mainly geared towards all the unneeded maintence, but also revealing our perspective and how to deal with us. Do you think this would be helpful?

  11. Raymond says:

    Chris,

    Most definitely! I have always wanted to know more about the marketing and sales ploys that professional car dealerships and amateur fix it shops implement to get ordinary consumers to grossly overpay for their car repair needs. The age-old car repair scam is something that needs to finally get exposed and brought to the mainstream public's conscience again!

  12. Chris Janda says:

    Money is wasted on excessive maintence and on unneeded parts, mainly at dealerships and national chains. At "independent" shops incompetence is your worst enemy. We independents have the most difficult job---fix everything--- There is a long and hard learing curve and you want to avoid paying for it.
    It is a complicated industry, I believe it would some effort on the part of the consumer to avoid over paying for car maintence and repair. Is the average person really willing to read a 200 page book, attempt to comperhend it, and take it to practice?

  13. jami davalos says:

    Wow it happens far to often, I consider myself pretty car smart, so when my check engine light came on my co-worker recommend I take my 04 Navi to his friends shop that he had just open up. I was told I needed a valve job it would be $1200.00 but because I was recommend the shop would do the job for $900.00 I took that as a complete job asked around about this kind of work and this was a good deal never disgussed parts on top of labor any how a month later and only 2 word conversations when I had to hunt someone down I was hit with a $1329.00 repair bill on top of the $ 500.00 down I already gave, yes my fault nothing in writing but that just shows how unprofessional this shop is too so come to find out only 2 valves on one side were replaced when asked what happen to the agreement the owner replied I have bills to pay I was also told by my co-worker there is a few cars at his shop that he has with people refusing to pay well thats where I am at besides telling them that I can not afford any extra work done and if was going to cost me more do not do the work I called the police couldn't do anything reported them to BBB nothing now it looks like I shouldn't even take them to court?? I just found it odd that this shop also has a car lot in AJ where my Navi is sittng I have no choice but to let my very expensive suv go. What to do big time lesson learned DON'T GO TO GQ AUTO REPIAR IN MESA.

  14. Berrys Auto Clinic says:

    Well, we're a Mom & Pop shop, Berry's Auto Clinic & Transmission (www.concordtransmissionrepair.com) and its just too bad we couldn't
    have helped - of course you would not have stopped in.
    I've been to every GM school that a previous employer could send me to (prior to starting my own business) and have worked on and rebuilt every part of a car to include building a race car from the ground up. (except for the chassis which won the Daytona 500 years ago)
    So no more broad generalizations, you just never know who you will run into at a Mom & Pop auto shop.

    PS. Most of the NASCAR guys around here bring their family cars to me for servicing.

    Sincerely,

    Dave Berry

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