Mechanics: Needed repairs or rip-offs?

Local 6 goes undercover to see if local mechanics are making fair repairs

ORLANDO, Fla. – Everyone knows what it's like to head to an auto repair shop and hope to avoid major, expensive repairs.

According to IHS Automotive, people are keeping cars for an average of 11.4 years. That means at some point, they're more likely to pay for serious repairs as the vehicles age.

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So Local 6 decided to go undercover to find out if once that happens, local mechanics are making the correct repairs and not ripping customers off.

First, we took an unmarked 2005 Ford Freestar down to Russell Automotive in Apopka to check it out and see what existing problems the vehicle had. The shop has been servicing Local 6 vehicles for years, and the mechanic said they know this van inside and out.

"We found a little bit low of a coolant system, just needs to be topped off," said mechanic Mike Haller. "We found a right front wheel speed sensor fail and we found a tag light out. Basically all the other servicing on the vehicle seems to be up to date. It's in pretty good shape."

"Is there anything major that's wrong with this vehicle?" asked Local 6 reporter Louis Bolden.

"No, we haven't found anything major at all," said Haller.

It does feel a little bit like you're going over a rumble strip when you hit about 50 miles an hour. Haller said that was likely a tune-up issue.

"(There are) no major faults with the engine or transmission," said Haller.

So we took the van undercover to see what other local mechanics would say about the problem.

First, our producer went to 1st Performance Automotive in Apopka. They took the van for a ride right away and brought it into the shop. Half an hour later, she paid $90 for a diagnostic. There were two estimates to fix the van. They said it needed three new engine mounts for $709.54 and either a new torque converter for $817.48 or a complete rebuild of the transmission for $2,462.50.

We tried again, this time with The Magic Mechanic in Orlando. About an hour later, we get the damage: no charge for the diagnostic, but they said both the engine mounts and transmission mounts needed replacing, to the tune of $1,113.49.

Now, we had two places mentioning the engine mounts, but Local 6 actually replaced all the mounts on the van back in March.

"That was about 3,000 miles prior to these other shops checking them out," said Haller. "We replaced all the transmission, engine and what are called torque struts in the engine, which keep the engine from shifting back and forth."

"Could the mounts have been damaged or broken in that time?" asked Bolden.

"No, not unless there's some type of vehicle accident which it hasn't been," said Haller.

Finally, we headed to Muffler Man in Apopka.

Mike Brigance took our producer for a ride, saying he wants to make sure they're on the same page with what she feels when she drives the car. Then, he recommended she try a transmission fluid to fix the shudder. He also called an auto parts store to find out exactly the brand name of the fluid to try and gave that information to her with the price: $13.84.

Our producer asked Brigance if the problem could be broken engine mounts, and he said he felt the engine mounts were not the problem and they would have caused a different symptom.

Louis Bolden visited the shop a few days later.

"You told our producer you didn't want to fix anything that wasn't broken, what did you mean by that?" asked Bolden.

"Well, I didn't see anything that was wrong with the car that needed her to spend money to do repairs," said Brigance. "Car didn't need anything. If you don't need something fixed, we don't want to charge you to fix it. That's how we do business."

If your car is broken, Haller said to keep in mind that it could be something as simple as a loose air hose. He disconnected the mass air flow boot on our van to show us, and right away, the car started sputtering and died. He said having that hose disconnected is pretty common, especially after the vehicle has been serviced.

"A lot of times people checking the air cleaner will loosen the hoses so they don't break them," said Haller. "Occasionally, they don't tighten the clamp back up and as the engine shifts, the hose will become disconnected. All you have to do is plug it in and clear the fault code and send them on their way."

Service manager Steve Alfieri said you should never tell a shop how much you have to spend.

"Worst thing to do," said Alfieri. "Some people take that to the extreme and spend $499 of your $500. You don't want to come in and say how much you've got in your pocket."

He also said it's best not to try to diagnose the problem yourself, just to leave it up to the professionals.

"The best thing to do when they're coming in and they don't know what the problem is is to just ask us to diagnose the car," said Alfieri. "Give us the symptoms we need, everything that's happened up to the problem. Don't try to tell us what the problem is -- that's what we're here to do. We'll help you with that."

He said otherwise, you could end up misleading the mechanic or sending them in the wrong direction, which could mean more time and money wasted.

Alfieri said if you want to be sure your mechanic is replacing what you discussed, make sure to check off the "save my parts" box and let them know to do it when you sign in.

"Just for inspection and your own knowledge that everything was changed that they said would be changed," said Alfieri. "Some people are just curious, they want to see what they're getting." 

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