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Car Talk: Authorizing big repairs is essential

Dear Car Talk: I recently took my wife’s 2001 Honda Accord to my (independent) mechanic for a 180,000-mile “checkup.” I told him that I noticed an oil leak and asked if he could figure out the problem. I have been taking my wife’s car to him for years and didn’t ask for an estimate because the 30,000-mile service usually is between $200 and $300. Later in the day, I called him to check on the car, and he informed me that in addition to the 180,000-mile service (roughly $300) and fixing the oil leak ($100 – leaking oil-pressure sending unit), he found a faulty steering pump and replaced it; the total bill was $1,000. He never called me to inform me of any of this – no estimate whatsoever. I did not argue with him over the phone, and spoke to him (away from other customers) in his shop. I politely but firmly told him that his failure to ask for my authorization did not sit well with me. He said he “figured that I couldn’t replace the pump myself” (which is not true) and that he was doing me a favor. He admitted he was wrong and took $70 off the $1,000 bill. I am very conflicted about the whole thing. On the one hand, he has taken care of our cars for years and has occasionally done things without charging us. On the other hand, this isn’t the first time he has done work without getting my authorization. Should I continue to use him as a mechanic? Should I seek to recoup the cost of the repair, since he never got my authorization? – Jeff

A: Gee, I think this guy crossed the line, Jeff. We have lots of customers who drop off their cars and say, “Whatever it is, just fix it. Don’t even bother calling me.” But when we find something that’s going to cost $500 or $1,000, we call them, anyway.

That kind of bill is an unpleasant surprise for anyone, and we would rather that our customers go through their full five stages of grief before they pick up the car. We want them to have already arrived at “acceptance” by the time we run their credit card.

This guy should have called you. Whether you continue to use him as a mechanic is up to you. You say he has taken good care of your cars for years. But he did take a rather cavalier attitude toward spending your money this time. I’d look behind his shop and see if he has a boat parked back there. If he’s making payments on a Bayliner 642 Overnighter, it might be best to move on.

However, years of good service do count for something. And you say he has done other work for you over the years that he never got authorized. Presumably, you didn’t complain about those repairs, so maybe he assumed that was your arrangement.

But that was a bad assumption on his part. It’s fine for a $100 oil-pressure sending unit (which probably should have been $50, by the way). But when the bill is hundreds more than a customer is expecting, a mechanic really has to call and get approval. So he made a mistake.

If you do stay with him, he’ll have to earn back your trust. So the new era should start with a clarification: From now on, he’s to call you before he does anything. Even if you just need air in the tires.

Visit the Car Talk website at cartalk.com.