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Dear Tom and Ray: About this "flat-rate book" business . . . has anyone ever seen it work in the customer's favor? I went to my local Saturn dealer yesterday and they did 3.4 hours of labor (according to the bill) in 1.5 hours (according to my watch). And no, they didn't have more than one guy working on my car. What's the deal?

-- Ed

Tom: Well, this guy at Saturn committed a capital offense. They teach us at "The Academy" never to return a customer's car in less than four hours, no matter what. Not even for a headlight adjustment. We're going to have to have a word with this guy down at the marina this weekend.

Ray: But the answer is no, Ed. We've almost never seen the flat-rate book work in the customer's favor. But it's not designed to work in the customer's favor. It's designed to help the shop set and defend a reasonably high price for a repair. It also helps them create "estimates" for certain jobs, since they know in advance what they're going to charge.

Tom: Right. But give it credit. It does help to equalize the rip-offs you experience across the country!

Ray: I'm sure that makes Ed feel a lot better. For those of you who are not familiar with the term, the "flat rate" or "book rate" is the average amount of time, as estimated by the manufacturer, that a given repair should take. So if the "book rate" for a radiator replacement on an '89 Ford Taurus is two hours, a shop that uses the book would charge you two hours of labor plus parts, no matter how long the repair actually took.

Tom: And to be fair, one thing most people don't know is that the flat rate also includes time for diagnosis. And that's entirely appropriate, in my opinion. A mechanic should be paid for the time he spends figuring out that you need a new radiator.

Ray: But despite that, the book rate almost always favors the repair shop. In more cases than not, an experienced mechanic can "beat the book" because he has done that particular job many times over. And what's wrong with that? That's his reward for being skilled and experienced.

Tom: On the other hand, there are times when the book time is inadequate. For example, in certain parts of the country, nuts and bolts sometimes rust in place and have to be drilled out in order to remove a broken part. In cases like that, a mechanic can easily need more time than is allotted.

Ray: But in many more cases, the opposite is true. Dealerships and repair shops often use the book rate as an incentive for their mechanics. If, for example, the book allows 3.4 hours for a repair, and the mechanic finishes in 1.5 hours, the mechanic earns a bonus. The dealership also "earns" a bonus because it gets paid for 3.4 hours of labor. So the dealer can do 16 hours worth of business in an eight-hour day! And everybody's happy . . . except you.

Tom: So you're right, Ed. It mostly does not work in your favor (and in fact, it's very unfair sometimes). But it's also the only standard measure that the industry has. And every industry has a similar rate guide. You're paying the "book rate" when you get your dishwasher or VCR repaired, whether you know it or not.

Ray: It may make you feel better just to think of the book rate as "the standard price," rather than as an accurate measure of the time spent working on your car. That didn't make you feel better? I didn't think so.

Write to Car Talk in care of The Buffalo News, P.O. Box100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. Tom and Ray can't answer your letter personally but will run the best letters in the column. Their radio show airs at 6 and 10 a.m. Saturday, and 5 p.m. Sunday, on WBFO (88.7).

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