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Cart Before The Horse - - - Diagnose then repair, but for some it's "Fix what I tell you"

Cart Before The Horse

The phone rings at the repair shop, “How much to change the thermostat in my car?” the caller asks.

I can’t even begin to count how many times someone has called me and asked about the labor costs on a particular job. There are a few questions I’d like to ask before spouting out a number, but I usually hold those thoughts back a bit just to see where all this is leading too. My questions are:

1. Are you comparing a price from what the last shop quoted you?

2. Are you looking for a cheaper repair?

3. Are you just curious, or is calling repair shops for labor prices a recreational hobby of yours?

4. Are you guessing at what it needs, and the actual problem this car is having has never been properly diagnosed?

Nine chances out of ten, it’s number 4. This creates an even bigger problem for the repair shop. Now the question is should the repair shop give the quote as asked, or find out what the symptoms are and diagnose accordingly?


I’ve tried various different ways of handling these situations. None of which are a perfect answer. Sometimes I just look up the quote and move on, and sometimes I’ll ask if it has been previously tested by a qualified repair person. Sometimes, I’ve even asked, “What were you quoted before?” Each and every response I give generally tests my fortitude. What seems to be the norm is not if you’re qualified to perform the repair or have the right equipment to actually make the repair, but are you cheaper than the last guy who quoted the price. As far as getting to the real issue of what is wrong vs. taking that “swag” (Scientific Wild Ass Guess) approach, they seem to prefer their own diagnostic abilities. This only leads to more confusion, frustration, and disbelief in the auto repair person or shop when you question the reason for the quote.

It seems for some of these callers, their diagnostics consists of asking around, checking the internet, or asking a friend who’s a “mechanic” (we all know that guy) what is wrong with their car. They would rather take the word of someone who is not familiar with the car or the related problems, and change parts that probably don’t need changed rather than pay for any diagnostic time to find out what’s really wrong. But, you know after leaving the repair shop that provided them with the lowest bid for the repair… and their car still isn’t functioning the way they perceived it should, they almost always come up with their own conclusion (Again)... “Mechanics are all rip offs, and they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Self-diagnosing doesn’t work with the medical field, nor does it work in the automotive field. Sure, you might get it right once in a while, but the majority of the time the self-inflicted diagnosis is way off base. The big issue at the repair shop is how to get past this false diagnostics and get to the real problem, without having a major melt down of the customer/technician relationship.

The other day it was a father who came into the shop asking for prices on replacing a ball joint and shocks on his son’s truck. It didn’t seem too farfetched of a question based on the type of truck, the age, and the mileage. So, I shot him a few prices for the labor, which he then told me he would supply the parts himself (dad works for a parts supplier) . Fair enough, even though I would have liked to have known that before I priced out the job. But, no big deal, I still haven’t seen the truck, so all bets are off as to whether or not this is going to happen.

A few days later, just before closing, the phone rang and it’s the son calling about his truck. It turns out he doesn’t really know what his truck needs, and he’s been doing his own price shopping. He told me another shop quoted him a cheaper price than what I gave him, so he wants to know if I would lower my original estimate. Seriously, you want me to lower my labor costs based on the fact that - 1 - you don’t even know what’s really wrong with the truck, and - 2 - somebody quoted you lower prices? Let’s just say, I wasn’t all that hospitable. I told him it would be advisable to have it checked out first, then get estimates on what really needs done. After you know what work really needs done, then you can start your price shopping again. I told him the way he’s going about it I might as well give him estimates for every type of repair I can think of that I’ve ever done on that type of truck, and then let him pick which ones his wallet can handle. Because, it’s not worth it for me to play “his price vs. my price” without knowing what in the world actually needs done. Needless to say, I still haven’t seen the truck.

Putting the cart before the horse just doesn’t work in this day and age in the automotive world. To ask for a price quote is one thing, but to think your guess is correct is about as good as following the so called labor “guide” as the absolute answer to the cost of repairs. Here’s the deal, thinking that all it could be is a bad thermostat, and asking for a quote on replacing it just because there’s no heat in the car is as foolish a way of diagnosing a problem as putting on a blindfold and throwing a dart at a wall expecting to hit the right answer. There are so many different possible failures that can cause no heat in the passenger compartment that it’s absolutely idiotic to lump it all into a stuck open thermostat without having it tested first. The same thing applies with just about any other automotive repair these days. Aside from going out to the car one morning and finding a flat tire most everything else about the modern automobile requires some sort of evaluation, and not a mere guess or a peek under the hood.

I wonder if back in the day of horse and buggies whether or not the local blacksmith had these same issues to deal with. Even then, if the cart made it to the repair shop before the horse I’m sure some novice would have their own “swag” as to why it happened. Times have changed, the buggies have changed... but some people still put the proverbial cart before the horse.


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Gonzo, I love this article! This is a pet peeve of mine. I do not understand how people can be so ignorant. The general public seems that a new thermostat is a fix for any type of no heat/over heating type problem but my experience is 9 times out of ten it has nothing to do with a thermostat. People are sometimes amazed that something as simple as a new radiator cap and a gallon of coolant can fix a no heat problem.

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Frank, in the last decade or so, I'll bet I've only changed a couple of thermostats with actual failures. If I used a percentage of repairs per thermostat replacement... I'd say less than 2 percent actually needed a thermostat. That's 98 percent of the time their "guess" is wrong.

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No heat usually is something like this. About 70% of the time the coolant is low due to whatever reason. You fix that you fix the heat. 25% of the time the heater core is restricted or clogged. About 5% of the time it will be something like thermostat, water pump giving poor circulation, etc. When my tech comes to me and tells me that we need to just replace a thermostat to fix the heat I am usually surprised.

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A lot of people base their "home diagnostics" on old ideas of how a car works. And, if they just so happen to have one of those cars where it takes several hours to remove the thermostat you can bet there's some hot tempers going to surface.


Been there... dealt with it... so on and so on.

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This is perhaps the more frustrating thing we go through. It has gotten to a point where we stopped ALL pricing before we inspect and test the problem.


Just the other day a first time customer came to us asking for a price on pads and rotors. I asked him, "How do you know it needs pads and rotors?" He said, "Son, (he was younger than me by the way) I have been around cars my whole life, I can tell a brake squeal when I hear it." Well, it turned out he needed a belt, brakes were fine.


Just as you stated, I hate this merry-go-round-price game. Sadly, it will not end.


Oh, I knew a old blacksmith years back, if you asked him how much, he would show you his hammer and strike his anvil few times real hard. Could it be he had the right strategy?

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Those calls are always very difficult!

Most of the time its other shops that diagnose over the phone or give a quote over the phone, which hurt our industry, the most.

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