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7 ways to keep car-maintenance costs down

You can avoid overpaying for routine work

Published: May 13, 2014 04:00 PM

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When it comes to performing regular maintenance on your car or truck, knowing a few tricks can save you hundreds of dollars.

To demonstrate, we recently priced 30,000-mile/36-month service on a staff member’s 2012 Toyota Prius Hybrid. (For many vehicles, 30,000 miles or 36 months is a common service interval. Some carmakers cover routine maintenance for a standard period, as Toyota does for the first two years or 25,000 miles, whichever comes first. But after that, the car owners pay the cost.) For the work listed in the car’s manual, a Toyota dealership quoted $249. But by the time we were done, we got the job down to just $85, a 66 percent savings. Here’s how we did it.

Never mention mileage-related service. As soon as you tell a repair shop that you want to do a standard 15,000- or 30,000-mile check, you’re asking for a big bill, even if an oil change is all you get. For 30,000-mile maintenance, the car-repair website RepairPal told us to expect to pay $169 to $247.

Narrow the work. Of the 20 procedures Toyota listed for the 30,000-mile check, most are instructions to inspect items, such as fluid levels, gas-cap gasket, and steering gearbox. Much of that a mechanic may not do anyway or you can do yourself. And you should expect shops to do routine inspections at no cost because they’re prospecting for work. Simply ask the shop to look over the vehicle and let you know whether anything needs to be done. Just make sure there’s no charge. (One Toyota dealer actually told us you could save money by forgoing the 30,000-mile check and simply bringing the vehicle in for an oil change and free 25-point inspection.) So we narrowed the maintenance to just three items: oil and oil-filter change, tire rotation, and cabin air-filter replacement.

Shop à la carte. For those three services, RepairPal gave us an expected price range of $113 to $174, much lower than the original range of $169 to $247. And our dealer’s revised price quote dropped to $174, down from $249.

For more advice, check our guide to car maintenance.

Comparison shop. We saved even more by calling several other shops. For the same three services, prices ranged from $116 to $174. The cost of replacing the cabin air filter alone ranged from $46 to $95.

Check for specials. A Firestone service center’s $135 quote included $65 for an oil change using the synthetic oil the Prius requires. But on the Firestone website, we noticed a special on synthetic oil changes for $50. When we phoned the service center back to ask why the quote didn’t reflect the special, the employee said, “Yeah, I can give you the promotional price.” One Toyota dealer suggested we postpone the tire rotation until a discount coupon appeared on its website, which it said happened regularly.

Do it yourself. You can save even more by doing whatever you can yourself. Rather than pay a repair shop to replace the cabin air filter, our staffer bought his own online for $15. With a little help, his 13-year-old son replaced it in about 5 minutes, including the 2 minutes it took him to watch a YouTube video demonstrating the procedure. It required no tools. You can save $19 to $34 more by changing your own oil, an easy job for backyard mechanics. Figure about $25 for the oil on sale, about $6 for the filter insert, and around $24 for an oil-filter wrench. We also found a YouTube video with instructions for changing the oil and filter and resetting the oil maintenance light. Rotating your own tires would shave off $15 to $25 more, but it’s a laborious job if you don’t have a lift. But if you’re intrepid enough to do everything yourself, you could end up paying less than $46, or about $70 if you don’t already have an oil-filter wrench.

Don’t simply agree to extra work. Two of the Toyota dealers who gave us quotes for 30,000-mile service added some procedures that Toyota doesn’t even recommend at 30,000: replacing the air filter and windshield wipers, cleaning and adjusting the brakes, and rebalancing the tires. We’ve seen that before. Repair shops sometimes include unnecessary and potentially damaging transmission and engine flushes, and early replacement of timing belts, a costly procedure. Don’t automatically agree to any maintenance that’s not in the vehicle owner’s manual without asking for an explanation. And even then, consider calling around for other opinions.

How our 30,000-mile maintenance prices compared

Services
Full 30,000-mile service
Oil change, tire
rotation, and cabin-air-filter replacement
Oil change and tire
rotation (changing
cabin air filter yourself)
DIY
Price ranges we found
$225 to $249
$115 to $173
$80 to $100
$46 to $70

Anthony Giorgianni

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 2014 issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser.
   

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