I don’t think there’s any area that causes more discomfort for women than cars. Buying them and getting them repaired. In my last post, I wrote about my self-tutelage in the area of investing and retirement planning. Of taking control of my finances and living a more austere life so as to retire before I’m 70. Since cars are one of our top five expenses in life, it’s imperative to take control in this area. The less you spend on buying, operating, and maintaining cars, the more you’ve got left over to stash away for your retirement. The events of this week have provided a fertile training ground.
It all began innocently enough when the check engine light came on in the 2003 Audi A6. It’s got over 115,000 miles on it, and so I was a bit concerned. It was time for an oil change and a new pollen filter as well, so I took it to the Audi dealership, as I’ve been doing since the car was under warranty. I dropped my 11-year-old car off and hopped into the free 2014 A4 loaner with just over 600 miles. So shiny. So clean. And the smell! Every single time I take my car in for service, they give me a free Audi loaner. And I spend the next weeks browsing the new-car inventory. I even got so close as to schedule a test drive the last time I had my car in for service. But I canceled at the last minute. Rather than owning the decision, I told the salesman my financial advisor had advised against it. He replied that it’s in my financial advisor’s best interest that I keep my money invested so she can take her piece of my pie. Little did he know, I was in the process of firing my financial advisor because I had learned how it made no sense to pay her to do something I could do on my own. All I had to do is buy index funds.
Since I’d decided to keep my car for another 100,000 miles (10 more years, or so), I wanted to get some non-essential items fixed: a cup-holder that stuck out of the dash and wouldn’t close, the armrest lid with broken hinges, and the sunroof shade that had broken loose from its tracks. It may seem silly to repair these items, but I had committed to drive the car for another 10 years and these repairs would make it a bit more tolerable. My service advisor (Darrell) told me the sunroof shade, which is the plastic piece that slides open and closed inside the car beneath the glass, would need to be replaced, and once they got in there, they’d probably have to put a whole new headliner in because the work likely would damage the headliner–nearly $3000 total. I asked him to have a look at it anyway, to confirm the work would indeed be that extensive. And then there was the check engine light…. Darrell advised there would be a $100 diagnostic fee on the check engine light if I decided to not have the work done.
It took a week for the dealer to finally get around to looking at my car. But of course I wasn’t complaining much because I was driving the shiny new loaner. The loaner designed to make me forgo the repairs and buy a new Audi A6 for $60,000 (plus interest, plus what I could have earned had I invested the money in index funds). While I wasn’t in any hurry to get out of the new loaner, I was interested to hear the impact on my budget. I wanted to add my leftover money for the month to my new taxable account at Vanguard. A week after my car was in, Darrell left a voicemail. I called him right back, but he did not answer and did not return my many calls over the course of the afternoon. The next morning, Tuesday, I called again. Darrell was out until Thursday. After many calls and messages with the service department (they even hung up on me once), I finally asked to speak to the service manager, Morris. Morris rounds up my paperwork and tells me the good news: I don’t need a headliner, just the sun shade and guide clips: $904.03. But then he gives me the bad news: the check engine light went on because the mass air flow sensor needed replacing: $680. But that’s not all. The power steering pump is leaking and needs to be replaced: $900. And there are a couple of other things going on. They need to check it further. Morris will call me back.
Morris calls me back a couple of hours later just before closing time. The news is dire. There are “three real problems.” Not only do the MAS and power steering pump need to be replaced, I need a new intake manifold gasket: $1600. Add to that the items for which they’d already gotten the parts, and we were at $4977 pre-tax, $5387 after tax. (A couple of tires were fairly worn and would soon need to be replaced, but they could wait.) Even with Morris, prince that he was, offering to throw in the $322 service (oil change and pollen filter) on the house, the repair cost, in fact, was more than the Blue Book value of my car. I held firm on my decision to keep the car and go forward with the repairs. Maybe these repairs would last me a couple of years. But so much for my investment fund for the next several months.
It was a sleepless night. I tossed and turned, counting sheep that kept turning into dollar signs. I thought about the turn I’d taken in my life, being more in control of my finances, and not being one of the sheep I was counting. I’d fired my financial advisor because I educated myself and learned it made no sense to pay her. What about car repair? Why not take control there? How could I become more informed? I can’t fix my own car, but I could get a second opinion. I vowed to do my homework in the morning, and not blindly follow the recommendation of the dealer.
First thing Wednesday morning, I called Morris back and asked him to send me a breakdown of the costs for each item of repair, between parts and labor. I told him my boyfriend wanted to see it and that he thought there could be “overlapping labor.” Why did I pull out the fake boyfriend? Why didn’t I just own it? Like I should have owned it with the car salesman. It wasn’t my financial advisor who advised me it was stupid to buy a new car: it was me. I advised myself. And it wasn’t my imaginary boyfriend who wanted to see in writing the recommended work. I wanted to see exactly what they were doing to my car and how it broke down between parts and labor. And I wanted to have all necessary information to discuss it with another service provider.
From now on, I am going to stop falsely claiming that someone else with seemingly more credibility than myself is prompting me to do things. I do not need these fake advice-givers to publicly validate my decisions.
Morris emailed me a color scan of the Repair and Service Proposal. In addition to the things he said needed attention, I noticed a couple of items on the list that had been scratched through: rear front outer CV boot ($393) and replacement of the timing belt ($2504). What was going on? I turned to Yelp. I found an Audi/VW repair shop with dozens of 5-star reviews. After I researched the shop further on-line and found no negative commentary, I called Mike at Brink Motorsports and went down the list of repairs. Mike’s labor rate was less than the dealer, and so were his parts. Assuming my car needed all the work the dealer claimed it did, Mike could do it for a lot less. I asked him why the shop would have the timing belt on the list, but then scratched it off. Mike thought it odd as the timing belt definitely needed to be replaced if I’d never had it done. I told him I’d bring the car in as soon as I fetched it from the dealer.
I called Morris and left him a voicemail telling him to do none of the repairs other than the ones I’d committed to with pre-ordered parts: the cup-holder and the armrest lid. I sent him an email with the same information to cover my ass. I asked for a call or an email to confirm. Thirty minutes later, Morris called and left a message inquiring whether I’d gotten the quote. Apparently Morris doesn’t check his voicemail or his email. I called him back and reiterated that I didn’t want the work done. I would be getting a second opinion. Morris mumbled something about already starting on the work, but said he’d run back there and tell them to stop all work other than the cup-holder and armrest lid. Another 30 minutes later, Morris called back and said they’d ordered the wrong parts for the cup-holder and armrest, and they had to reorder. I told him not to. I would pick up my car. Oddly, when I picked it up, they did not charge the $100 diagnostic fee. They brought my car around. No paperwork. No charges.
On Thursday morning I dropped my car off at Brink Motorsports. There was no coffee bar or shiny new Audi loaner, so I brought my coffee in a travel tumbler and arranged for a rental at Enterprise using my firm discount. ($21 a day for a compact, and they gave me a free upgrade to a mid-size shiny new Hyundai because there were no compacts available.) I got a good vibe from Mike and he told me they’d look it over and call me with a plan. I waited with anticipation, hoping some of the recommended repairs could be delayed. Mike called that afternoon and went down the list. The MAS did need to be replaced. The power steering pump, however, had a tiny inconsequential leak and did not need replacing. The CV boot that the dealer had scratched off did need to be replaced. The sun shade did not need replacing (nor the headliner). All it needed was a couple of guide clips. $25 parts, rather than $500 plus. The timing belt looked good, but if it had never been replaced, at 115,000 miles, it needed to be done. If it broke, the repairs would be thousands.
Because I had been a passive car owner, I couldn’t recall whether I’d had the timing belt done. I had done all scheduled maintenance, but Morris (the service manager) had intimated it hadn’t been done but I could go a while longer. This made no sense. I needed to get to the bottom of the issue. So I called the dealer and spoke to my service advisor, Darrell, who was back. Darrell, in stark contrast to the weeks prior, took my call immediately. I decided to ask him “when” I’d had the timing belt replaced, rather than “if.” Darrell started fumbling through my electronic record and said he wanted to be certain of the answer he gave me and would research it and call me back. “Today?” I asked. Darrell answered, “Of course. Give me just a few minutes.” Darrell did indeed call me back a few minutes later. “You had the timing belt replaced in December 2010 at 78,830 miles for $2600.” Mystery solved. The timing belt would not need to be replaced again for quite some time. And when I did have it done, Mike would do it for $1700. Darrell then asked, “Did you pick up your car yesterday?” “Yes,” I answered. “I wanted a second opinion.” I wanted. Not my imaginary boyfriend. “I thoughts so,” he said dumbly. And that was that.
Mike told me he likely could do all the necessary work by end of day Friday but the sunroof (for which he needed to order the guide clips). Shortly after 7:00 pm Friday, my car was ready. Turns out Mike did have some guide clips on hand, so the sunroof was fixed, too. But Enterprise was closed. Rather than making me wait until the shop reopened on Monday (and incurring two more days of charges), Mike met me Saturday morning so I could pick it up. Here’s what he did: Replace MAS, fix sunroof/sunshade, replace outer CV boot, replace front sway bar links, replace cup-holder, replace armrest lid assembly, change oil, change pollen filter. Total labor $650. Total parts $1150. Grand total $1800. With tax $1894.88.