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Am I justified in having a problem with this auto repair shop?

Sorry for the length.

tl;dr version: do I have any recourse when a mechanic seems to be dragging his feet completing a job and initiates billable work without first seeking my approval?

I began taking my aging car to a local auto repair shop that I thought had a good reputation. The shop has four lifts just to give you and idea of its size. It’s a family owned operation that seems to have two to three employed mechanics working at any given time.

For most of the life of this car (a 1997 Mazda Protege which I bought new) I took it into the dealer for service. I’m use to making a service appointment, and, if it was minor stuff, having it done within an hour or two. If it was more extensive, it might be a couple of days if they had to wait for a part, but nevertheless they would give me a good estimate of when the repairs would be done.

The first time I took my car to this local auto repair shop it was because I needed a new battery. Most places I have taken my car to in the past (like Sears) can do this the same day. This guy took three days to change the battery without giving me any indication that it would take him that long. That should have given me pause.

Well, then around 5-6 months later I had a car problem come up. I noticed that my engine temp started heading up to high at highway speed. I turned on my cabin heat to bring the temperature down. When I got closer to the house and was on slower roads I moved the slider back to the cool setting and the slider jammed so it would only go so far to the left.

The local auto repair shop had sent out a coupon for a general inspection, oil and air filter change, so I decided to take the car in. I called ahead the day before and took it in the next day. When I took it in I told him about the rising engine temp and the stuck cabin temp slider and also that I thought I had a bad oxygen sensor because the engine light had come on occasionally in the past with that code. I said, so I’ll call you tomorrow to see whether the car is ready, and the owner said something like, sounds good. I called at the end of the day over the next two days and he would say that they didn’t have time to get to the car that day. Finally he did the work on the third day.

One of his mechanics diagnosed a leaky radiator and they said the controller was unfixable and the best he could do was to prop open/close (depending on season) the blend door. I took the car home (cause I needed it), and I called him the following Monday to say I would bring it in the Monday after that for the repairs I needed, giving him time, I told him, to order the parts he would need, for which he thanked me - for the lead time.

I brought in the car that next Monday. This is what I wanted done: New radiator, new oxygen sensor, prop open the blend door. Also the AC had not really been working right so I said if it is something easy like it just needs some freon then go ahead and do it; otherwise forget about it. And also sometimes I would hear a rattle under the car, which they thought could be a loose heat shield. I said if it present a danger then take it off; otherwise leave it.

I had asked one of the mechanics the previous time if all of this could be done in one day and he said, yes.

I called once on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and each time they had not started it yet. Finally Friday I went over there and it was on one of the lifts being worked on. I walked over to the mechanic and what I initially thought was the radiator cast aside was my AC condenser. They said it was damaged and that they had ordered a new one but it was the wrong one or something so they had to order it again. Now this is work that I did not ask for, but I saw that everything else was getting done finally and I asked whether the car would be done by the following Monday and they said that it depended whether FedEx came early or late Monday.

So Monday I called, but FedEx had been late, and I also got the news that the rattle was not a heat shield but it was my catalytic converter and that he was looking for a replacement. I asked for an estimate and he said he could not give me one till he found one. OK. Now most places I assume would call you with an estimate. Nevertheless, I called him Tuesday to see whether he had found one. He said yes and he had ordered it, and that it would arrive Thursday. Again, he was proceeding without seeking any approval. (And an EPA laws says he and I - owner and installer - have to sign a form for installation of an out of warranty 3rd party catalytic converter.) I asked him how much it was. He said he’d have to look at his email and that he would call me back. He never called back. I called twice Thursday. No one answered the phone. I let it ring for 3 minutes long each time till I got disconnected.

So what should be my next step and what options do I ultimately have here. I don’t like that he has initiated work, particularly without providing an estimate nor seeking my approval first. I have no idea when my car will be done and he doesn’t seem to be accountable for providing estimates, returning calls or even estimating when a job will be done.

In the shop’s defense, the OP, the owner of a daily-driver 97 Mazda has to give the shop some leeway in the amount of time a car of this vintage will take to repair. Certain parts may be difficult and time consuming or even impossible to source. If speedy, efficient repairs were desired, a better car to own would be a 2005 Civic or Corolla. Very easy to get pretty much all the parts locally in major metro areas.

Also the car is nearly 20 years old, and so simple repairs can become complicated b/c some part or another unrelated to the problem breaks while attempting to repair the part needing fixing. For example, take a look at Ray’s current Car Talk newspaper column (link available from the top Car Talk page) about the owner of a 20 year old car who’s spark plug that broke in two while servicing a coil pack and caused 3 days worth of extra and unexpected work.

On the other hand, I think OP has a valid complaint about the battery. I can’t imagine why it would take 3 days to replace a battery. It might require an overnight stay though, if they can’t get the replacement battery delivered until the next day. But that leaves two days unexplained. OP, did you ask why that job took 3 days? If so, what did they say?

The other concerns, hard to say. It sort of sounds like you may be adding extra requests along the way, and when you do that, you have to expect it will take longer to do. And of course there’s always the possibility that they simply have too much work to do for the number of mechanics and shop space they have available. That might vary day to day or week to week, and you’ve just been unlucky.

I don’t get the sense however that you’re dissatisfied with the results when they finally deliver the car after the repair. So that’s a major good sign. I think what I’d do in this situation is have a chat with the owner (not one of the techs) and tell him what factors are important to you. For me, I’d be fine if they told me they couldn’t start working on the job for two weeks, but if agree I bring the car in 2 weeks from Thursday, & today – two weeks prior – if today I sign the work order pay the parts charge up front, they’ll schedule their staff to have the job done by the following Friday at 6 PM, and will order the parts in the meantime so they’ll be ready to go in two weeks.

Suggest you try something like that for the next job. And don’t add anything to the job once you sign the work order, don’t ask them to do anything else. See how that goes.

I think this guy’s taking in more work than he can handle… and not doing a good job communicating with the customer.
Why the customer kept returning is beyond me.
My recommendation is to start looking for a new shop.

3 days to replace a battery is ridiculous . That alone would be reason to leave and never return.

You need the convertor apparently but if runs after that get the car out of there and find another shop.

“3 days to replace a battery is ridiculous . That alone would be reason to leave and never return.”

That would have been my last visit to that shop.

What concerns me the most, is that the shop seems to be replacing parts without getting written authorization from the car’s owner

That is usually a bad business practice

There are few exceptions, and I won’t go into them, unless somebody wants to discuss it

There’s a lot of things going on there that make the place seem kind of dysfunctional. Offhand I might not accuse them of being crooked; just horribly haphazard in how they operate.

It’s also possible that “family owned” could be the problem if you have multiple family members putting their hands on everything.

Years ago there was a small franchised Jeep dealer in an outlying small town around here. A friend of mine who had just gotten out of the Air Force hired on there and 6 months was all he could take before quitting.
It was a family operation with 7 family members all running everything with no one particular family member handling one area and another member handling another and so on.

My friend said it was like a Three Stooges movie every day. One would assign him a job to do and 15 minutes later another would pull him off to do something else. The first would come back and jump him for not doing the original work. Back to the task at hand a 3rd member would wander through and send him off to do something else.
This dealer at any one time carried maybe a dozen new cars on the lot and the shop was 6 bays.
That gives you an idea of how glutted this tiny place was with 7 managers; each doing their own thing.
The sign out front should have read Dysfunctional Motors.

I agree with everyone here that the shop seems to be unorganized.

But the way I understood the battery replacement story is this.

The OP dropped the car off for a new battery and there could have been a dozen cars ahead of his…ones that had been dropped off days earlier and not yet repaired.
I did not see that the shop owner promised it the next day…just that the OP expected it the next day.
The shop owner may have presumed that the OP was willing to leave it until they got to it.

Unless the Customer asks " When can you get mt car in for a new battery" .