Auto repair complaints were No. 2 behind landlord and property management problems on the Maryland attorney general's top five consumer complaints list last year. When your car won't start, leaks or is making funny noises, it can cause consumers to panic and forget what their rights are under Maryland law.
Reader Rodney Kerr was in a miserable situation recently when he sent a frantic e-mail to us.
"Hello, I'm in an auto repair shop, and I'm very, very concerned," Kerr said. "The owner started a lot of repairs on his own without any authorization at all. The vehicle is there because it wouldn't start. An injector pump was sent out and completed and when I asked the price for it; he told me he had no idea!"
Kerr said he pressed him for a ballpark figure.
"He replied that they range from $500 to $12,000!!!" Kerr wrote. "Of course, I should have never let that go. When I pressed for an estimate; he told me that he would know more later in the week. This guy scares me to death, and I have a lot of experience with auto repair facilities. Isn't there a law that work has to be authorized by the customer?"
Kerr is absolutely right.
According to state laws, you can't be charged for repairs you didn't authorize. Before signing a repair order, read it carefully, the Maryland attorney general's office advises, and ask for clarification of any item you don't understand.
The law also says you are entitled to a written estimate for all repairs costing more than $50, and you can't be charged more than 10 percent over the written estimate without your consent. If the repair shop finds that the work will end up costing more than 10 percent more than the estimate or that additional repairs are needed, the shop must contact you first to get authorization.
Once the repair is completed, the invoice you receive should list all the work performed, including parts, labor and surcharges. The invoice should identify any used, rebuilt or reconditioned parts used on your vehicle. Hang on to that invoice because if you're not satisfied with the work, you might need it to file a complaint against the shop.
The attorney general's office says that should you be charged more than the estimate and the shop disagrees with what you originally authorized, the business has a right to hold your car until you pay. In that scenario, you have two options. You can pay the bill in full, noting that the amount is in dispute, take your car home, and file a complaint with the attorney general's Consumer Protection Division or District Court. Or, you can leave the car at the shop and petition the court to issue a writ of replevin, which will allow you a hearing in court to determine who is responsible for the disputed portion of the bill. Be warned the latter choice is costly and time-consuming.
To avoid such problems, take the time to look for a good mechanic. Ask your friends and neighbors for recommendations. Check the shop's record with the Consumer Protection Division and the Better Business Bureau. Search for mechanics that specialize in your specific vehicle model and who continue their training and are certified in various types of technical repair jobs. Inspect the shop and interview the mechanic to get a feel for how they do business. Ask for references and call their references.
We haven't heard back from Kerr since our initial correspondence, but here's hoping his car troubles turned out well.
Find Dan Thanh Dang's column archive at baltimoresun.com/consuming