Attorney General: Auto Repair

Taking the Scare Out of Auto Repair

July 1996

Presented by the
Federal Trade Commission, the National Association of Attorneys General
and the American Automobile Association

The best way to avoid auto repair rip-offs is to be prepared. Knowing how your vehicle works and how to identify common car problems is a good beginning. It's also important to know how to select a good technician, the kinds of questions to ask, and your consumer rights.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the American Automobile Association (AAA), and the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG), this kind of information about your automobile may help you keep a lid on mechanical mistakes.


How to Choose a Repair Shop

What should I look for when choosing a repair shop?

  • Ask for recommendations from friends, family, and other people you trust. Look for an auto repair shop before you need one to avoid being rushed into a last-minute decision.
  • Shop around by telephone for the best deal, and compare warranty policies on repairs.
  • Ask to see current licenses if state or local law requires repair shops to be licensed or registered. Also, your state Attorney General's office or local consumer protection agency may know whether there's a record of complaints about a particular repair shop.
  • Make sure the shop will honor your vehicle's warranty.

How to Find the Right Technician

Is one technician better than another?

  • Look for shops that display various certifications - like an Automotive Service Excellence seal. Certification indicates that some or all of the technicians meet basic standards of knowledge and competence in specific technical areas. Make sure the certifications are current, but remember that certification alone is no guarantee of good or honest work.
  • Ask if the technician or shop has experience working on the same make or model vehicle as yours.

Repair Charges: Unlocking the Mystery

Before you arrange to have any work performed, ask how the shop prices its work. Some shops charge a flat rate for labor on auto repairs. This published rate is based on an independent or manufacturer's estimate of the time required to complete repairs. Others charge on the basis of the actual time the technician worked on the repair.

If you need expensive or complicated repairs, or if you have questions about recommended work, consider getting a second opinion.

Find out if there will be a diagnostic charge if you decide to have the work performed elsewhere. Many repair shops charge for diagnostic time.

Shops that do only diagnostic work and do not sell parts or repairs may be able to give you an objective opinion about which repairs are necessary.

If you decide to get the work done, ask for a written estimate.

What should a written estimate include?

  • It should identify the condition to be repaired, the parts needed, and the anticipated labor charge. Make sure you get a signed copy.
  • It should state that the shop will contact you for approval before they do any work exceeding a specified amount of time or money. State law may require this.

What should I know about the parts to be repaired or replaced?

Parts are classified as:

  • New - These parts generally are made to original manufacturer's specifications, either by the vehicle manufacturer or an independent company. Your state may require repair shops to tell you if non-original equipment will be used in the repair. Prices and quality of these parts vary.
  • Remanufactured, rebuilt and reconditioned These terms generally mean the same thing: parts have been restored to a sound working condition. Many manufacturers offer a warranty covering replacement parts, but not the labor to install them.
  • Salvage - These are used parts taken from another vehicle without alteration. Salvage parts may be the only source for certain items, though their reliability is seldom guaranteed.

What do I need after the work is done?

  • Get a completed repair order describing the work done. It should list each repair, parts supplied, the cost of each part, labor charges, and the vehicle's odometer reading when you brought the vehicle in as well as when the repair order was completed. Ask for all replaced parts. State law may require this.

Preventive Maintenance

What are the consequences of postponing maintenance?

  • Many parts on your vehicle are interrelated. Ignoring maintenance can lead to trouble: specific parts - or an entire system - can fail. Neglecting even simple routine maintenance, such as changing the oil or checking the coolant, can lead to poor fuel economy, unreliability, or costly breakdowns. It also may invalidate your warranty.

What maintenance guidelines should I follow to avoid costly repairs?

  • Follow the manufacturer's maintenance schedule in your owner's manual for your type of driving.
  • Some repair shops create their own maintenance schedules, which call for more frequent servicing than the manufacturer's recommendations. Compare shop maintenance schedules with those recommended in your owner's manual. Ask the repair shop to explain - and make sure you understand - why it recommends service beyond the recommended schedule.

Protecting Your Auto Repair Investment

What warranties and service contracts apply to vehicle repairs?


  • There is no "standard warranty" on repairs. Make sure you understand what is covered under your warranty and get it in writing.
  • Be aware that warranties may be subject to limitations, including time, mileage, deductibles, businesses authorized to perform warranty work or special procedures required to obtain reimbursement.
  • Check with the Federal Trade Commission or your state or local consumer protection agency for information about your warranty rights.

Service Contracts

Many vehicle dealers and others sell optional contracts - service contracts issued by vehicle manufacturers or independent companies. Not all service contracts are the same; prices vary and usually are negotiable. To help decide whether to purchase a service contract, consider:

  • Its cost.
  • The repairs to be covered.
  • Whether coverage overlaps coverage provided by any other warranty.
  • The deductible.
  • Where the repairs are to be performed.
  • Procedures required to file a claim, such as prior authorization for specific repairs or meeting required vehicle maintenance schedules.
  • Whether repair costs are paid directly by the company to the repair shop or whether you will have to pay first and get reimbursed.
  • The reputation of the service contract company. Check it out with your state Attorney General's office or local consumer protection agency.

How do I resolve a dispute regarding billing, quality of repairs or warranties?

  • Document all transactions as well as your experiences with dates, times, expenses, and the names of people you dealt with.
  • Talk to the shop manager or owner first. If that doesn't work, contact your Attorney General or local consumer protection agency for help. These offices may have information on alternative dispute resolution programs in your community. Another option is to file a claim in small claims court. You don't need an attorney to do this.


The more you know about your vehicle, the more likely you'll be able to head off repair problems. You can detect many common vehicle problems by using your senses: eyeballing the area around your vehicle, listening for strange noises, sensing a difference in the way your vehicle handles, or even noticing unusual odors.

Looks Like Trouble

Small stains or an occasional drop of fluid under your vehicle may not mean much. But wet spots deserve attention; check puddles immediately.

You can identify fluids by their color and consistency:

  • Yellowish green, pastel blue or florescent orange colors indicate an overheated engine or an antifreeze leak caused by a bad hose, water pump or leaking radiator.
  • A dark brown or black oily fluid means the engine is leaking oil. A bad seal or gasket could cause the leak.
  • A red oily spot indicates a transmission or power-steering fluid leak.
  • A puddle of clear water usually is no problem. It may be normal condensation from your vehicle's air conditioner.

Smells Like Trouble

Some problems are under your nose. You can detect them by their odor:

  • The smell of burned toast - a light, sharp odor often signals an electrical short and burning insulation. To be safe, try not to drive the vehicle until the problem is diagnosed.
  • The smell of rotten eggs - a continuous burning-sulphur smell - usually indicates a problem in the catalytic converter or other emission control devices. Don't delay diagnosis and repair.
  • A thick acrid odor usually means burning oil. Look for sign of a leak.
  • The smell of gasoline vapors after a failed start may mean you have flooded the engine. Wait a few minutes before trying again. If the odor persists, chances are there's a leak in the fuel system - a potentially dangerous problem that needs immediate attention.
  • Burning resin or an acrid chemical odor may signal overheated brakes or clutch. Check the parking brake. Stop. Allow the brakes to cool after repeated hard braking on mountain roads. Light smoke coming from a wheel indicates a stuck brake. The vehicle should be towed for repair.
  • A sweet, steamy odor indicates a coolant leak. If the temperature gauge or warning light does not indicate overheating, drive carefully to the nearest service station, keeping an eye on your gauges. If the odor is accompanied by a hot, metallic scent and steam from under the hood, your engine has overheated. Pull over immediately. Continued driving could cause severe engine damage. The vehicle should be towed for repair.

Sounds Like Trouble

Squeaks, squeals, rattles, rumbles, and other sounds provide valuable clues about problems and maintenance needs. Here are some common noises and what they mean.

Squeal - A shrill, sharp noise, usually related to engine speed:

  • Loose or worn power steering, fan or air conditioning belt.

Click - A slight sharp noise, related to either engine speed or vehicle speed:

  • Loose wheel cover.
  • Loose or bent fan blade.
  • Stuck valve lifter or low engine oil.

Screech- A high-pitched, piercing metallic sound; usually occurs while the vehicle is in motion:

  • Caused by brake wear indicators to let you know it's time for maintenance.

Rumble - a low-pitched rhythmic sound.

  • Defective exhaust pipe, converter or muffler.
  • Worn universal joint or other drive-line component.

Ping - A high-pitched metallic tapping sound, related to engine speed:

  • Usually caused by using gas with a lower octane rating than recommended. Check your owner's manual for the proper octane rating. If the problem persists, engine ignition timing could be at fault.

Heavy Knock - A rhythmic pounding sound:

  • Worn crankshaft or connecting rod bearings.
  • Loose transmission torque converter.

Clunk - A random thumping sound:

  • Loose shock absorber or other suspension component.
  • Loose exhaust pipe or muffler.

Feels Like Trouble

Difficult handling, a rough ride, vibration and poor performance are symptoms you can feel. They almost always indicate a problem.


  • Misaligned front wheels and/or worn steering components, such as the idler or ball joint, can cause wandering or difficulty steering in a straight line.
  • Pulling the vehicle's tendency to steer to the left or right - can be caused by something as routine as under-inflated tires, or as serious as a damaged or misaligned front end.

Ride and Handling

  • Worn shock absorbers or other suspension components - or improper tire inflation can contribute to poor cornering.
  • While there is no hard and fast rule about when to replace shock absorbers or struts, try this test: bounce the vehicle up and down hard at each wheel and then let go. See how many times the vehicle bounces. Weak shocks will allow the vehicle to bounce twice or more.
  • Springs do not normally wear out and do not need replacement unless one corner of the vehicle is lower than the others. Overloading your vehicle can damage the springs.
  • Balance tires properly. An unbalanced or improperly balanced tire causes a vehicle to vibrate and may wear steering and suspension components prematurely.


Brake problems have several symptoms. Schedule diagnosis and repair if:

  • The vehicle pulls to one side when the brakes are applied.
  • The brake pedal sinks to the floor when pressure is maintained.
  • You hear or feel scraping or grinding during braking.
  • The "brake" light on the instrument panel is lit.


The following symptoms indicate engine trouble. Get a diagnosis and schedule the repair.

  • Difficulty starting the engine.
  • The "check engine" light on the instrument panel is lit.
  • Rough idling or stalling.
  • Poor acceleration.
  • Poor fuel economy.
  • Excessive oil use (more than one quart between changes).
  • Engine continues running after the key is removed.


Poor transmission performance may come from actual component failure or a simple disconnected hose or plugged filter. Make sure the technician checks the simple items first; transmission repairs normally are expensive. Some of the most common symptoms of transmission problems are:

  • Abrupt or hard shifts between gears.
  • Delayed or no response when shifting from neutral to drive or reverse.
  • Failure to shift during normal acceleration.
  • Slippage during acceleration. The engine speeds up, but the vehicle does not respond.


Car trouble doesn't always mean major repairs. Here are some common causes of trouble and techniques to help you and your technician find and fix problems.

  • Alternator - Loose wiring can make your alternator appear defective. Your technician should check for loose connections and perform an output test before replacing the alternator.
  • Battery - Corroded or loose battery terminals can make the battery appear dead or defective. Your technician should clean the terminals and test battery function before replacing the battery.
  • StarterWhat appears to be a defective starter actually may be a dead battery or poor connection. Ask your technician to check all connections and test the battery before repairing the starter.
  • Muffler - a loud rumbling noise under your vehicle indicates a need for a new muffler or exhaust pipe.
  • Tuneup - The old-fashioned "tuneup" may not be relevant to your vehicle. Fewer parts, other than belts, spark plugs, hoses and filters, need to be replaced on newer vehicles. Follow the recommendations in your owner's manual.

For more information, contact:

Federal Trade Commission
Correspondence Branch
6th & Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
Washington, DC 20580


The main office of your local American Automobile Association (AAA) motor club, listed under AAA in the telephone directory


Attorney General Richard Blumenthal
55 Elm Street
Hartford, CT 06106

Special Information For Connecticut Residents

"Taking the Scare Out of Auto Repair" was produced for national distribution. This supplement will explain the specific provisions of Connecticut law relating to auto repairs. When read together, the main booklet and this supplement provide a useful consumer guide on auto repairs

  • Repair Shop Licensing: Connecticut law requires that motor vehicle repairers be licensed by the Department of Motor Vehicles. The Dealers and Repairers Division of the Department of Motor Vehicles can tell you whether the repair ship is licensed and if there are complaints pending against it or it has been the subject of disciplinary action by the agency.
  • Repair Authorization and Written Estimates: Connecticut law requires that a motor vehicle repair shop obtain your written authorization before performing any work or providing a diagnosis or estimate of the maximum cost of parts and labor and must be signed by you. The repair shop must also keep a written record of the specific repairs you requested or a brief description of the problem that requires repair.

    Exceptions to this general rule include:

    After hours: If you leave your vehicle at the repair shop at a time when the shop is not open for business, the estimate of the cost of parts and labor and your authorization to do the work, may be given verbally, after the shop is open.

    Unknown problem: Sometimes the repair technician will not know the cause of the problem or the extent of the repairs that will be needed, until after he has examined you vehicle. In this case, the shop obviously cannot give you a complete written estimate until after the problem has been diagnosed. Once the shop learns what repairs are needed, the shop must notify you, give you an estimate of the maximum costs for parts an labor and obtain your consent before making the repairs.

    If your consent is given verbally, the shop must keep a written record of your approval, usually on the work order.

    Consent:You may agree that the repair shop does not have to give you a written estimate. This is called a waiver and it is only allowed if it is in writing, signed by you, and sets a maximum dollar amount for the repair work.


  • Time for completion of repairs: Repairs must be completed on the same business day the vehicle is delivered to the shop unless:
  • you are informed at the time you deliver the vehicle to the shop that the repairs will not be completed that day; or
  • you agree to a later date for completion; or
  • as soon as the shop knows that the repairs will not completed that day, the shop makes a reasonable effort to notify you and to obtain your consent. The shop must make a written record of their efforts and of your consent.
  • After the repairs are competed: When the repairs are completed, the shop must give you a written statement or invoice which itemizes the work done and the parts supplied. If any used or rebuilt parts are used in the repairs, that must also be noted on the invoice. The invoice must also specifically state any warranty which the shop gives for its parts or labor.
  • Return of damaged parts: You have a right to have any replaced parts returned to you if you make the request before or at the time your vehicle is returned to you. However, an exception to this occurs when the parts must be returned by the shop, either to get credit for warranty work or because the components may be rebuilt. In this case, you are entitled to inspect the replaced parts but the dealership does not return them to you.
  • Warranty rights-new vehicles: The manufacturers' written warranties for new vehicles cover a wide range of repairs and the exact coverage varies for each manufacturer. In addition, there are warranties that are not in writing but are "implied" by the dealership in any sale of a new vehicle. These implied warranties mean that your vehicle should operate the way it is supposed to and should be of the same quality as would ordinarily and reasonably be expected of this type of vehicle. (If you told the selling dealership that you were purchasing the vehicle for a particular purpose, then there is an implied warranty that it is fit for that purpose.)

    In Connecticut, the selling dealership cannot waive or disclaim these implied warranties for new, unused vehicles. This means that despite any contrary language in the purchase agreement or contract, the selling dealership must honor these implied warranties and the dealer cannot limit the types of remedies to which you may be entitled under these warranties.

    Note: If the dealer or manufacturer are not able to repair your new vehicle, you may also have rights under Connecticut's Lemon Law. Call the Department of Consumer Protection's Automobile Dispute Settlement Program at 1-800-538-CARS or (860) 713-6120.

  • Warranty rights-used vehicles: If you purchase a used vehicle from a Connecticut dealership which is less than seven years old and which cost $3,000.00 or more, the vehicle is automatically covered by a statutory warranty. (This does not apply to sales from private individuals who are not dealers). If the vehicle costs $3,000.00 or more , but less than $5,000.00, the warranty is for the first 1,500 miles or 30 days, whichever occurs first. If the vehicle costs $5,000.00 or more, the warranty period is for 3,000 miles or 60 days, whichever occurs first.

    During the warranty period, the selling dealership is responsible for all repairs necessary to make the vehicle mechanically operational and sound, at no cost to you. If the vehicle goes into the shop for repairs during the warranty period, the warranty is extended for each day the vehicle is in the shop for repair.

  • Where to file complaints: in Connecticut, automobile related complaints may be handled by either the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or the Department of Consumer Protection (DCP), depending on the nature of the complaint.

    If you believe that you were deceived or misled by a dealership regarding the condition or history of a vehicle, or the manufacturer or dealer are failing to honor a warranty, file a complaint with the DCP. Most repair related complaints should be make to the DMV, such as failure to provide a written estimate, failure to return parts when requested, failure to provide written invoice for repair work, charges for work not done or unnecessary repairs. The DMV also investigates complaints regarding the used motor vehicle warranty statute.

    [Other consumer motor vehicle complaints that are investigated by the Department of Motor Vehicles include: odometer tampering, vehicle towing or storage complaints, failure of a dealer to disclose that a vehicle has been totaled and rebuilt, failure of a dealer to register a new or used vehicle, to pay off a lien on a traded-in or purchased vehicle or to provide clear title on a purchased vehicle.]

  • If you are unsure where to send a complaint, simply make two copies (keep original documents for your own records) an send a copy to each agency. The Addresses are:

    Department of Motor Vehicles
    Dealers and Repairers Division
    60 State Street
    Wethersfield, CT 06109

    Department of Consumer Protection
    Complaint Center
    165 Capitol Avenue
    Hartford, CT 06106.

Content Last Modified on 6/24/2005 2:05:45 PM