Never Go To The Car Dealer For Service

Red Battery Light Warning SymbolThe other day, Moose’s battery light went on. Unlike the three other yellow error lights on the dashboard, the battery light was ominous red. Thinking it was no big deal, I decided to leave the light unattended for a couple days. After all, I just spent $85 on a new Diehard battery 6 months ago!

As I pulled into my garage, Moose suddenly lost power. The entire dashboard went out and pressing the gas pedal revved no engine. Oh no! Moose, don’t die on me old buddy!

Thankfully I was in my garage when the power went out. Otherwise, I would probably be stuck in the middle of the street somewhere. I called USAA roadside assistance for a jump. I cannot tell you how worth it getting any kind of roadside assistance is. For around $5 bucks a month, I get free jumpstarts and tows to anywhere! I’ve had to use them 5-6 times in the past 10 years, and each time was a life saver.

Roadside assistance came about 45 minutes later and Moose was back in business. I read the manual to review what happened, and it wrote, “If battery light goes on, see dealer service immediately!” OK, I guess I shouldn’t have been so nonchalant, but I couldn’t go see my mechanic since they were closed on the weekends. My flight to Hawaii was the next day and I wouldn’t be back for a week.

Another Close Call

When I returned from my trip, I tested Moose out. He fired up right away, but I didn’t trust him. On Monday morning, I called roadside assistance again to have a tow truck escort me two miles to my mechanic. I didn’t want to run the chance of Moose shutting down in the middle of a tunnel. I got to my mechanic just fine and turned Moose off. When the mechanic got into my car to turn him back on, Moose wouldn’t start again! Damn, another close one.

After checking things out, my mechanic of 11 years said I needed a new alternator. Figures. I didn’t even ask him how much because I trust him to always give me the best price.

When I returned that afternoon I asked for the bill. It said: $440. Yikes! I asked if I could get a discount of I paid cash, and he said, “Yes. $400 and save on tax.

Done deal! Taxes suck,” I told him and busted out twenty, $20 bills and handed them over. I was anticipating getting a deal if I brought cash, so I went to the ATM beforehand.

$400 is still a crap load of money, but I was feeling good that at least Moose was back in good form and I was able to “save” $40 bucks. It’s funny how no matter how much one spends, if one thinks they are getting a good deal, it’s not that bad.

Calling The Dealership For Fun

To make sure I got a good deal, I decided to call the dealer and ask them how much a 130 amp alternator cost. The parts person waded through a book and responded, “$885 for a new one from Bosch and $450 for a refurbished one.

Are you kidding me? I asked the parts guy how much it would cost to install and he transferred me over to service. The service person told me it would cost about $385. What the hell. When I asked him how many hours of labor $385 buys, he said, about “2 to 2.5 hours.” The dealer charges $155-$192 an hour. Unbelievable!

If I went to the dealer, I would have had to pay at minimum $785 + 10% tax for a refurbished alternator and $1,270 + 10% tax for a brand new alternator like I got from my mechanic. My mechanic charged me $300 for the part and $100 for labor for a savings of $400-$900!

It makes me sick that the dealer would charge 100-225% more than my mechanic because drivers go there every day to get work done. I realize many go there under warranty, but still many more go to the dealer once the warranty is over.

Going to the dealer for car service is one big rip-off. If you’re off warranty, avoid them like the plague! Ask your friends who they go to and leverage their long standing relationships to save yourself some money.


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Updated for 2016 and beyond


Sam started Financial Samurai in 2009 during the depths of the financial crisis as a way to make sense of chaos. After 13 years working on Wall Street, Sam decided to retire in 2012 to utilize everything he learned in business school to focus on online entrepreneurship. Sam focuses on helping readers build more income in real estate, investing, entrepreneurship, and alternative investments in order to achieve financial independence sooner, rather than later.

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  1. says

    I don’t have a mechanic here yet but I intend to find one. I know dealerships are crazy expensive but as you mentioned they are useful for their warranty work. I bet that the service department does just as well if not better than the car sales department if they stay pretty busy.

  2. Chris says

    Consider carrying a set of jumper cables and a basic tool kit. This will save you the hassle of depending on USAA Roadside Assistance. Also, it’s empowering to know basic auto maintenance.

    I suspect you could have spent less than 200$ if you would have bought the part and installed it yourself. “Parts geek” sells a Bosch 130 amp/high output alternator for 165.00$.

    • says

      I’d rather just call roadside assistance and get towed or jumped by a professional than try and flag someone down. All it takes is $5 a month and a phone call.

      My mechanic skills are poor. I don’t want Moose to fall on me either as I work on him. There’s something to be said for paying an expert for service, especially of you make way more per hour than the expert.

      Where did you learn your mechanic skills?

      • Chris says

        Must be a mindset?? I’m amazed a self starter like you doesn’t find it important and empowering to know basic vehicle maintenance? I see that a lot in CA.

        Most vehicles, especially older ones, aren’t really all that complicated. If you have a college degree, you’re more than capable. In addition, we FI’ers should aspire to be as self sufficient as possible, it saves lots of money and empowers you as an individual. Same can be said for home repair.

        I taught myself the basics with a book and a little trial and error in the garage. I spent an hour yesterday, changing the oil/filter, air filter and rotating the tires on the Prius. Its a bit of a Zen experience to work with your hands and then drive your car out of the garage, ready to go, for another 5000 miles!

        Glad Moose is back in business again!

        • says

          Gotcha. I am definitely inadequate at fixing and building cars. Something I might have to work on if I’m really going to be financial independent according to some. I guess because I walk, bike, and ride the bus, I don’t have a lot of dependency on Moose. 6,500 miles a year on average.

          Let’s say you earn $200 an hour, but can pay a mechanic $50 an hour to fix your car. Would you still spend your time fixing your car yourself?

    • Nola says

      Chris, can you give us an idea of how much you make? Unless you’re making less than $80,000, really love cars, and have nothing better to do with your time, spending hours changing a transmission, alternator, or whatever yourself seems like a big waste of time.

      I’d gladly pay $5 a month for roadside assistance and a mechanic to fix my car!

      • Chris says

        It’s more about self reliance and insourcing vs outsourcing your needs. I’m advocating basic vehicle maintenance, not being able to perform all/major vehicle maintenance. It doesn’t take hours and hours to do, more realistically an hour or two every few months on basic maintenance (oil/filter change, tire rotations, fluid top-off, etc). This saves you money, gives you exponential confidence in operating/owning your vehicle (vs the vehicle owning you). If your FI, have more time than money, and use a vehicle on a regular basis, seems like a no-brainer to understand and maintain said vehicle.

        PS-I make over a 100K/year.

  3. Eric says

    A quick note, if your battery goes dead while driving the car will not die! This is a misconception. As long as your car starts, the alternator keeps it running.

    Secondly, if you own a BMW or some other luxury cars, you HAVE to take them to the dealer as the computer in the car needs to be reprogrammed.

    • says

      Good to know! I mentioned this in my post.

      “After checking things out, my mechanic of 11 years said I needed a new alternator. Figures. I didn’t even ask him how much because I trust him to always give me the best price.”

      It’s not true on a BMW or most luxury cars regarding the need to go to the respective dealer. You just need the electronic tool to plug into the car and computer to reprogram. My automechanic has it and so do many others. Don’t get ripped!

  4. Mr. Poo says

    I got my own mechanic as well and I’m grateful for an honest mechanic. My dealer recommended that I get a transmission and power steering flush. It would cost me around $400 for parts and labor.

    My mechanic suggestted that the power steering flush is not necessary and I still have 10k miles before I need the transmission flush. Also, he would only charge me $32 for the tranmission flush and $69 for the power steering flush. It’s great to have a good network of people that help you save money ;-)

  5. says

    Having a good mechanic is so worth it. My mom took her car to a repair shop once and they forgot to tighten the bolts on her tire. She almost crashed the week after because the tire came off. She could have sued the pants off of them but she chose not to. At least she got credit back and will never go back there again.

    I’m glad you got to save money fixing your alternator. I didn’t realize dealerships charge that steep a difference for parts and labor. What a rip off!

  6. says

    I love the idea of paying with cash and asking for a discount. I never think of doing that or even asking for a discount. I don’t know why I kind of have a hang up about it. It’s all mental on my side I know. It’s my fear of rejection, but I guess that the worst that could happen would be to pay the quoted price anyway.

    • says

      Indeed. Much easier to ask and get a discount at an independent auto mechanic than a dealer where everything seems super fixed. The workers there don’t own the business vs the mechanic(s) at the Indy dealers.

  7. says

    The last time I went to the dealer for service we came out with a list of needed repairs that we didn’t need! Haven’t been back since. It’s so important to find a good mechanic that you can trust. I found one that does great work and will tell you if the work is needed. Not the cheapest in town but he’s worth the extra cost.

  8. says

    I usually go to the dealer. Has it cost me more money, undoubtedly. at least a few items that I’ve enjoyed is the “free” shuttle service to/from my work (I’ve actually had them pick me up from a bar that I went to with friends from work). After having paid about about $700 for tires being replaced and balanced on my Corolla. About 6 months after having that done on a routine oil change ($35 is my cost for that, somewhat expensive I’m sure), but the technician noticed the tire looked damaged on the side – due to a bad rub on a curb trying to avoid a car heading toward me. My cost for replacing both 2 tires and re-balance them was $0 since it was covered for a year if there was any problem.

    • says

      And I’m mechanically skilled to the point where I could pull an engine / transmission (and actually did about 25 years ago now). And as for things falling on you, dropping a transmission on your own chest on purpose because you couldn’t afford to rent a transmission jack, teaches you a lot really fast. :-)
      But as you said Sam, if you can make more money than it would cost you to have the repairs done, why would you do it.

      • says

        Even if I could do it, which I can’t, I wouldn’t trust myself for doing it right b/c there is no warranty on my work. I also don’t want to crunch any of my bones. Transmission drop, ouch!

  9. says

    This post reminds me that I am still looking for a quality mechanic. I have a 10 year old Volvo with 170k on it. I hope to run it another 170k miles, but this isn’t likely unless I find a good mechanic. For a while I sent my car to a local dealer, that in reality was charging non-dealer rates and never charged me for stuff I didn’t need. Now that dealer is out of business, so I’m back in the hunt… Time to start asking around until I find someone I can trust.

    • says

      Wow… you plan to go ANOTHER 170K?! How do you know at that level when it’s worth getting something newer? I think I’ll be done with Moose by 150K (currently 118K) b/c replacing all the parts are going to cost too much, and I’ll probably want something with more airbags and safety features.

  10. Money Beagle says

    My father-in-law has done a great job at teaching me some of the basics of working with cars. I don’t even do oil changes but I do a monthly check of all fluid levels and such. Just yesterday I was able to check and find out that I’m a bit low on coolant and transmission fluid for the car that my wife drives and that we also tow our camper with. Hopefully there isn’t a leak in either system, and that it’s just a matter of the towing we did causing additional strain, but this allows me to get them to the levels they need to be and monitor. If the fluid levels stay good, it’s likely fine, but if they drop, it’ll let me know I need to get it into service. But, without having checked, I probably would not have found out until it caused a major failure in either the engine or transmission.

  11. says

    Most people do not shop around or do they make the effort to find a trustworthy mechanic. The dealer makes a really good profit on service because the few hundred they make on the sale is not enough to sustain them. Car dealers have a huge overhead with the facility and financing their inventory. I don’t want you to feel sorry for them, but those are some of the reasons.

  12. Paul says

    I agree with you about dealers in general and I never thought I’d take my car to the dealer for oil changes; however, we bought a new Honda Accord in 2009 and our dealer has an express service which is remarkably reasonable and fast for oil changes, tire rotations and fluid flushes, roughly the same price, or cheaper than, any other mechanic in town. When it’s time for an oil change, a code pops up on the odomeeter and I google it to see what it is required so I can do the filters and easy stuff myself. I used to do my own oil changes because I could do them in the time it takes to drive to an express lube place. But with this dealer, I’ll be happy to sit in thier waiting room for 30 minutes on the way home from work instead of going home and getting dirty to save $10.

    As for all the recomendations to work on your own car, I spent a decade doing that before I had a wife and two young children. Its easy for me to say that because my wife and I both have good salaries, others may not be so lucky. Part of the problem with working on your own car is that you tend to break stuff or need more parts, you may have misdiagnosd something, whatever, so a three or four hour job can easily turn into days and there comes a point when its not worth the hassle. However, the knowlege I’ve gained from working on my cars for years is invaluable when it comes to talking with mechanics when I take my car to them.

    BTW, I’ve had USAA my whole life, but earlier this year I saved about $600/yr switching to Geico for the same policy, which includes towing. USAA is a great company and I hated to leave them but $600/yr savings is pretty good and I’ve renewed the 6 month policy once and it didn’t increase.

  13. Darwin's Money says

    I have a trusted garage/mechanic. They always do the bare minimum and my car is fine at 90K miles. I asked about that “60,000 mile maintenance” check that the dealer recommends you bring it back in for and he said, “I’ll take a look at all that stuff, but only replace something if it needs replacing”. That time, he didn’t replace a single thing. He knows he’ll keep getting my business because he’s an honest guy. The dealer would get me for $500 each time easy.

  14. says

    HUGE fan of my mechanic he is my childhood friend who is running his father’s shop which was started by his grandfather. The problem is he is NOT cheap, but I offset that with the ability to call and yell at him at any time of the day or night if something goes wrong.

  15. says

    I love that you called the dealer “just for fun” — you and I have different definitions of fun! But I’m glad you checked, so that I can just trust your conclusion.

  16. Craig says

    Just seeing this now but the dirty little secret is you do not even have to go to the dealer for service while you are under the warranty as long as you can prove you have been having the car serviced.

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