Auto mechanic fraud? Beating the "book rate"

Auto mechanics invariably charge consumers the industry’s established “book rate” for repairs. Industry insiders will tell you that this book rate is the time in which an inexperienced mechanic should be able to complete the repair. In fact, many will say that this book rate is essentially unrealistic–i.e., padded–and that the book rate rarely if ever works out in the consumer’s favor.

What this means is that able mechanics should be able to “beat the clock,” meaning that a 4-hour water pump/belts repair should take a productive mechanic only 2-3 hours. The bottomline is that the consumer is charge for four hours of labor when, say, only 2-3 hours of work is done. Considered as a national phenomenon, we’re talking about potentially billions of dollars of overcharging each and every year.

How is this not consumer fraud? False billing of this kind in any other industry would be met with prosecution. Why not in the auto industry? (And please don’t tell me that service centers must charge the book rate just to make a profit. We’re talking fraud, plain and simple.)

well being a shadetree mechanic myself . i would say the exra time is justified in some instances. i’m sure anyone who has worked on a car before can relate to a simple operation gone awry. say the last bolt you need to remove is stripped or rusted on. or something breaks and you have to fix or replace that on top the wok you already doing. not all the time mind you , but the times it happens a simple hour job turns into the whole day.

Well, you have to remember that it can also work to your benefit. If book time for a job is 2 hours, but takes them 5, you’ll only pay 2.

Although, I will admit, any decent, experienced mechanic worth his/her salt will probably be done to job in 1/2-3/4 the listed booktime.

I’ve heard this argument before; I don’t buy it.

I’m talking about professional, certified mechanics. Sure, they run into the occasional complication, but the “book rate” allows for this in the aggregate. The truth, however, is that the overwhelming majority of repairs goes without such complications and that experienced mechanics can easily beat this rate. Many actually receive incentives for beating the clock.

When I purchase 4 hours of a mechanic’s time, receive only 2 hours yet am billed for 4 hours, that is consumer fraud.

Sorry, didn’t wrap up my post properly:

Often no. However, it does happen more often than rarely.

I think your premise is a little more complicated than stated. When I worked for a Porsche/Audi/Benz/Rover dealership back in the early '90s, there was a near-revolt with the introduction of the Audi “three-year test drive.” That was basically a blanket warranty that covered virtually all mechanical problems for the first three years of the life of the car.

It was a hell of a deal for the consumer, and costly to Audi. To make up for it, Audi skewed the book-rate so radically against the mechanic that I recall some were struggling to cover eight hours a day. Experienced Audi techs jumped like rats off of the Titanic. Some of them transferred to other marques, some retired, others went into business for themselves. Audi sent a couple of observers out to our dealership, and they eventually had to adjust their book-rates to accurately reflect how long the jobs were taking. By then, with the loss of so many experienced mechanics, the book-rate had to account for inexperienced mechanics–but that was largely a reflection of the true state of things.

As I understood it then, the book-rate is supposed to account for a large number of factors, including among other things the need for specialized tools, instruments, and machinery which the mechanic cannot reasonably be expected to personally own. But it is also supposed to reward experienced and efficient mechanics, and conversely allow for less-experienced mechanics to do the job at the same standard of quality and safety without starving to death.

Ideally, the book rate is supposed to ensure that every job will be completed properly and safely, no matter what the circumstances. Like most ideals, the reality behind it is somewhat less lustrous. But believe me, really good, really fast, really safe mechanics are quite rare. If that mechanic works on your car, you should consider yourself blessed, not fleeced.

Claiming that mechanics accurately bill their customers on more than the “rare” occasion doesn’t strengthen your argument and instead points to an industry scandal.

Again, let’s look at the national picture. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of mechanical repairs per annum. From industry experts to which I’ve spoken, the overwhelming majority of these repairs is much faster than the consumer was told. Indeed, if you’re a mechanic and you cannot consistently “beat the clock,” you will quickly lose your job.

If service centers want to charge flat rate, fine. Charge for the work that is done. But if my mechanic bills me for 8 hours of repairs, yet only gives me 5 hours of his labor, this is fraud. Again, I am paying for labor, not for the job. I am being billed for hours not delivered.

Oops, I sort of passed straight over one of the most important parts of my post. Those specialized tools, instruments, and machinery? They are astronomically expensive. That hits the dealership and consumer in two ways, because the cost of the device must be covered, but also a dealership typically only has one or two of the specialized devices, so if it’s in use, all other jobs that require the device must wait. Typically the regional service folks create tables for how many gee-whiz gizmos are required by a shop on a per-bay basis.

You pay for some of that standing-around time, but not all of it. If you don’t want to pay for any of it, well, you’ll pay for the extra gizmos instead.

Seriously, a dealership generally can’t afford to mess around with their customers. Fairness to the consumer was a very high concern where I worked, and believe me, if someone had to get rolled under the bus, it was invariably the mechanics. I suspect my experience was not unique.

(By the way, I wasn’t a mechanic, in case I didn’t make that clear before.)

IANAM and I agree with you that the “book rate” is usually higher than it needs to be.

That being said, the book rate really is a “flat rate.” When I take my car into the shop, I am quoted X dollars for parts and Y dollars for labor. It just so happens that Y dollars works out to Z hours at the hourly billing rate.

If the shop told you up front that they would charge for the number of hours they worked on your car, and then charged you for more, that would be fraud. But if they tell you the labor will be Y dollars, it doesn’t matter if it takes them 10 minutes or 3 weeks, you will still pay Y dollars.

One thing to keep in mind before you get too worked up about book rate is that in most places, you’re paying both the book rate in hours(i.e. 2.1 hours for changing my truck’s water pump) AND you’re also paying a flat fee for the labor.

So if you happen to get Joe Supermechanic who gets it done in 1 hour, or you get Bill Fumblefingers who takes 4, you’re paying the same rate. In a real market value situation, you’d probably have to pay Joe out the nose due to his greater experience, and Bill wouldn’t be able to charge much.

Also, it allows for several mechanics to work on a job without having to account for each one separately. If say Joe did 80%, and Bill did the 20% that required brute strength or just a third hand, you won’t get charged some bizarre rate for that, just the standard book rate.

Book rate on automotive repairs is no different than normal retail pricing when you get down to it.

Whoa there, pardner. I have no argument. I agree with you. I think bookrates are skewed towards the house as well. I’m just saying that it isn’t as rare as you make it out to be for it to benefit the consumer. The vast majority of the time, it clearly does not.

As for paying off the expensive equipment in the shop (as I believe sofa is alluding to) that is why the shop rate is $50-$80 per hour in the first place, and the mechanic is lucky to get 1/2 of it.

You’re not buying a mechanic’s time. You are buying a repair.

Look at it this way - You go to the barber / stylist and they’re buzzing around on a double mocha with a depth charge. Your haircut is finished 10 minutes sooner than usual because they’re so wired. Do you bitch because they finished early and you want to pay less because you were in the chair for less time? No, because you’re paying for a haircut, and not the book rate of 30 minutes of stylist time. If anything, you’ll give them a bigger tip for getting you out of there faster.

So why are you mad at the garage and not tipping the mechanic for fast service?

Not really. You’re paying for the time the book says it will take the mechanic to make the repair.

Book time is just that, a book that lists the time to do a certain repair. Some (most?) of the repairs are borderline grossly over-estimated.

If we try to use your haircut anaolgy, it would be more like this: Hair stylist charges $40/hour. They list mens haircuts at 2 hours. Period. However, whenever you (or anyone else for that matter) gets your haircut it takes only 25 minutes. Virtually everytime. You still have to pay $80.

They do not base the book time on the realistic time it takes to do the repair. When I was a partsman, I had experienced mechanics in my shop claim up to 30 hours of labour in a 9 hour day. With regularity.

I don’t see the problem here. Whenever I have my car serviced, I obtain three quotes from assorted service departments for any substantial repair.
I don’t care how many hours of labor I’m paying for… if I have a problem with your bottom-line pricing, I’ll walk. This protects me quite well.

I was damm lucky to be getting 1/4 of it!

Also, say it is fraud. What would you suggest as an alternate system, Country Squire? The obvious answer, and what you’re suggesting, is just to have the mechanic bill for the time actually worked.

This sounds good on the outset, but I think it would lead to even more gouging. First of all, say you’re having a job done that previously had a book value of two hours. While doing the job, the mechanic discovers that several bolts are completely rusted, and they need to extricate them, which (in this hypothetical example, ok) takes another two hours. You’re going to be billed for this time, most likely; after all, this was the time the mechanic spent, and it wasn’t his fault that the bolts were rusted on.

Similarly, allowing the mechanic to simply charge for the time worked certainly invites padding. How would Joe Consumer, who knows little about the mechanical workings of his car, know if he was being ripped off or not? The temptation to pad would be pretty high.

I’ve got to second that. The dealership service departments here that I’ve been to all explain this. Fraud would be if they were hiding the fact. This actually protects you to some extent, because if a true hourly rate were used you’d never, ever have any idea yourself how long something is supposed to take. They could charge you 12 hours to replace and alternator!

Given that, if you don’t like the price quoted, consider bartering, but only if you know what you’re talking about. If you know replacing a tail-light is a 10 minute job, ask before hand if they can avoid charging you for a whole hour.

My particular state also has strong estimate laws. Once given an estimate, the shop cannot go over some fixed percentage before getting your approval.

Time spent w/my attorney=0 minutes
Time spent w/his assistant=12 minutes
Time billed for a simple demand letter=2 hours @ $160.00 per


No. You’re paying for the repair. Book time is a measure of how complicated or difficult the job is, in relation to other jobs. The bigger the job, the more you pay. The industry has decided to measure the difficulty of the job by how much time it would take a tech to repair. They calculate the fee using those numbers, but you’re not paying on a per hour basis–you’re paying a flat fee for a specific repair.

It would be more accurate to say that a salon has determined that it takes the average stylist three hours to do a complicated cut, and five minutes to do a bang trim. Different styles tend to take different amounts of time, depending on how complicated or difficult they are, and so they decide to charge more or less for a particular style based on how long it takes their average beautician to give it to you. It doesn’t matter how long it actually takes–it matters how much more difficult it is to get a complicated hairstyle than just get a quick trim. They just happen to be using time as a way to determine just what the price difference ought to be.

Yeah, Mr. Cameron has worked with a few of those, too, and they were either lying or being fed. Sometimes Mr. Cameron beats the book time–and sometimes he doesn’t. And he’s not inexperienced or slow. Regardless, just because book time is used to calculate the fee you’re charged doesn’t mean you’re being charged by the hour–you’re being charged by the job.

When all shops go by the industry standard (i.e., the “book rate”), consumers have no realistic alternatives. Haven’t you noticed this by now? Moreover, the bottom-line pricing is a reflection of the book rate. Your argument is circular.

Waddamoron, pointing to biling industry-wide irregularities within the legal industry hardly detracts from my argument nor strengthens yours.

Once again, let me point out that the charge is not for a flat rate. The book rate is based on labor costs, as a function of time.