Should I, or must I, take my car back to the dealer for service? I can answer the 2nd half of that question easily. No, you do not have to take your car to the dealership’s service department for maintenance or repairs unless the repairs are covered under your car’s warranty. Be advised that the manufacturer has the right to take into consideration how well you maintained your car in accordance with his recommendations spelled out in your owner’s manual when approving warranty repairs. If you do choose an independent service facility, be sure that they perform the maintenance as recommended in your owner’s manual. Also, be sure that you keep a record of that maintenance.
Whether you should is more complicated. The fact that most new car buyers (about 75%) don’t bring their cars back to the dealer for service is a huge problem for all manufacturers and car dealers. It’s a problem for manufacturers because they can lose the parts sales which include oil filters and oil. The profit margin on auto parts is much higher than on the car itself. If you added up the price of all the parts in your car (twenty to thirty thousand), the total would be many times the price you paid for your car. It’s also a problem for dealers. The retail markup on an auto part is at least 40% and your car’s markup is less than half of that. The average dealer makes more money selling parts than he does cars and he also makes more money selling the labor to service and repair cars than he does selling cars. In most dealerships, the new car department loses money or makes relatively little. The parts and service departments are the real money makers. Finally, a customer who does bring his back to the dealer for service is twice as likely to buy his next car from that dealer.
The reasons that car buyers don’t usually bring their cars back to the dealer for service is very simply price and convenience. Independent service facilities and fast-lube shops are more plentiful than dealers and there’s usually one closer. Why drive 20 miles to your dealer for an oil change when there’s a Jiffy Lube around the corner. Prices are usually less at independent service facilities. Independents have lower overheads and usually don’t use factory parts. Non factory parts, often manufactured overseas are usually less expensive than original factory parts. Independents also don’t have to pay their technicians as much as dealers do.
To combat this problem, many manufacturers are offering free maintenance on new cars for two years and even longer. The idea is to get the new car buyer into the habit of coming back to the dealer. The dealer also has the opportunity to sell the free service customer some services that aren’t included in the free maintenance package. Dealers are also offering such things as free oil changes and a very few even offer free tires and batteries as long as the customer has all of her factory recommended service done by him.
I know I still haven’t answered the question of whether you should bring your car back to the dealer. The answer is that it depends on the dealer’s service department. Most car dealers have better trained technicians and more and better diagnostic equipment than the average independent. Furthermore the dealer’s technicians are specialists in his brand of car. A Ford dealer’s technician knows more about Fords than a Chevrolet dealer’s technician and more than the average independent technician. For this reason I usually recommend that you bring your car to a dealer of that brand for more expensive, difficult repairs. A good independent technician can change the oil and rotate and balance the tires on any car. But he can’t always diagnose a transmission problem and, if he could, might not have the specialized tools needed to fix it.
If the dealer of your brand is not price competitive, by all means check out the independent service companies. But, be sure that their technician, sometimes the owner is the technician, has the proper training. He should have certifications in the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, ASE. There are ASE certifications for all components of the car, including air-conditioning, engine, and transmission. Ask to see his certification and be sure that it’s up to date. Check the company out with the BBB, the County Office of Consumer Affairs, and the Attorney General’s office. Ask for the names of references from existing customers. Be sure that he is bonded so that in the event you have a claim against him, he has to pay. Find out how long he has been in business.
Two thing to be on the guard against (for both dealers and independents) is the “up-sell” and hidden charges. When you see an ad for a $16.95 oil change, you can be assured that you won’t leave that service department paying only $16.95. The oil change includes a “free inspection” which means the commissioned technician and service advisor will look for anything else that may need maintenance or fixing on your car. Just be sure what they recommend is really needed and the safest way is to take it somewhere else for a second opinion. Also, watch out for that hidden, extra charge at the bottom of your service invoice. It goes by many different names. Some of the most common are Sundry Supplies, Environmental Impact Fee, Hazardous Waste Disposal Fee, and Supplies and Small Tools. This is nothing more than profit to the dealer and is calculated by adding a percent of the total invoice usually five or ten percent. Almost all dealers and Independents add this charge that should be made illegal. My advice is to refuse to pay it and in most cases they will agree to remove it from your bill.