Auto body repair can be tough work, so answer these questions before reading on. Do you:
- Want to save a few hundred dollars?
- Enjoy working with your hands?
- Have the patience and dedication to learn a technical process on your own?
- Have a free weekend?
If the answer is "Yes" to all four, then do-it-yourself auto body repair might be for you. Not as a career -- that's another story. We're just talking about introducing your hands to a block sander and paint can for a few hours, in order to pocket the insurance-claim money yourself.
It's perfectly aboveboard. Auto insurers typically deal directly with repair shops, to spare customers the needless task of playing middleman, so we don't often hear about alternative repair options.
But if you're up for a little garage challenge, some of the work is remarkably doable, and insurers will typically cut you a check instead. All you have to do is ask.
"Your contract with your car insurance company obligates them to pay on the claim, and unless you have some very specific wording in your contract that says you're required to use preferred body shops, which is really only allowed in a few states, then you can have the money paid directly to you," says Penny Gusner, a consumer analyst for CarInsurance.com.
So when, and how, might you undertake such a do-it-yourself job? Consider, in order:
Is the damage minor?
If you got hit in the parking lot, scraped backing into the garage, or pummeled at the Little League field, chances are the car's a good candidate for self-repair -- - as long as the dent is one you'd describe as "small" and the car's frame isn't damaged.
If the doors or hood don't shut perfectly, or there's any odd pulling or other operational affect, stop and see a pro.
"I really don't recommend someone trying to fix their own vehicle if there's frame damage," says Donnie Smith, an instructor in auto body repair at Butler Community College in Kansas. "There's a lot you could do wrong that could affect safety."
Will your insurer pay you?
If you're avoiding filing a claim to dodge a deductible hit or to hang on to cheap car insurance, then a DIY job offers an affordable way to smooth out the dents and preserve the car's value.
If an accident claim is filed, in most cases it shouldn't matter either who is at fault or whose insurance company is paying, says Gusner. As long as you're due recompense, you should be able to take the cash.
If the other driver's insurer is paying, you'll be sent the check anyway. If the claim is with your insurer, you can still request a check made out to you, unless your contract requires the use of "preferred" repair shops. Most states, however, have outlawed this requirement, to prevent insurers from steering business to select shops.
The only other hitch is if you're still paying on the car. In that case, an insurer may issue the check to both you and the lien holder. A lender with strong oversight might ask for a receipt from the body shop -- showing proof of valid repairs -- before endorsing the check over.
Do you really want to do it?
If it's your first time, a job that takes a shop four hours might take you 14, including time to consult instructional materials. "There's a learning curve," says Smith, who posts DIY instructional videos for consumers at his Collision Blast website.
"The thing you need most is the desire to do it," he says. "Because it's going to take time to learn how to do it."
Got a hammer?
If so, for a small dent repair you may only have to buy a few sheets of sandpaper and cans of paint, possibly some body filler, or "Bondo." Some jobs might call for a specialized hammer, called a dolly. All are available at auto parts stores.
Your cost in parts: under $100.
Alternatively, the bill from a shop: $300-$400.
Summarized, the process sounds simple: hammer out the dent from behind, if need be; sand the paint off the damaged area, in order for the Bondo and primer to stick; then fill and paint.
Mind you: car colors have become so sophisticated that chances are you won't get an exact match.
But jobs vary and the devil's in the details. A newbie is looking at a weekend, with ample time to shop and to allow filler and paint to dry between stages, Smith says.
"Once it's done, you can see the end results and have the pride of having done it yourself," he adds.