Your car is a smoking ruin, your nerves are a wreck and the tow truck just pulled up.
Quick, choose a body shop.
Although it’s the rare insurance policy that doesn’t allow a consumer to choose the auto body shop– a scant number of policies include various exclusions and exceptions — it’s easy to make missteps.
Your insurance company usually has some suggestions. Most have “preferred” or “direct repair” auto body partners who get steady claims work, handling both appraisals and repairs. The insurer may guarantee the quality of the work. In return, the car owner is spared hassle and paperwork because the insurance company and repair shop communicate directly.
But you shouldn’t slavishly assume that a thumbs up from insurance companies means those shops have excellent facilities or technicians.
“I know of several shops, because I’m in the business, that don’t have the proper equipment and don’t invest in the proper training,” says Mike LeVasseur, president of Keenan Auto Body in Philadelphia. “We spent $45,000 on education this year, and our equipment upgrades are $300,000-plus. We keep up and a lot of people don’t and they get the exact same [insurance company payments].”
5 keys to finding the right repair shop
The good news is you don’t have to train as a certified auto body technician to choose the shop that’s best for your car. Here are strategies from LeVasseur and his Automotive Service Association (ASA) colleagues:
- Ask the insurance company, friends, family and co-workers for recommendations. Insurance statistics show the average car owner uses an auto body repair shop about once every 10 years, so an owner often has little or no information about auto body shops, says April Hernandez, of Hernandez Collision Center in Savannah, Ga. Many states don’t allow insurance companies to make recommendations unless you ask specifically.
- Don’t assume all shops offer the same quality. Although word-of-mouth recommendations are important, so is due diligence. I-Car Gold Class and ASA designations are akin to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for auto body shops, LeVasseur says. Even if insurance companies or other trusted sources recommend a shop, though, check with the Better Business Bureau, Angie’s List and other consumer groups to find out how they rate the shop, too.
- Don’t dismiss a shop because its estimates use aftermarket parts. Despite negative comments on many online sites, in some cases it's fine to use aftermarket (non-original equipment) parts. One example is the repair of an older vehicle when factory parts would boost the price so much that the vehicle is “totaled.” Scott Benavidez, of Mr. B’s Paint & Body Shop in Albuquerque, N.M., recommends that auto owners review their insurance policies -- before repairs begin -- so that they know if aftermarket parts are required.
- Expect to pay out-of-pocket for some shops or services. Insurance companies may not mandate which shop a customer uses, but that doesn’t mean they won’t hold the line on costs. If you insist on a certain shop that charges more than the insurance company budgets for a certain repair or if you insist on extra work, expect to pay.
- Don’t expect to haggle. A recent study by Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and AutoMD.com noted that most shops are unwilling to budge on prices. When the shop owners did negotiate, though, it was usually with women. “It’s kind of an ironic twist,” says Florian Zettelmeyer, the Nancy L. Ertle Professor of Marketing, noting the study showed 35 percent of women were able to get their requested price compared to 25 percent of men. “The same kind of cultural expectations that cause repair shops to overcharge women are probably also responsible for showing preference toward women in negotiations.”