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Compare and repair

In tough economic times, today's consumers are holding off on big purchases whenever possible to get more mileage out of what they already own - and, it's certainly true when it comes to cars.  There are web sites that promise to arm you with all of the new info you need before heading to the mechanic - but, are they worth it?

Ebony Hawkins says she's counting on her eight-year-old Bonneville to keep on rolling.  "Taking on any kind of new cost is just unreasonable right now," she said.  She says she feels she has been overcharged in the past for repairs, and doesn't quite know what to look for when it comes to a fair price. 

Hawkins says she hit the web and stumbled upon www.repairpal.com.  "I was like, ‘This is great.  It tells you how much you should expect to pay for parts and services, and it tells you what is all included in the service,'" she said.  David Sturtz with repairpal.com says the site is designed to be a ‘one-stop-shop' for information about your car.  "Our goal has been to inform the consumer and educate them before they get the service done, and answer any questions that they might have," he said. 

Sites such as this vary, and offer everything from recall alerts and service reminders, to customer reviews of repair shops.  Others allow consumers to ask a certified mechanic for advice, and all of the sites give estimates for what a repair should cost in your area.  "I hear every day from DriverSide users how much they appreciate finally knowing what a repair should really cost," said Trevor Traina with www.driverside.com.

After consumers visit the web sites and enter in their make, model year, or VIN number, along with the repair needed, the sites will calculate costs based on databases in your zip code area.  The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) is a non-profit organization that certifies technicians, and it says the sites can be helpful.  "I think the information is useful just to give you an idea of what you should be spending ,or what something might cost," said Tonny Molla with ASE.

The organization stresses getting the best estimate possible by allowing a professional to see your vehicle's specific problem.  And, if you have no automotive experience, you may find the sites difficult to navigate.  Some sites say they only ask for basic information you already should know about your vehicle, and they have had overwhelmingly positive response to their features. 

Fairrepair.com lists shops that have agreed to meet - or beat - its estimates, and driverside.com lists experts by make and model.  Repairpal.com includes mechanic certifications.  "We can't put a video camera under the hood of every car out there, and actually observe the work a mechanic's doing," said Sturtz.  "We use accreditations like AAA, and Better Business Bureau, and ASE."

While customer reviews and ratings online may be helpful, experts say the best way to find the right mechanic or shop for you is to ask around.  Hawkins says she did just that, and when she walked into the repair shop she says she felt like a smart consumer.  "It made me feel more prepared," she said.  "It made me feel, you know, it gave me some esteem about going into the car repair place myself."

There is no charge to use driverside.com or repairpal.com, but fairrepair.com charges a fee of $9.99 for estimates that can be refunded in certain cases.  The ASE says the most accurate estimate comes from a technician physically looking at a vehicle, but it says the web sites have the potential to be a positive consumer tool.

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