Gripes against auto shops rise in Iowa, nation
July 18, 2008 12:19 PM

No one likes it when a car does not work properly, but sometimes it can be more of a hassle to get the problem fixed. Statistics from the Better Business Bureau and the Iowa attorney general's office show complaints against the auto repair and service industry are rising. In Iowa, complaints filed against the industry ranked it ninth of more than 100 industries in 2007, up seven places from 2006, according to preliminary figures from the Better Business Bureau and the Iowa attorney general's office. Nationally, complaints also ranked the auto service industry ninth, up from 11th in 2006.

"It is an area that is always a concern to consumers," said Bill Brauch, director of Consumer Protection Division of the attorney general's office. "It's always at the top." Danny O'Brien of O'Brien's Auto Repair knows that bucking that trend - and keeping customers satisfied - is good for business. Owner of the shop at 4414 Douglas Ave. in Des Moines, O'Brien said his job as an auto mechanic is to try to ease the customer's auto repair experience.

His "honest practices" have helped him grow clientele about 30 percent each year since his business began five years ago, he said. Brauch said the biggest concerns with customers include charges above what's given in an estimate, or the problem not being fixed after work is said to be complete. The former issue, however, is a quality issue, and not an issue of fraud. Chris Coleman, president of the Des Moines Better Business Bureau, said complaints often arise when problems with recently purchased new or used cars are not fixed when taken to the service sector of the dealership.

In 2007, complaints about new car dealerships ranked third, and used dealerships ranked eighth. If auto repair and service, new dealers and used dealers were included in the same industry, it "would be by far the largest," Coleman said. Complaints for auto repair and service may also be rising this year, because of a new scam where flood-damaged vehicles are sold after body work is competed and new upholstery added. O'Brien said he tries to avoid customer complaints by completing service he originally told the customer about and doing it in a timely manner.

"When I first opened five years ago, I made a decision that we would never be in court with anybody," O'Brien said. Although he said it is impossible to please everybody, he does try - even if it means the business absorbs the cost. Many customers don't trust a mechanic immediately, he said, because they may have been victimized in the past, but the key is to form a relationship with the customer. O'Brien's Auto shop is approved by the Better Business Bureau, and his shop hasn't received complaints in the last 36 months, according to the Web site.

Coleman said problems often arise when things aren't in writing. Even when an estimate is in writing, a customer should understand that it is an estimate and the problem may need additional work before it is fixed, or the problem is not what was originally described by the customer and may be something else. "We primarily have complaints that result in poor communication on the front end," he said. Additional fees are not lawful unless disclosed up front, and customers have a right to a written estimate, through what Brauch calls the "no surprises" law, referring to the Motor Vehicle Track Practices Act.

Some complaints about providers in the auto repair and service industry come from women who call and say they were just taken advantage of because they were women. But Coleman said there is no statistical evidence that would show this is accurate. The Better Business Bureau doesn't keep statistics of complaint filed by gender.

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