“Few topics in the automotive repair business are as controversial and confrontational as the fee for a diagnosis. Should a customer have to pay for the time the mechanic spends figuring out what’s wrong with a vehicle or only for the repairs he or she actually makes? These days, doesn’t the technician just plug the car into a computer and the computer tells the technician what part to replace? “
What do you get for the diagnostic fee? I can’t speak for any shop but ours. Regardless of whether it’s a warning light or message, a noise or physical issue with the vehicle, or any other concern we invest time into finding the cause of, you get an answer to the question of what and why by a very experienced staff that takes pride in performing the required testing and stands behind their diagnosis. I’ve heard horror stories of shops charging for a diagnosis, a customer paying for the repair, and the same code coming back or problem still being there and the customer being charged a second time for the same DTC. To us, that’s just not fair to the customer. This is why we always document the codes that are retrieved and the codes that are actually addressed. If we can’t determine the exact cause, we will tell you up front. In these cases we may suggest things to try and how likely they are to fix the issue. In those cases, ultimately it’s the customer’s call to move forward or not. While we aren’t perfect, we strive to be as transparent and honest about everything we do, especially when it comes to diagnosing a problem. Above all we just want to treat every customer the way we would want to be treated.
Can’t a local parts store just pull the code and tell me what part is bad? Just about every parts store can pull codes these days. Sure, you can get lucky and pull a code and the first “recommended repair” fixes the issue. Keep in mind however, most people working at parts stores are not technicians; however they are in business to sell parts. Most parts stores will scan the ECM and produce a list of the “most common” things that will cause this code. Most times it is possible that the parts they tell you CAN actually cause your issues, but I’ve seen some crazy “recommended parts” as causes for certain codes.
Food for thought: You wouldn’t call your doctor’s office on the phone, tell the receptionist you’re having chest congestion, coughing up mucus, and are wheezing and let the doctor order a double lung replacement without performing any tests based off what you told receptionist would you?
So let’s say that code scan came back with a P0300 mis-fire code. The handy print out tells you that the number one solution is to replace the spark plugs. So you say to yourself, “Self, I can do this!” and you purchase the spark plugs, intake plenum gasket set, a couple cans of brake cleaner and some shop towels. You get home and you pull up a video on YouTube on your iPad and get to work. After the better part of your afternoon, some new words, and a couple of beers or glasses of wine, it’s back together. You wipe your hands off and proceed to get in the car and fire it up. BAM! The misfire is still there. You return to the auto parts for the next most recommended thing on the list, ignition coils. Another few hundred dollars later and you are back at home, intake manifold off and you replace all 6 ignition coils. This time you got it back together in 3 hours flat. You don’t even bother to wipe your hands off; you climb in the car and fire it up. STILL THE SAME MIS-FIRE ?!?! How is that possible?
You drop the car off at the shop Monday morning. You’ve wasted your 1 free day off for the week working on the wife’s/husband’s/etc. minivan and it’s still not fixed. You’re in luck today though because the shop isn’t too busy to check your van out and get to the bottom of it. They check it out and narrow the problem down to the valves being out of adjustment. They quote you the price and perform the repair.
There are more than a half dozen different outcomes of this exact scenario that I’ve seen play out over the years.
- Customer accidentally cracked a new spark plug when installing it.
- Bad fuel injector.
- Bad VVT solenoid.
- Low on oil causing VVT issues and mis-fires.
- New aftermarket ignition coil bad.
- Incorrect spark plugs installed because an auto parts store “up sold” you on the “better” plugs.
- Rodent chewed through wires (Honda actually has special electrical tape now to prevent this that costs about $45 a roll).
The big picture is that while you can get lucky replacing the most common cause of a DTC (Diagnostic Trouble Code) you can also waste a lot of time and money and still have the same issue. If you’re mechanically inclined and you know that you have well over the miles of suggested service life on your spark plugs, by all means, try that out yourself. In a lot of cases that will solve the issue. There’s not much more satisfying than fixing a problem yourself. But there is not much more frustrating than wasting time and money only to STILL have the same problem.
The time to diagnose something is time spent working, which is labor. No one would go into work and give up a couple hours of pay while actually doing their job. To this end, if it takes an hour to diagnose that your car needs the intake gaskets replaced for a coolant leak, and the labor guide calls for 3 hours to replace the intake gaskets, we will have 4 hours in the job with the time to perform testing to find the problem. For this reason we are unable to “waive” the cost to diagnose just because we perform the repair.
I do think that the main reason most people scoff at being charged for a diagnosis is that there is such a widely adopted misconception of what properly diagnosing a vehicle entails. I could see if the reality was that the technician just plugged a scanner in and it spit out exactly what was wrong. I too would be mad for being charged an hour labor or more for that service. But once you understand how many different avenues a tech must go through to get to the correct answer, hopefully you can see why we charge for a diagnosis.