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Question: I recently had my car repaired at a dealership. A service manager said it would take about an hour and a half, another service manager guessed two hours. After the job was started, I received a call saying the job would take 5½ hours. I know repair costs are set by a flat-rate schedule, but is there any way a customer can find out what the rate would be for a specific job? Or are we just at the mercy of the service department?

Answer: This is an excellent question. First off, if you’ve signed a work order with a specific estimate, the service agency must get your approval for any significant additional cost or work. The dealership did so in this case. Perhaps they found more damage or problems as work progressed — not an uncommon situation.

The flat-rate service estimate is based on the repair task taking a specific amount of time to perform, as determined by the carmaker or service industry. In effect, this is a fixed price repair, meaning the agency and technician will be paid a fixed amount to do the work. If the tech can do the work in less than the allotted time, he makes the same amount in a shorter period of time, effectively a higher hourly rate.

My only concern in your case is whether the additional time required was for the exact same repair that was originally estimated at 1½ to two hours. If so, you’d have a basis for complaint. But if the additional time was required for additional work, you would have had two choices: accept the additional cost or decline the repair.

Flat-rate repair times are available to consumers. You can ask the service agency what the flat rate is for a specific repair, check your library for a flat-rate manual or look up this information online from a number of sources. Some of these offer a free trial period, while others require a subscription. Consider this effort to be your due diligence to protect yourself from being overcharged.

Paul Brand is an automotive troubleshooter, driving instructor and former race-car driver. Write to him at: Star Tribune, 425 Portland Ave. S., Minneapolis, Minn., 55488 or via email at [email protected].

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