Going to an automobile repair shop is a little like going to the dentist. You know it’s going to hurt, it’s going to be expensive, and it usually leaves a nasty taste in your mouth.
The good news for Nevadans is that the average repair cost on vehicles displaying the "check engine" warning light decreased to $332.52 in 2011, down from $393.97 in the previous year and on par with the national average of $333.93, according to a report released Wednesday by CarMD, a California company that sells auto repair diagnostic products.
Nevada ranked 24th in the nation for car repair costs in 2011, dropping from the fifth-highest repair cost in 2010, CarMD’s Vehicle Health Index showed.
Wyoming had the highest cost at $389.18, while Indiana was lowest at $283.95, based on CarMD’s analysis of more than 160,000 repairs related to the "check engine" light.
Nevada’s lower car repair cost can be attributed to a 10 percent decrease in part prices and a 23 percent decrease in labor costs, CarMD’s Kristin Brocoff said.
There hasn’t been a significant change in the type of repairs being made since the last survey, so it’s a good indication that mechanics are cutting prices, she said.
"Certainly the economy continues to be tough, and repair shops are really having to lower labor rates and do the work for less to remain competitive," Brocoff said. "I think you can negotiate and get a better rate these days."
Loren Kiner, a certified master technician at Imperial Auto and Truck Service in Henderson, said he’s not charging less for labor, though he has heard of discounts for paying cash for repairs without an invoice – a risk for consumers who have no warranty if something goes wrong.
But with intense competition in the automobile repair industry, shops are being creative to attract customers, Kiner said. Instead of charging a standard $100 diagnostic fee for getting to the bottom of a "check engine" warning, Imperial will do it for $39.95, which can be applied as a credit toward future repairs, the technician said.
"Let’s say you decide not to repair a vehicle and you come back two months later for a wheel alignment, we’ll still give you a $39.95 credit," he said. "People are out of work, on unemployment or welfare, so you’ve got to approach everything carefully. You could easily scare somebody away."
The most common "check engine" repair is related to the gas cap, which account for almost 10 percent of repairs, CarMD found. Loose, damaged or missing gas caps are inexpensive to fix, yet they cause 147 million gallons of gasoline to evaporate every year. Nearly 7 percent of repairs are related to faulty oxygen sensors, which measure the amount of unburned oxygen in the exhaust, which in turn affects fuel mixture. It might seem like the car is driving fine, but gas mileage will drop. The average cost to replace an oxygen sensor in Nevada is $242.21.
"I know gas prices have come down a little, but if you ignore the oxygen sensor, it can lower fuel economy by 40 percent," Brocoff said.
The third most common car repair (5 percent), is replacing the catalytic converter, which costs a little more than $1,000. Catalytic converter failure typically results from ignoring smaller problems such as a misfiring spark plug or a faulty oxygen sensor.
Nevada has a slightly higher percentage of mass air flow sensor replacements than the rest of the nation, CarMD found. This sensor measures air flow to the engine and is particularly susceptible to dry, dusty road conditions in the desert. A clean air filter, which costs about $20, is the most affordable way to keep the air flow sensor healthy – preventing a $450 replacement bill.
Tony Smith, service manager for Findlay Chevrolet in Las Vegas, said repair costs are lower now because drivers are being more proactive with maintenance and small repairs – things like changing oil and transmission fluids and keeping fresh coolant in the radiator.
Americans are paying more attention to preventative maintenance and keeping their cars longer because they can’t afford a new car, he said.
The average age of 240 million cars and trucks on the road reached a record high of 10.8 years in 2011, according to R.L. Polk, a company that reports on auto industry trends. That is up from 8.4 years in 1995.
Contact reporter Hubble Smith at hsmith@reviewjournal .com or 702-383-0491.