Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook: How to choose an auto body repair shop

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The driver on a bender. The distracted accidental tourist. The speed demon who can’t stop in time. No wonder auto body shops do such brisk business: The hits keep on coming.

While even the best body shops can’t undo the accident, Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook’s ratings reveal they can restore your car to its pre-crash appearance and performance. But our ratings also reveal that some shops may compound your misery with lousy work. And that prices at some shops are more than twice as high as their nearby competitors.

Until Aug. 5, Checkbook is offering free access to its unbiased ratings of area body shops to Star Tribune readers via Checkbook.org/StarTribune/Auto-Body.

Bodywork doesn’t require exacting work standards alone. Mechanics also must possess expertise on the properties of metals and plastics; the mechanics of high-tech suspension and steering systems; modern welding methods; the art of paint tinting and blending; how to spot accident-related damage to mechanical, electrical, air-conditioning, and other systems; and much more.

If you, not an insurance company, are paying for the work, shop around for a good price.

Checkbook’s undercover shoppers got bids from area shops for the same bodywork and found that you can save big by choosing a shop that has low prices.

Don’t assume a low price means lousy work. Shops that quoted the lowest prices to Checkbook’s undercover shoppers scored better on its customer survey questions than shops that quoted high prices.

If an insurance company is paying for the repairs, as is the case with more than 80% of auto bodywork, you need a shop that won’t let the insurer cut corners. Does the shop provide a clear estimate? Can its representative explain and document the need for each element of the job? If so, chances are good that the shop will get your insurance company to pay for all needed work.

If your car suffers minor damage, and you are certain there are no structural or other safety-related problems, you probably will be asked to use a drive-in claims center that will provide an authorized repair-cost figure and the names of body shops willing to make the repairs for that amount. Using a drive-in service is convenient and should be satisfactory when there is only cosmetic damage.

Some insurers offer another option: Take your car to a company-designated shop and have the repairs made with no estimate. This is an acceptable arrangement if you need only minor repairs.

But if there is even a possibility of serious damage to your car, take it (or have it towed) to a top-rated shop and have the insurer send its estimator there. The independent body shop will provide a better evaluation of the damage than an insurance company looking to keep down the costs of claims, and the best shops will serve as your advocate in dealings with the insurance company.

If an insurance company is paying for your repair work, make sure that the shop will use OEM parts, since there is some concern over the quality of non-OEM parts. OEM parts are usually the most expensive option, which is why insurers used to push shops to use less expensive aftermarket or used parts. But Minnesota law now bars insurers from requiring shops to use non-OEM parts.

If there’s a dispute with the insurer, especially over costs, and your claim is on your own policy, check the policy for an arbitration provision.

Check your car thoroughly before taking it home from the shop. Look and feel whether repaired surfaces are smooth and paint has the proper gloss and color. Take a test drive if the damage was substantial. The car should function as it did before the crash.

Ask your body shop for a guarantee. You are likely to get a minimum of 30 days’ guarantee against defects in parts, materials and workmanship, and most high-quality shops offer guarantees of six months or longer; the length of some guarantees varies by type of job. Whatever guarantee they offer, get it in writing.

Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. You can access Checkbook’s ratings of local auto body shops until Aug. 5 at Checkbook.org/StarTribune/Auto-Body.

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