This guide is intended to offer useful advice to help New Jersey consumers avoid some of the problems that may result from a trip to the auto mechanic. It will provide a brief discussion of some consumer protection laws. This guide is not intended to cover the specifics of any particular dispute. If you have a car repair problem, it is always best to speak to a lawyer to discuss the options that apply to your case.
CHOOSING A REPAIR SHOP
Do a Better Business Bureau Search
Businesses sometimes register with the Better Business Bureau to show that they are committed to quality service. Also, consumers sometimes file complaints against a business with the Better Business Bureau. Although a clean report from the Better Business Bureau does not guarantee good service, consumers should avoid businesses with multiple or unresolved complaints.
Do a Division of Consumer Affairs Search
A consumer who has a dispute with a repair shop or any other business that sells to consumers may file a complaint with the Division of Consumer Affairs (DCA). DCA keeps the complaint history of New Jersey businesses. To get the complaint history of a business, contact DCA at (973) 504-6200.
Ask for Recommendations
Look to your family and friends for guidance. If someone you know has always been satisfied with a certain repair shop, consider giving that repair shop your business. Also, a Google search of the business name may be valuable.
Use a repair technician who is certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). The ASE seal should be on display in repair shop windows. Also, the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the Auto Service Association (ASA) offer “car clinics” to car owners. These training classes offer basic information on navigating car maintenance and repair.
When you purchased your car, you should have received an owner’s manual for your car’s make, model, and year. If you don’t have a manual, you should get one from the dealer, the manufacturer, or online. The manual gives important instructions on car safety and operation. Also, it provides warranty information, manufacturer’s contact information, and parts specifications. This information may be important if you question the repair charges.
The manual lists the required maintenance schedule. This shows when you should bring your car in for a specific type of service. If you follow the manual’s maintenance schedule, your car should last longer and be in better condition than a car that is not maintained. If you don’t follow the maintenance schedule, the manufacturer may void the protections of a new car warranty.
SOMETIMES REPAIRS ARE FREE
Your car repair may be covered by and paid for by a warranty. There are many types of warranties on cars. A warranty is basically a promise that the car will be free of defects for a set period of time, or a promise to repair certain limited systems within the car for free for a set period of time.
New cars come with a written warranty—a new car warranty or a manufacturer’s warranty. A typical warranty runs for four years or 48,000 miles, whichever comes first. This means that the manufacturer will make repairs without cost to the consumer on most, but not all, systems having to be repaired within that set period of time.
Used Car Warranties
A used car may come with the remainder of the manufacturer’s warranty, or it may come with a written warranty from the dealer or a third party. If the dealer sold the car as a “certified” used car, this usually means that there is a written warranty that the dealer will repair, or pay a third party to repair, certain systems if they break down during the covered period. Sometimes a warranty is 50/50. This means that the consumer pays half of the parts and labor and the warrantor pays the other half.
Written warranties must disclose the following: the nature and extent of any guarantees; your (the claimant’s) obligations under the warranty; and the dealer’s or third party's (guarantor’s) obligations under the warranty (for instance, whether the guarantor will repair, replace, or refund). The name and address of the guarantor must also be listed in writing.
You may also get a written warranty from a repair shop, where the repair shop “warrants” or guarantees its work, or agrees to repair any problems with the prior repair work for a set period of time after the work is completed.
Keep all of the repair bills for your car. They will serve as proof that the maintenance or repairs were completed. They will have information on warranties and guarantees. Also, they will help if there is a problem with your car that cannot be fixed.
Consumers are also protected under state laws that provide certain implied warranties. For instance, the consumer has the protections of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC). (The cite to this law is N.J.S.A. 12A:2-314, et seq.) The UCC provides that a seller may not violate an express warranty, the implied warranty of merchantability, or the implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose.
An express warranty is a representation made by the seller, either orally or in writing, as to the condition of the car. An implied warranty of merchantability means that the car must be able to be sold legally, the seller must have title, and the car must meet the minimum requirements for safety and use in this state. Finally, the implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose means that the car must meet the requirements of the buyer as disclosed to the seller. If the car cannot satisfy these requirements, then the consumer may reject the car within a reasonable time after the sale.
Another valuable warranty is found under the Magnuson-Moss Federal Trade Commission Warranty Improvement Act. (The cite to this law is 15 U.S.C.A. Sect. 2301, et seq.) This Act provides that there is a cause of action whenever the dealer, the repair shop, or the warrantor breaches a written warranty, an implied warranty, or a service contract. If the repair bill states that a certain problem was fixed, then it should be fixed. If the problem crops up again and you must bring it to be repaired again, there should be no cost for fixing the problem a second time because it should be covered under the prior guarantee or warranty. You must give the party a chance to fix the problem or agree to an informal, non-binding dispute resolution process before suing in court.
Other implied warranties are found in the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Warranty Act. If the car has a defect that substantially impairs its use, value, or safety or that is likely to cause death or serious bodily injury, then you may be entitled to a refund of the sales price reduced by a reasonable amount for the use of the car. (The cites to this law are N.J.S.A. 56:12-30 and N.J.A.C. 13:45-26.3.) New Jersey provides this protection to new cars that have a defect in the first two years or 24,000 miles, whichever is sooner, when there have been three unsuccessful repair attempts or when the car has been out of service for at least 20 days because of repair efforts.
If you purchased a used car, it may be covered by the Used Car Lemon Law. (The cite to this law is N.J.S.A. 56:8-67, et seq.) This law warrants cars up to seven years old or less with fewer than 100,000 miles that were purchased for $3,000 or more. If the car had less than 24,000 miles, then it is covered for 90 days or 3,000 miles, whichever occurs sooner. If the car was purchased with between 24,001 miles and 60,000 miles, then it is covered for 60 days or 2,000 miles, whichever is sooner. If the car is purchased with 60,001 or more miles but less than 100,000 miles, then it is covered for 30 days or 1,000 miles. However, if your car had 60,000 miles or more at purchase, you may “waive” (give up) your coverage under the warranty in writing.
“Secret” Warranties and Title Defects
Some cars are subject to a recall, where a written notice is sent to the consumer that a car has a defect that must be repaired for free. Before a formal recall, sometimes manufacturers permit consumers who have cars with a known repair problem to get repairs for free. Unfortunately, the dealer doesn’t always share this information. Before paying for a repair, ask if there are any such notices from the manufacturer about your car.
Cars with certain title defects get fee repairs. For instance, if a new car was in a wreck, it should be disclosed on the title and it should be given a written warranty. Also, if a car was returned to the manufacturer after being determined to be a lemon, that information should be on the title and you should have a written warranty from the manufacturer to make repairs. If you get a CARFAX report on a car before you buy it, it should disclose these title defects.
SHOPPING FOR CAR REPAIRS
Car repair shops must follow certain standards of conduct under the Consumer Fraud Act (CFA) and its regulations. (The cites to this law are N.J.S.A. 56:8-2, et seq., and N.J.A.C. 13:45A-26.2.) Under CFA regulations, the repair shop must give you an accurate estimate, receive an authorization from you before it starts any work, provide an itemized bill, and give you all the documents related to the car repair. Repair shops avoid giving you written estimates and authorizations if you drop off your car outside of normal business hours or if you authorize repairs orally. Repair bills must be detailed and include separate charges for labor and parts and state if the parts are new or rebuilt. “Rebuilt” parts are used and repaired parts that should be substantially cheaper than new parts.
See Tips to Protect Yourself When Getting Car Repairs.
The CFA is also violated if the repair shop does any of the following:
- It engages in “affirmative misrepresentation” of a material fact that causes damage to the consumer. Example: The repair shop lies about how long it took to complete your car repair and charged you more for labor than the actual labor involved. The damage is the amount that you overpaid.
- It knowingly and intentionally withholds material information that causes damage to the consumer. Example: The shop makes a repair knowing it will last only three months but does not tell you that. You think the repair is worth the money but would not have gone ahead if you knew it would only last for three months. The damage is the cost of the repair.
- It engages in any “unconscionable commercial conduct” that causes damage to the consumer. Example: You take your car in for a car repair. The mechanic takes your car for a joy ride and has an accident. He fixes the car the best he can, and he rolls back the odometer to cover up the problem. Damage would include the car’s loss in value.
If the repair shop doesn’t follow the CFA or its regulations, then you are entitled to cancel the repair contract and receive triple damages, attorney’s fees, and costs if your claim is successful in court.
If you fail to pay a repair bill after you have authorized the charges, the repair shop has the right to refuse to return your car until the bill is paid. The bill becomes a lien on your car. A lien is the legal right of a creditor to hold a debtor’s property or sell it to repay the debt. (The cite to this law is N.J.S.A. 2A:44-20, et seq.) The repair shop must give written notice of the lien and 30 days for you to pay the bill before the car may be sold to satisfy the lien. Also, the repair shop may add charges to the bill for storage of the car. (If the car is subject to a lien for repair charges, the repair shop must notify you before it charges you for storage.) If the car is sold and all liens satisfied, any remaining portion of the sale price must be returned to you.
WHEN TO TALK TO A LAWYER
You should contact a lawyer right away in any of the following situations:
- You think your car has a substantial repair problem that has not been corrected.
- A repair shop violated the CFA.
- You are facing the loss of your car because of a repair bill or warranty dispute.
- Your mechanic is suing you.
Some private attorneys specialize in this area of the law. One place to look for an attorney is the National Association of Consumer Advocates. Also, see Consumer’s Guide to the New Jersey Lemon Law. You may contact the Lemon Law Unit of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs at (973) 504-6226.
If you are a low-income New Jersey resident, you may be eligible for legal help from a Legal Services office in your area. You may also be eligible for free legal advice from LSNJ-LAW™, Legal Services of New Jersey’s statewide, toll-free legal hotline. The hotline telephone number is 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888- 576-5529) or 732-572-9100 if you are calling from outside New Jersey. Hotline hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. If you are eligible, the hotline will help you through the process. If you are not eligible for assistance from Legal Services, the hotline will refer you to other possible resources.
Tips to Protect Yourself When Getting Car Repairs
- Ask for a written itemized estimate. In this way, you are able to compare the prices that different shops would charge for the same repair. If English is not your first language, you should bring along a trusted person who speaks English. Do not rely on a repair shop employee who speaks your language to provide accurate information.
- Shop around for diagnostic charges. There is no good answer to the problem of being charged before the repair work can even be done because of the cost of diagnosing the problem. You can ask to have the diagnostics charge credited against the price for repairs if the repairs are completed with that repair shop. Check with a few repair shops to find out what they charge for diagnostics before you get the work done.
- Even if you are willing to authorize repairs orally, you should still have the repair shop fax the written estimate to you. Before authorizing the repair, you can comparison shop by phone to other repair shops if you have itemized information regarding the estimate.
- Ask if the repair is necessary or suggested.
- Before the repair, ask to receive any replaced parts. If you ask, the repair shop must give you the parts. This prevents the repair shop from making unnecessary repairs or telling you that it made repairs it did not actually make.
- Ask how long the repair will take.
- If a rebuilt part is suggested, ask how long it is likely to last and ask for the price of the new part so that you can make the best decision.
- Ask if the repair is guaranteed, and ask to receive the guarantee or warranty in writing. Remember, even if you have an express warranty, the repair may be covered by other warranties as well.
- Keep copies of all the documents about the car repair. Documents should include the estimate, your authorization, the bill, the receipt, and any warranties.
This information last reviewed 10/25/11.