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Why the rush? City Rush to Regulate Auto Repair will Inconvenience Consumers

Houston Rushes to Bury Auto Repair Shops in Red Tape

In the interest of protecting the consumer, the City of Houston is rushing to enact an ordinance to regulate the automotive repair and service industry.  This would regulate every type of business that touches a car whether it’s a body shop, an independent auto repair shop, a dealership or a big store like Wal-Mart.

While this ordinance has good intentions, it paints the entire industry with one stroke. The proposed ordinance stems from an effort to eliminate a problem which comes from a small percentage of unscrupulous collision repair shops comprising one segment of the automotive repair trade.  This attempt at a solution will wrap an already difficult business in more red tape.

Customer satisfaction is our top priority.  As repair professionals we want to have a successful business, but we know to do that we have to do our jobs correctly, honestly, and quickly.   This proposal to regulate our industry like recently passed laws to regulate others comes at an economically difficult time. It also sends the message to those of us that have been running an honest business that we are not to be trusted.

There are already state laws that automotive repair facilities abide by.  For example, the State of Texas requires auto repair facilities to acquire two signatures to authorize work, operate the vehicle, and to inform consumers regarding the mechanic lien laws. Every day in Houston, in approximately 3000 auto repair facilities, technicians are changing oil, mounting tires, repairing transmissions, fixing brakes, performing state inspections, restoring wrecked vehicles to about 30,000 cars.

There are some good features for the consumer in this ordinance.

On the good side the ordinance will require all auto repair facilities in Houston to post their license number on their advertising and invoices so that the consumer will know who is and who is not a city licensed repair facility.

It will also require auto repair facilities to carry a minimum amount of liability insurance.  Currently, there is no local or state law that requires a repair shop to have insurance. In an uninsured shop, the car owner is liable for anything the garage owner does with their car.  Good shops already purchase insurance, but virtually all shops that lack integrity will also lack insurance.

Giving approval over the phone for any collision work will be illegal and limits will be placed on certain fees charged by collision shops. There is a good reason for this. Repairs resulting from accidents usually cost thousands of dollars.  While we are hesitant to say that the city should set pricing for any private business transaction, we agree every approval for collision repair should be in writing.

The rest of the ordinance is pages and pages that regulate how records will be kept, how repair shops may gain approvals from customers and sets out penalties that can criminalize honest mistakes and rack up fines to benefit the City.

Here is some of what is proposed.

If this new law takes effect, phone approvals for mechanical work will be allowed only if the customer provides a third signature permitting  an estimate either to be given orally, in person, or over the phone. Records of that approval have to be maintained for two years.   Automotive professionals are concerned about this for a few reasons.

Our main concern is that if your car is towed in to a mechanical shop, we can’t even look at the car until you come in, fax or email a signature.  If you are business owner with a fleet account, you will have to email, fax or come to the shop to give approval of authorization or to sign a waiver.  This will slow down the repair process and be an inconvenience for everyone involved.

Mechanical work is entirely different from collision. It differs in that it’s quick, less costly, and customers depend on our efficiency so they can get back to and from home.

The City’s proposal will slow down this repair process.  If it sounds complicated, it will be even worse when customers are confronted with the legalese. If they refuse to sign the waiver authorizing estimates by phone, the customer will have to return to the shop, find a fax machine or send an email.

While the Automotive Service Association (ASA) fully supports efforts to root out bad players in our industry, we believe this ordinance over-regulates and will be a burden to our customers who don’t own fax machines, e-mail or have a second car to come back to the shop for a signature, business customers who have fleets, and towed-in vehicles. This is going to affect senior citizens, the disabled, those with lower incomes, and those who depend on one vehicle the most.

Another provision is that no authorizations are required for repairs under $100.  As long as your bill is $99.99, the repair shop does not need your permission to make repairs or perform maintenance on your vehicle.  Our concern is that if you are dropping off your car for an oil change and the technician calls because he determines your coolant needs to be flushed, it will exceed a $100.  Then, you will have a delay in repair if you did not sign the waiver–even though we still have the two signatures from the state. This provision seems unnecessary and could lead to confusion and abuse.

If a shop neglects to put the license plate number, vehicle identification number, or mileage on a work order, or records it inaccurately, it could result in a criminal misdemeanor with a $200 to $500 fine.

Why do the Mayor and some members of City Council feel this ordinance is needed?

The Automotive Service Association was told it was necessary because there were some bad body shops taking advantage of insurance companies, resulting in a rise of insurance premiums.

ASA requested information through an Open Records Request about the complaints so that as an industry, we could better understand what problems the city is trying to address. The complaints did indeed support that there are some bad players in the collision repair industry who are charging excessive disassembly fees, administrative fees, and are holding cars hostage. Over a three year period, we were given 257 complaints filed with the Houston Auto Dealers, a division of Houston Police Department that enforces automotive repair facility licenses. Of those, 61 complaints concerned excessive fees from collision shops—none from mechanical.  It is a problem, but, “it’s like killing flies with cannon instead of a flyswatter,” as Councilmember Jolanda Jones said.

Lastly, there is the concern about increased costs of implementation that will be passed on to consumers.  All our paperwork will have to change to comply. Not to mention all our fees and permits were increased this year. For example, in 2011 a Houston automotive repair facility license increased 147% from $200 to $495.

What do we recommend?  Ideally, ask the city to create two separate automotive licenses: one issued to regulate the collision industry and another, simpler one, for the mechanical industry. Many at City Hall acknowledge that this would be a real fix, but there is a rush right now to pass the ordinance before the end of the year. What’s the rush? ASA has known about this proposal for less than a year, and we have been working diligently with the City to help them. The mayor has set the vote on December 21st, the last city council meeting of the year.

The Automotive Service Association wants City Hall to slow down, listen to both industry and consumers and do it right the first time.

 

Kathryn van der Pol is the past president of the Automotive Service Association-Houston Chapter.  ASA is the largest not-for-profit trade association of its kind dedicated to, and governed by, independent automotive service and repair professionals. She and her husband Sybren own Adolf Hoepfl & Son Garage, in business since 1946.

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Can You Always Trust the Dealership?

November 21, 2011 1 comment

Last week, we had a regular customer call us very concerned about her Asian model car. This was a 1996 vehicle with over 193,000 miles.  The owner was on a limited budget.

Recently, we replaced a broken timing belt and timing chain (Yes! This car has both.) The customer stated that within a few days after she picked up the vehicle, it started to run rough and had a loss of power when the air-conditioner was on. Not sure what to do because she was in another part of town, she took it to the Asian car dealership. The dealership said her distributor was bad and recommended a new one.  In addition, the dealer said she needed new plugs, plug wires, an oxygen sensor and crank sensor– all for– gasp! A lot of money.

There was only one problem. We had replaced most of what they were recommending five months ago.

We asked her to bring the vehicle back to us and offered to tow it at our expense. She chose to drive it and waited while we made a thorough examination. What we found saddened us. It was not because we found defective parts or problems we had caused. It’s because this dealership was about to take this young woman for a $1700.00 ride.

The distributor, spark plugs, and plug wires were all fine. They still looked brand new. In addition, when we checked the estimate from the dealership, we were shocked that the dealer was going to charge $330 labor just to install these parts. That was nearly two times more than what we had charged the customer several months ago. Inflation must be out of hand, huh!

So, what was the problem? Well, the insulation coating the wires connecting the crank sensor had rubbed off, so the crank sensor circuit was not working. We taped the wires and fixed the problem. At no charge, I might add.

The dealership had been right in one aspect – she did need an oxygen sensor, which we informed her of and gave her an estimate on replacing.

Our customer will need to replace the oxygen sensor eventually, but hopefully with our care, we’ve improved the road-worthiness of her vehicle and made her a more loyal customer.

Not all dealerships are this bad, but over selling is a general problem. Dealerships don’t make money selling new cars any more. Over half their profit for the entire dealership comes from the service department; yet they have to honor recalls and warranty work which pays them very little. In addition, their overhead is so much higher than a typical repair shop, they have to charge a higher labor rate. So  their real way to make money is on customer-pay repairs.  Sometimes, I guess some places find false problems in their hunt for work.

At Adolf Hoepfl Garage, we have been serving customers since 1946. We believe that repairs are a matter of trust. When we tell you something is broken, it is broken.  If we make a mistake, we stand behind our work and fix it.  We take pride in taking care of each customer and their vehicle. So, while we may not have marble floors, chandeliers and lattes, we believe our principles will outlast this dealership model.

One Thing Always Leads to Another

Our Anniversary Bench

Three years ago, a customer named Lorine came in to have her car worked on, and we started chatting.  She told me about a great cafe  inside a historic hotel in Blessing, Texas.  The hotel was established  in 1906 when the town of Blessing was a major train stop. She went on and on about the home cooked food, the atmosphere, the friendly people, and my mouth was watering just to hear her talk about it.  Our 29th wedding was coming up and my husband and I decided that would be a fun thing to do.

So, on June 3, 2007, off we went to Blessing, Texas.  For some reason, we left late, probably because of something at the shop so we didn’t pull into the parking lot until 2:05 p.m.  For those of you who wonder where Blessing is, it’s not far from the coast between Victoria and Palacios, Texas.  It’s really in the middle of nowhere, and it’s a very small town. We found the hotel easily, walked in, and an elderly lady wearing a large white apron said, “We just closed five minutes ago.”

The Blessing Cafe and Hotel

By this time, we were hungry, and I was devastated. It’s our anniversary and THE PLACE we had picked to celebrate was closed.  I could feel the tears welling up and big fat lump rising in my throat. This was supposed to be a blessed occasion, and I didn’t feel blessed.

What to do?

The lady was nice enough to let us look around, but we left because we were in the middle of nowhere on a Sunday with  no place to eat.

Palacios was less than an hour away and it was the only city anywhere on the map. So off we headed in a stony silence.

Fortunately, we found a nice seafood restaurant and had a good meal.  Then we decided as long as we were there, we might as well look around Palacios and see what there was.

Off the main road was a shop called Texas Furniture owned by Glen Barnette.  When we walked into to his work shop, Sybren immediately noticed that Glen was building model airplanes, the kind Sybren used to fly in his teens.  So he and Glen hit it off right away.  While they’re talking up a storm like they’ve been friends for 50 years, I noticed Glen’s cabinets, tables and chairs, a model of an Australian house Glen hoped to build one day, and I remembered that we had wanted a bench for our customers to sit on outside while they were waiting for their ride.

I had a paper towel in my purse, and I sketched out what we wanted.  A big oak bench that could seat five, with cup holders on each end, curved legs and most important, a Texas Star centered in  the back.

Glen said he could do it, and it would take about a month and a half.  We left a deposit and drove back to Houston, much happier than when we left Blessing.

Six weeks later, we drove back to Blessing.  Got there at 11:30 a.m.  We loved the meal.  It was every bit as good as Lorine promised it would be.  Then we headed to Palacios and picked up our beautiful anniversary bench.

Food is served on antique stove tops.

When we brought it to the shop, we realized that it was too nice to set outdoors without a plan.  So, for several months it sat inside one of the bays while we tried to think of how we could use it without it getting stolen, getting ruined, or being a hassle. Nothing came to us, so it just sat there gathering dust.

Then one day, one of our customers let us know that one of the two chairs inside the waiting room was broken.  Someone too heavy had sat in it and bent it out of shape.

We had to have a replacement right away.  We often have customers who wait and they had to have a place to sit.  Then we remembered!  The bench.  We took out the chairs and lo and behold, the bench was a perfect fit.  It was meant to be.

Sometimes, when all the customers have left and we’ve closed the shop, we’ll sit on our bench and hold hands.  We now know how blessed we are.

Our Anniversary Bench