This is an ongoing debate in the automotive industry. I have found that if you have several shop owners in the same room, you will get several different answers. Each owner has developed his own method for charging for diagnostic. As a consumer you must understand, all shops are driven by the same economic engine, so whether it is a "line item" on the invoice, a larger profit margin on a part, a surprise part that you find out about after you already have approved the work or simply a "cut corner" you never knew about, auto shops need to satisfy their overhead. With this in mind, I would insist that you are paying for diagnostic or lack thereof whether you know it or not.
So as a consumer, how do we navigate paying for diagnostic or not paying for diagnostic? We know we need to get our car fixed, but we don't want to spend any more money than is necessary. I don't blame you. It's a very common question we encounter every day in our business. I find people willing to choose a shop based on whether or not the shop charges diagnostic fees. I am pretty certain this is not a good deciding factor for picking a reputable auto shop.
This may sound counter intuitive, but stay with me. I say to save money on auto repair, favor the shops that are honest and upfront about diagnostic charges. "Honest" is the key word. Remember, it's part of our economic engine, it's not simply that one guy is making a whole lot more money than the next because he charges diagnostic. On the other hand, some shops are upfront, yet choose to use free diagnostic as a loss leader. The problem that a consumer will run into with free diagnosis is when the technician or business is not getting paid for the work and its "pro bono", you don't generally get complete effort. It's simply human nature. We can all remember an instance of the "buddy deal" on some work but when there was an issue it was difficult to resolve because of the buddy deal. No one made money although money was exchanged. Cut rate price almost always equals cut rate service.
Let's understand diagnostic charges and inspection fees. There are typically two types of diagnostic or inspection fees. The first type is "Diagnostic" where there is an issue and something has to be intellectually figured out with testing. A good diagnostic identifies what broke and why it broke. In this instance if we don't identify both cause and failure, we don't have a complete diagnostic. The second type is simply an inspection fee. For the ones who do this for free, this is the common loss leader. I am a big fan of a thorough inspection fee that's a paid service. That's the best way to understand your car as a whole so that you know how to spend money wisely. Again with the "pro bono inspection" the technician may just hit the highlights he is looking for. Paid service keeps the motives inline.
To bring this full circle, the number one thing that I find reduces that amount of money you spend on auto repair is a long term relationship with a quality auto shop, some of which will charge diagnostic. So if your shop charges for diagnostic, don't hold it against him - they are just being financially responsible and not hiding a true cost somewhere else in the bill.
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