Twin Cities Consumer Checkbook: How to Choose an Auto Body Repair Shop

The driver on a bender. The distracted accidental tourist. The speed demon who can’t stop in time. No wonder car bodybuilders are doing such booming business: the hits keep coming.

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

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

Bodywork does not only require rigorous work standards. Mechanics must also have expertise in the properties of metals and plastics; the mechanics of high-tech suspension and steering systems; modern welding methods; the art of tinting and mixing paint; how to identify accident-related damage to mechanical, electrical, air conditioning and other systems; and much more.

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

Checkbook’s undercover shoppers received offers from area stores for the same bodywork and discovered that you can save big by choosing a store that offers low prices.

Don’t assume a low price means lousy work. Stores that offered the lowest prices to Checkbook’s undercover shoppers scored higher on its customer survey questions than stores that offered high prices.

If an insurance company is paying for repairs, as is the case for over 80% of auto bodies, you need a shop that won’t let the insurer cut corners. Does the store provide a clear quote? Can their representative explain and document the need for each element of the work? If so, chances are the store is asking your insurance company to pay for all the necessary work.

If your car sustains minor damage and you are certain there are no structural or safety related issues, you will likely be instructed to use a drive-thru claims center who will provide a cost figure of authorized repair and body shop names. ready to do the repairs for that amount. Using a drive-thru is convenient and should be satisfactory when there is only cosmetic damage.

Some insurers offer another option: Take your car to a workshop designated by the company and have the repairs carried out without an estimate. This is an acceptable arrangement if you only need minor repairs.

But if there’s even a possibility of serious damage to your car, take it (or have it towed) to a top-notch shop and ask the insurer to send their appraiser there. The independent body shop will provide a better damage assessment than an insurance company looking to reduce claims costs, 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 the shop will use genuine parts, as there are concerns about the quality of non-OEM parts. Genuine parts are usually the most expensive option, which is why insurers were pushing stores to use cheaper aftermarket or used parts. But Minnesota law now prohibits insurers from requiring stores to use non-OEM parts.

If there is a dispute with the insurer, particularly over costs, and your claim relates to your own policy, check the policy for an arbitration provision.

Check your car carefully before taking it home from the store. Look and feel if the repaired surfaces are smooth and if the paint has the right gloss and color. Take a test drive if the damage is significant. The car should operate as before the accident.

Ask your bodybuilder for a warranty. You’re likely to get a minimum 30-day warranty against defects in parts, materials, and workmanship, and most high-quality stores offer warranties of six months or more; the duration of certain guarantees varies according to the type of employment. Whatever warranty they offer, get it in writing.

Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a non-profit organization whose mission is to help consumers get the best service and the lowest prices. You can access Checkbook’s ratings of local body shops through August 5 at Checkbook.org/StarTribune/Auto-Body.