There's a very cool service launching this morning: RepairPal, a utility for when you need work done on your car.
As CEO David Sturtz explains, car repair is one of the classic cases where the consumer "is at an extreme informational disadvantage." Mechanics know more than you do, and this disparity can be used in the worst way: to completely rip you off. Even in the best cases, many people suspect their shop is cheating them out of money whenever their ride needs unexpected work.
To drive home his point, Sturtz told me about a study the company did when it was forming: 50 calls were made to shops asking for a price quote on a given repair. Then, a short time later, the calls were made again to the same shops, but this time with women making the queries instead of men. The average price difference was 17 percent higher when women called. Sturtz thought he could level the playing field, and not just for women.
RepairPal can't tell you what is wrong with your car. But if you tell it which repair the shop says you need, plus what car you have and where you live, it will tell you the real price range for the repair. The data that goes into the generation of the this range is gathered from a number of sources, including one of the super-secret labor cost estimator tables that's been available exclusively to mechanics up until now. (RepairPal has a five-year exclusive on this data.)
Sturtz worked hard in my interview with him to hammer home his point that the price estimates RepairPal generates are comprehensive and accurate and that they take in a ton of information while throwing out specious data like prices on inferior-quality parts. Nonetheless, I found a huge range on some repairs -- from $1,100 to $2,400 for a clutch replacement on my 1996 Saab in San Francisco, for example. Sturtz told me that the data did reflect the reality of different parts costs, labor costs, and competencies that shops have in estimating repair prices. He also said that the range for higher-volume vehicles, like mid-'90s American cars, is tighter. (I found the Saab figures reassuring, by the way: My local shop charged me $1,200 for a new clutch a month ago.)
RepairPal has a host of supporting features for its repair cost estimator, such as expert advice that you get when you look up a repair. For example, if your mechanic tells you that you should replace your spark plug wires when replacing a failing ignition coil, and you can see that RepairPal recommends that for your car, you can feel less suspicious of your mechanic.