Cheap Car Service: How to Save Real Money

Cheap car service can help prevent a much bigger bill down the track

Cheap car service lays down the same foundations for reliability as reasonable diet and exercise does for you. Unfortunately, cheap car service is also seen by car owners as something of a ‘grudge’ purchase – you pay for car service (even cheap car service) only because if you don’t, your car will let you down. Cheap car service is also one of the first things people scrimp on when times are tight – an example of profoundly false economy when something preventable goes wrong, leaving in its wake a repair bill you can’t jump over.

Here's how to buy into cheap car service cost-effectively:

Cheap car service: How frequently?

Service intervals are laid down in the owner’s handbook. A common service interval is six months or 15,000km – whichever comes first. Because the average car in Australia covers a bit less than 15,000km annually, for most of us the time-based portion usually beats the distance. Spring and autumn are good options for cheap car servicing because you won’t have to add the ‘car servicing’ bill to your ‘to-do’ list every Christmas, when your cup is probably running over with other costs.

Cheap car service: Who can service my car?

There are three options for cheap car service:

  • Car service: do it yourself
  • Employ an independent third-party mechanic to do your car service
  • Get your car service done at an 'authorised' new car dealer

Each car service option has pros and cons.

Cheap car service: the DIY option

If you have mechanical skills, some cheap car service jobs are comparatively easy. These cheap car service jobs include changing the oil, changing filters, checking the brake pads for wear, replacing wiper blades and rotating the tyres. Other car service jobs, like replacing a timing belt, require a high level of mechanical skill generally in the ‘mechanics only’ domain. In other words, you can defray some service costs and achieve cheap car service if you have tools and skills, but other car service jobs are best left in the hands of a professional.

However, even if you have next to no mechanical skill, it’s easy to check fluid levels (engine oil, coolant level, etc.) and make sure there’s sufficient air in the tyres. As far as cheap car servicegoes, this is possibly hte cheapest. If you don’t know how to do this, perhaps a friend with car service experience can help. If you draw a blank there, your local mechanic certainly will assist you on the cheap car service basics. Fortnightly checks of tyre pressure (don't forget the spare...) and fliud levels really pay off by preventing major problems at the roadside. Unfortunately, if you own a new car that’s still under warranty, servicing it yourself will almost certainly void the warranty (unless you’re a mechanic and you conform to the ACCC’s other car servicing requirements – see below). Cheap car service: Independent mechanics & cheap car service 

Local mechanics, franchises like Ultra Tune, and mobile mechanics like Lube Mobile have cheap car service as their core business – so they tend to be pretty good at it. Car service is a very competitive industry, so car service pricing tends to be fairly sharp. Mobile mechanics, obviously, offer convenience because they come to you, saving cab fares and 'car-less' logistic hassles – costs you really should factor into your personal 'cheap car servicing' equation - but the scope of car service work they can perform onsite is somewhat less that the car service menu at a full-tilt car service workshop.

Another plus with cheap car service third parties is that you deal with the actual mechanic who’s had his hands on your car. (Often this isn’t possible at an 'authorised' dealership.) They can give you a verbal report, which might include a ‘heads up’ that you better come back in three months for a 'mini-me' service to get the brake pads replaced, or that you better budget for an expensive car service because the timing chain needs replacing in six months’ time. At least here you get some early warning that a big bill is on its way. Although the car service at that time may not be especially cheap, at least you will have had the opportunity to budget for it.

Third-party mechanics certainly also have access to a cheap car service support network of specialist automotive experts from tyre and wheel service centres to auto electricians, trimmers, air conditioning experts, and paint and panel repairers (often these are the same car servicing third parties that the 'authorised' dealers nearby also use). So you (and they) are not alone. Independent cheap car service operations also tend to be way cheaper than dealership servicing departments, which operate with much greater overheads, and often also charge an unjustifiable premium for their car service.

Unfortunately, third-party mechanics can’t be definitive experts on all of the 60-plus brands of car on the road. Nor to they have every conceivable diagnostic tool in-house. However, you can have a third party mechanic service your new car cheaply without voiding the warranty – provided it’s done within the ACCC’s car servicing guidelines (below).

Cheap car service & 'authorised' dealers

The term 'authorised' is in inverted commas because the car service 'authorisation' is really a made-up piece of spin to 'help' new-car buyers believe that only a franchised dealer (for example a Toyota dealer if you just bought a Corolla or a Holden dealer if you just bought a Commodore) is 'authorised' to do the service on your new car. This in fact is a piece of car servicing nonsense - the ACCC has strict guidelines about who can do car service, and how they perform that car servicing, to preserve the warranty.

New car dealership service tends to be the most expensive option for car service – basically because the dealership sits (typically) on expensive real estate, and dealers invest heavily in equipment and training. Often, there's an unjustifiable premium for the car service placed on top of that. So the service on offer tends to be anything but cheap. The new car dealer is, however, backed up by a robust car servicing technical support team back at the parent car company (which is excellent for car servicing problems that are hard to diagnose). Sometimes, however, dealership car service pricing is simply unjustifiably high.

New car dealership car service departments also have, in-house, all the specialist tools required to perform all the required diagnostics when servicing your particular car.

The service departments at new car dealership are also definitely the place to go to have warranty claims repaired for free.

Cheap car service, warranty, the ACCC & you

Third-party car car service doesn’t necessarily void your new car warranty. According to the ACCC your warranty will be preserved provided three criteria are met. First, your car service needs to occur according to the manufacturer’s schedule – that is, servicing the car on the right time/distance basis, and the specified car service tasks need to be carried out. Second, a suitably qualified person needs to be servicing your car (ie, a professional mechanic). Thirdly, the car service parts and materials used during the service need to be fit for the purpose. Interestingly, they don’t need to be the genuine parts but they do need to be up to the job (in the case of oil, for example, the correct specification must be used, etc.)

Cheap car service: what you must do

Shopping around for cheap car service? Get car servicing quotes from three (minimum) car servicing providers. Even if you elect to go with an 'Authorised' dealer, get car service quotes from three of them - new car dealers are generally independent businesses, and the parent car company has no ability to impose a pricing cap on individual dealers' car servicing prices. In fact, it would be illegal to do so. This means they often charge vastly different rates for parts and car service.

Ask how much for the scheduled car service – you’ll need to tell the provider which service is due (ie the 60,000km service). Obviously, an unscheduled problem might be discovered in the course of the car's service (see below) but it should be possible to give you a firm price on the scheduled component of the car service. Car service prices can’t be fixed under Australian law – so it pays to shop around for car service. Ask for a car servicing guarantee if you're not taking the car to an 'authorised' dealer because you need to be sure the new car warranty will survive the car servicing process intact. Even if the car is not under warranty you need to know the person doing the work will stand by the job if something goes wrong after the car is serviced - because getting consumer affairs departments involved on a car service issue has to be a weapon of last resort.

Cheap car service: Houston there's a (car service) problem

This is the call we all dread: You thought you were up for a nice, cheap $200 scheduled car service bill. Then you get a call: “There’s a problem with your front brakes, which need new pads and rotors and it’s going to cost you $1500. Should we go ahead and do it?” This is often a car service disaster – for you - but you should generally put the proposed car service fix on hold until you’ve established that a) there actually is a problem, and b) the quoted repair price is fair – by ringing around. If the car service problem isn’t critical and the car can still be driven safely you might want to delay the repair for a period so that you can budget for it. At the very least you should ask for a breakdown of the parts required and a detailed explanation of the service problem - then you should ring around to ensure the price is fair, as well as dropping in to view the problem (just so you know you're not simply contributing to the business owner's planned European holiday fund).

Finally, and not to be sexist about it, but this affects a lot of women (and some men): If you don't know anything about car service and a servicing problem like this arises, conscript an ally who does have some car service knowledge to look at the car and help you ring around to make sure that this unscheduled car service problem is actually something that requires urgent attention, and that the quoted repair price is on the money.