I was recently lied to by a mechanic in Denver. It nearly cost me $1,200 in unnecessary van repair. Sadly, this isn’t exactly a story for the headlines. “Mechanic overcharges woman for work she doesn’t need in the first place” is a pretty common phenomenon, but this time it really hit home…literally.
Unfortunately, inflated auto repair costs are all too common for women in van life. That’s why I want to share my story! I’ve got a few hard-learned lessons on how to avoid being misled and wasting money when getting van maintenance.
The Terrible News
My, van Freebird, is my tiny home on wheels and my trusty co-pilot. When I brought her in for a routine oil change, I was shocked when the mechanic told me she was unsafe to drive. He claimed her transmission needed to be flushed and the brakes were completely worn down. He actually went so far as to boldly declare:
“It’s not safe to drive this vehicle in the mountains.”
I had been on my way into the Rocky Mountains that afternoon and the news literally stopped me in my tracks. My baby girl, Freebird, is a 2012 Nissan NV2500 high roof. She is 82,000 miles young and the center of my vanlife. I hope to spend many more years adventuring with her so I take vehicle maintenance very seriously.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I blindly believed the mechanic. I didn’t ask any questions or do any independent research. I just trusted him and started acting accordingly. My first reaction was to call around to several other shops, not to verify what needed to be done, but just to check on prices. Quickly, I found two van repair shops in Colorado who were much less expensive, so I began my mission: Fix Freebird.
The Search for a Female Friendly Van Mechanic
First, I brought Freebird to Rob at Meineke in Broomfield, Colorado. His guys spent an hour or so looking at the van and came back with their full report:
“Your brakes are in perfect condition. You’re taking great care of this van and you don’t need any work done.”
“Yeah, you don’t need any work at all. Transmission looks good, brakes look great, you’re good to go.”
It was then I realized a sobering truth and, sadly, it’s one many women might have faced at the mechanic. I was almost duped into spending over $1,200 for nothing at all.
When I told Rob about the other mechanic misleading me, he was really bummed about it: “The work we do on one particular vehicle doesn’t make or break us, so why would we ever mislead anyone? We don’t work like that here. We have integrity.”
Getting a Second, Second Opinion on Van Repair
I decided to learn from my mistakes and get a second, second opinion with the highly-respected crew at Elder Auto repair shop. The owner, Ramon, loves to educate consumers and he’s even built little dioramas all over the waiting room showing how brakes and engines actually work. It was fun to play around with them while his guys lifted Freebird into the air.
Ramon called me back to the garage and showed me all the different parts of Freebird’s brakes, brake pads, rotors, and tread. The verdict was clear: they’re in excellent shape and have plenty of miles before needed any work done. The guys put Freebird back together, fixed my side mirror glass which had been hit and shattered, and sent me on my merry way.
“Feel free to reach out anytime with questions– I love educating people and I’m always here to help!”
I was so impressed with Ramon and the entire Elder Auto experience. If you’re a female vanlifer coming through Denver, I highly recommend you reach out to them.
Vanlife Pro Tips To Avoid Being Misled by Mechanics
I asked the Vacay Vans tribe and for tips on how to avoid being misled by mechanics and you came back with so much valuable information! Here are a few gems of wisdom for auto repair that I’ve learned from my vanlife crew.
Find a Keeper and Butter Him UP
Many female vanlifers have accumulated a list of mechanics they trust across the country and they keep those relationships alive by referrals and gifts.
I have a mechanic I really trust, so when I’m on the road I call him with diagnostics and prices. @luvmartha
I keep trusted mechanics in my back pocket. Through time and trust I’ve built a relationship with a few mechanics. It started with just one great mechanic and I buttered him up and won him over. Then repeated the process. Now they all get Christmas cards and postcards from me. Butter them up with treats and xmas cards! @samvanzam
It’s a service so tips go a LONG way. Maybe start with a small gesture like lunch, $20, or beer. @ashleyanywhere
Reviews, Reviews, Reviews
Scour Yelp! And if there’s no good choices, I use AAA 100 mile tow to get to a bigger city if necessary. @luvmartha
Vet what they say by polling your Instagram following! @zak_of_all_trades_berrybus
There’s a reason why Yelp rules the world. Reviews are everything! Be sure to read the negative reviews as well, just to see what’s going on there. On google, the mechanic who misled me tried to hide all of his one-star reviews by having a bunch of five star reviews without any explanation, so Yelp is likely your best bet here. And it always helps to ask people you know who are experts in the auto field.
Preventative Auto Care is Essential
Keep your tire pressure within the recommended range because it saves gas mileage and it’s a great way to save the environment! @ashevillevanlife
Keep copies of all your maintenance records for your vehicle. @thedirtdiz
Take proper preventative care of your van and it’ll pay off. Regular oil changes make a big difference and are crucial to long-term vanlife. When getting your oil change, ask them to check on your tire pressure, transmission fluid, and see if the tires need to be rotated.
Shop Around for the Best Pricing on a Mechanic
Always call three different shops to get three different quotes. @sprinter_on_the_move
Good work ain’t cheap and cheap work ain’t good. @brewman77
Ask if you can order your own parts (if it’s a big job). @makingmyths
It’s great to get work estimates from a few different shops, but please keep in mind something I learned from years working in construction: cheap is expensive. Sometimes the cheapest quote is cheap for a reason. Don’t make the shops undercut each other or you’ll get an undercut repair job.
Detective Work is Key in Van Repair
Always ask to SEE old parts before they replace them with new ones! @kensieandjoey
Get quotes with part numbers ahead of time and look them up online to compare prices. @oneppo
Always bring up the cost of the item they are replacing. Make them itemize the costs @jon_tock
When getting a quote for mechanic work, be sure to ask how many hours of labor the work take and get an estimate of cost per hour for labor. I’ve heard that between $100-125/hour is reasonable for good quality auto repair on a van. This can help you avoid a ridiculous amount of labor added unnecessarily.
Become an Van Repair Expert
The Internet and YouTube are your best friends. Reddit and online forums are great places for advice. @thenomadicsunny
You have to be your own expert. This applies to all areas of life: autos, house, spiritual, physical, etc. Far too many people claim to be experts and soon you are separated from something of value (money, time, health, spiritually bankrupt). Be the expert. @biliumboy
This one hit home for me. For too long, I delegated so much important education because I didn’t want to be bothered, but this has resulted in me being very vulnerable to being misled. Trust me, you have enough time and brainpower to learn and become an expert in what is important in your life. I’ve promised myself that I am going to shift gears and make this happen. If you’re alive, you should be learning! If you’re dedicated to vanlife, you need to know the fundamentals of van repair.
Get Digital VanLife Maintenance Gear
Get an OBD2 reader, which will give you real time readings of your vehicles diagnostics. @bound_to_valhalla
My mechanic uses xoxocar.com where you send full diagnostic report with photos! @deluxebk
Don’t Be a Female VanLifer in a Repair Shop
Don’t be a female. @vanlifer
Take a dude with you…this usually changes their attitude 90% of the time. @malsobo
Say you have a family member who is a mechanic. @houstonwehaveaproblem267
It’s a horrible feeling to be in a situation where people are going to try to take advantage of you. Sadly, that’s life and, in female van life, you are going to meet some awful mechanics. Hopefully these insider tips can help you avoid being mistreated for your female-ness.
Be sure to learn the basic auto language so you know what to say— for example, I said I think I need a “transmission flush” and the contractor came back with “never flush, always drain and fill.” At that point, I lost negotiation power because they knew I didn’t know the correct lingo or correct work needed.
Female VanLife Auto Repair Shout Outs
Thanks to everyone who contributed to this article and a big thanks to Rob with Meineke and Ramon with Elder Auto! It is so refreshing to find business owners with integrity. If you guys are in Denver, Colorado, be sure to check them out.
I am not going to name and shame where I had my nightmare van repair experience because it might have been one bad guy in an otherwise okay auto repair shop. But I do want to share good experiences! So, vanlifers, have you met any great mechanics on the road?
Once you are ready for the road, check out my Camper Van Upgrades (That Won’t Break The Bank!).
As a master
Automotive tech with over 35 years experience I see this type thing all the time. Sadly most consumers are completely uneducated as to what their vehicle actually needs.
The best place to find maintenance information (fluid types, quantity, service schedule etc) is your owners manual. Sadly most are still wrapped in the cellophane they came in. Never having been opened I see it all the time.
My clients all keep me on speed dial. If they ever question a repair they know I am a quick call away. Often times we can face time and if they are at a shop they can show me the brakes, tire or component in question and we can discuss repair needs and alternatives.
If you hear the word “flush” what they are really saying is let me get deep in your pockets for no reason. 90% of the time. It is best to take your business else where.
All fluids should be changed at the dealer recommend service interval. Anything other than that is dishonest in the vast majority of cases. Occasionally there may be a fluid contamination issue to improper service. However that is very rare.
When it comes to brakes ask to either see the old and new brake pads together to see the difference and two ask if they have a brake thickness gauge. If they do not it is time to find a competent technician. Also ask for brake rotor thickness before and after service as well specifications with written documentation. Most shops use alldata, Mitchell or identifies have them print the specs out with photos of their tech measuring your rotors.
Just some basic ideas to stay safe out there.
Thanks so much for your feedback!! I’m so grateful for helpful auto techs like you!
SO true! I’ve got to force myself to crack open the owners manual. There really is so much we can do if we just have the patience to read through the steps.
Amanda @ The Van Project
If you find yourself with van troubles in the Eastern Sierras we 1000% recommend Nate and family at Bishop Automotive Center. We ended up spending about a month in the area doing a full clutch rebuild. They let us come help out a bit (with the front end removed we were able to remove more rust from our engine) after signing waivers of course. A few months later, we were in Moab and had an issue with our wheel bearing – Nate even contacted us to let us know we were under warrantee. Then emailed us the paper work so our Moab repair was covered. They’re worth waiting for!
Awesome– thanks for the recommendation!! It would be awesome to create a master list of mechanics that we all love!
I try to learn as much as I can about vehicle repair. I pay $2 and practice procedures in The Church of Steel (junkyard). It helps even more when other junkyard goers show you a technique for removing a part. Any mistakes? They are made in the junkyard at a cost of $2 and not on my car!
After several decades of repair on my own vehicles, I have this to say about good auto mechanics. They are not only excellent diagnosticians, but they know what to do when things go wrong (i.e. a broken bolt inside a blind tap).
They should have no difficulty explaining the problem they found and the procedure to fix it. Show an interest in what they are telling you! And keep your car CLEAN! Yes, the cleanliness of the car or van can adjust the attitude of the mechanic. “If this person doesn’t care about their vehicle, then why should I?”
I really love that tip about keeping your car clean! I never used to keep my car clean and you’re right– appearances really do matter in that sense. People respect you when you respect yourself and the way you present and maintain your world. Great advice, thank you!
Knowledge is the key to understanding what you need to buy, and when.
Take brakes, for example. Take a look at new brake pads and compare them to the thickness of what is on the vehicle now. You will see how much life is left.
Just like a gallon of milk in the fridge. You can see how much is left and then estimate how long it will last.
Thanks for your feedback! Information is the key!
I dated a mechanic in high school and wished I’d paid more attention when he was trying to teach me stuff. The ONE thing I do remember is to mark the part to be repaired with fingernail polish – clear, or neutral color, or pale yellow (a color most junkyards use). Get it diagnosed, tell them to show you the part, then take it home to “think about it.” Find the mechanic or shop you want to have to repair it, and then mark the part. You can use paint, but polish resists most of the solvents shops use. You can also make some scratches in the part with a nail, and photograph it so you know what they look like so you can compare them when you get the old part back. Once the polish dries, smear a little grease on it so it looks normal and doesn’t stick out. All you need is a dot that YOU can spot. Ask that the mechanic save the part for you. When you get your car back, look at that part for the dot you put on it. If it’s not there, check the repair. I did this with a $600 repair job and found they never fixed the car. It sat in the field for a week then they tweaked something and returned it and charged me for the repair. The part with the polish was still in place! A $50 lawyer letter got me my money back AND an additional $600 to pay my attorney and to get it repaired elsewhere.
I’m 64 years old, female, and work on my own cars as much as possible. (Brakes, alternators, solenoids, starters, belts, radiator fans, hoses, filters, etc. – everything but the big stuff like transmissions etc.) I am self-taught using YouTube and just like the guys – practicing on my own vehicle. I highly recommend https://girlsautoclinic.com/ and her book, “Girls AutoClinic Glovebox Guide” for basic instructions. I too was lied to and misled by cheating mechanics (Never, for instance, go to ANY University Tire and Auto Repair in Virginia). I’ve been able to spot the scammers by understanding my cars and watching YouTube videos to see what’s actually needed for that $1,000 repair. Latest instance, an EGR Valve. The mechanic claimed it was a $500 repair. I got on YouTube and the job consists of replacing two bolts, replace the metal gasket and blow it out with Throttle Body cleaner. Plus, the part is ON TOP of the engine and requires no removal of a bunch of other parts. DEFINITELY NOT worth paying some lying grease monkey $500 for. Gasket cost me $2.89. Throttle body cleaner was $4 give or take, and took me 20 minutes. I also pay $15 a month for JustAnswer dot com. There are professional mechanics who will walk me through procedures, send me unlimited answers to questions and diagrams, tips, advice, and support for $15 a month. On my 7-day free trial, I asked for help trouble-shooting the electrical system on my 2000 Isuzu Rodeo’s window motor and regulator. 10 minutes later I had replaced the old motor/regulator and installed the new one, and cleaned the fuses and it was working. Cost me $55 for parts and saved me $450 at the repair shop. I’m waiting on a windshield motor so I can replace that and get my wipers going again. THREE bolts and a plug. Literally plug and play. It’s not going to cost me $395 a legitimate shop wanted. Shops charge by the estimated hour plus parts, plus a parts markup. My part, a NEW motor, was $33 on Amazon. Advanced Auto wanted $89. (I also use Rockauto dot com to save money on most parts). Shop around for prices on parts. You can literally save $25 to $100 on the same part! It took me 5 minutes to remove the old window transmission and motor, two minutes to replace the transmission with a “new” (used from eBay) one ($22) and will take another five minutes to complete the job once the motor arrives.
Auto repair on older cars is not rocket science. There are a lot of things you can’t do with newer cars, but still….The hardest part of car repair is getting it PROPERLY diagnosed. I go to AutoZone, use my OBDII scanner ($14 at Walmart), or pay a legit mechanic their $50 to $100 hourly rate for a diagnosis. Watch some YouTube videos and read some of the basic car repair books targeted at young boys (teenagers) and you CAN learn this stuff. Even if you don’t actually do it yourself, at least you’ll understand when you’re being lied to.
Hi Becky, thank you so much for taking the time to provide such excellent advice and information! I’ll have to check out Girls Auto Clinic! Best wishes to you!!