Ask Zach from Ashland Automotive

Q: I’m shopping around for different estimates for scheduled maintenance. Why do the costs vary so much?

A: Let’s use one of the most common estimates as an example—one that often needs explanation—the ever-looming timing belt job. Many car owners call and ask about the cost of a timing belt replacement, and the estimates can vary from just a few hundred dollars to over a thousand. A bit of education will help explain the wide variance in cost. The timing belt refers to valve timing, not ignition timing. It keeps the valves in time with the pistons, so air can enter (intake) and exit (exhaust) at the right time. Many timing belts also turn the engine’s water pump. The belt winds and weaves around a roller bearing, or two—sometimes four, as is the case with the Subaru application. When paying for three or four hours of labor to change the timing belt, which is meant to last roughly 100,000 miles, it is beneficial for the customer to also change the water pump, the roller bearings, and the hydraulic belt tensioner. In our experience, none of these will last another 100,000 miles, and changing them in conjunction with the timing belt is a good preventative measure that will help the car run more smoothly. This adds another bit of labor, maybe an hour, but is worthwhile in the long run. If the water pump fails at a later date, the customer will need to pay for another four or five hours of labor for a new water pump and timing belt, as the belt (that you just replaced, no less) will likely be soaked with coolant!

There are also 2-3 oil seals, which should be checked, and may need to be changed at this time as well. Several parts, including all the drive belts (alternator, power steering, etc.), must be removed in order to gain proper access to the timing belt. If inspection reveals that these drive belts are worn, it benefits the customer to have them changed as well, as there is no additional labor expense.

When you call for the estimate, which most professional shops won’t give over the phone anymore, and you ask for the price of a timing belt replacement, you’ll likely get the cost of replacing just the belt. Which, as previously mentioned, may not be the only part that needs replacing. Next time I suggest asking more detailed questions about which parts will be replaced, and more importantly about the warranty on the parts and labor. Is it a nationwide warranty? Ask about the technicians working on your vehicle, and find out if they’re ASE certified.

When comparing prices, it’s important for the consumer to understand that they’re shopping for a service, not a product. Services are not universal, and differ greatly from one provider to the next. As always, I suggest a car owner develop a relationship with one shop that they trust completely, and simply follow the recommendations of that shop. No shop is perfect, but the right shop will do everything in their power to provide their customers with the best possible service.