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'DIY' Versus Subletting Your Automotive Service Work

Moses Ludel


The high cost of new vehicles has its counterpart in rising dealership labor costs.  Shop labor has crept up, and more consumers find themselves working on their own vehicles.  This starts with basic lube and oil/filter changes, spark plugs and an air filter.  Then comes the transmission filter and the cooling system flushes.  AutoZone, NAPA and O'Reilly's, much like Home Depot and Lowe's, cater to a growing number of DIY customers.  Expect this trend to continue.

As vehicles fall out of factory warranty, consumers make choices.  While the average wage for American workers is now $24.57 per hour, the labor rate for an automotive dealership can vary from $80-$130 per flat rate hour on major service work.  Minor service procedures like a lube-oil-and-filter feature deeply discounted rates, making the dealership more competitive with Jiffy Lube and a host of other fast-service outlets.  Dealerships also use the lube rack as an opportunity to generate additional service work.  Many gulp at paying $80-$130 per hour for service when their own wages are a fraction of that amount.

Let's reflect for a moment.  Compare the difference between workplace hourly wages and the dealership or independent shop's hourly labor flat rate.  The professional shop justifies its rates by considering the wages and benefits paid to employees (including hourly wages or a percentage of flat rate plus half of the technician's FICA rate).  The dealership is also required to pay for disability and garage liability insurance plus an attractive medical benefits package, possibly a retirement contribution, supplied uniforms plus a work environment that includes service bay lifts, a lube rack, cabinets, a tool room full of factory service tools, the facility's buildings and their overhead, electricity and heating/AC utilities, shop equipment like computers and the air system, advertising and those shop supplies not charged to customers.   

The tool room with diagnostic equipment and specialty tools is a large expense.  An OBD-II era DRB-III scan tool alone is a spendy item.  At the end of the DRB-III era, SPX rented the last of the DRB-III scan tools to shops and consumers with a $6000 credit card deposit.  That was the cost of replacement for this diagnostic tool set and its accessories.  Fan through the factory service manual for your vehicle and note all of the required tools.  Imagine a dealership with various makes and models, each requiring a long list of specialty tools and diagnostic testing devices.

So it's realistic to believe that the dealership has some level of justification for today's high hourly flat rate.  Some shop personnel get paid on a flat rate basis, typically 30%-40% of the hourly flat rate, sometimes less or more.  In the long run, the dealership does profit from the Service Department, which also serves as the number one customer for the Parts Department.  Rather than condemn the hourly flat rate, however, consider whether you can save money by performing your own service work.

Equipping Your 'DIY' Shop

If you're serious about performing your own service work, the first item on the tool list should be the factory workshop manual for each of your vehicles.  There is no sense performing work without clear safety standards and step-by-step service guidelines.  These books or CDs will also help determine what work you are capable of performing and the tools required.  Immediately clear, you will be subletting engine machine work to a competent machine shop.  An automatic transmission rebuild may be within reach for some, but the tools required for a one-time job could tip the scale in favor of subletting the job.  Perhaps the removal and replacement work can be a DIY task.  Weigh the cost and safety equipment needed for R&R work, too.

There are often universal service tools that can work in place of niche factory service tools.  Harbor Freight and others now offer a variety of minimal use tools.  Why pay $300 for a set of professional grade Snap-On impact sockets when the $20 set at Harbor Freight might last for many years given your occasional use of these tools.  My mixed medley of socket brands includes U.S. and metric Pittsburgh (Harbor Freight) brand deep impact sockets.  At the tool section of the forums, we can discuss professional tools and the less costly alternatives. 

Diagnostics tools are the same way.  For some EFI/MPI work, a $20 OBD-II transmitter and software package for Bluetooth or Wi-Fi can work with your laptop computer or cell phone.  Many of these  kits get rave reviews at Amazon and can provide a wealth of diagnostics information.  Such a "scanner" is actually reading the stored or live data from the vehicle's PCM/ECU/ECM diagnostic port.  This information is only reliable if the powertrain controller is functioning properly.  The next step up is often a used Snap-On or OTC scanner with software and adapters.  Sold at eBay or Craigslist, these scan tools can include newer versions or even used factory diagnostic tools.  Sometimes, creative troubleshooting with a quality digital volt-ohmmeter can get the job done.

Equipping your home garage or an independent shop is a constant juggling act between safe work and professional results—while not breaking the bank with tools that will seldom see use.  Sometimes, one-time use suggests alternatives like renting the tool(s) from AutoZone or removing the component to have a specialty shop rebuild it.  Sublet rebuilding was once common with alternators, generators and starter motors.  Local radiator shops hot tanked, rodded or replaced radiator cores. 

Today, everything electric or electronic has a rebuilt/exchange program or is replaced with new parts.  When I worked for Cunningham Pontiac-GMC in the early 'eighties, a defective S/T truck alternator under warranty required bench rebuilding to replace the rectifier bridge or other parts.  (Flat rate time for the alternator R&R was 0.1 hour;  the rectifier bridge changeout paid an additional 0.2 hour.)  A power steering gear or transmission was also rebuilt on a dealership bench.  Every vehicle manufacturer now uses a rebuild/exchange program for warranty parts.

There are instances where improvising or substituting tools may be possible.  Many aftermarket tools meet generic needs.  When I operated a mechanical restoration shop for classic and muscle cars, service tools for pre- and post-war cars were obsolete.  I made many tools from scratch, using factory tool images from workshop manuals as my guide.  You can do this, too, and the cost savings can be dramatic.

Common items like floor jacks, an H-frame press or jack stands can be generic.  I trust many of the Harbor Freight products, the suppliers often build equipment for major brand manufacturers.  I apply my own "overkill ratings" for safety equipment, like using two four-ton rated HF floor jacks to lift the Ram truck's 5,000 pound front end.  I support the truck's axles on HF 6-ton rated stands.  My 20-ton HF press is good for at least 10-15 tons when following my safety margin.  I expect my Harbor Freight equipment to perform safely at 50-70% capacity.  These tools last a long time with this kind of usage.

I also have chests with prime, spendy tools.  For precision work, always use better quality measuring tools.  I purchase professional grade instruments from the nearby MSC warehouse.  When safety and preserving parts is essential, I use the right tools and suggest that you do, too.

Taking the Plunge to the 'DIY' Lifestyle 

My DIY work dates back to age 14 and my Cushman/Allstate scooter.  With a factory shop manual in hand, I was on it!  That strategy has stayed with me ever since, and today I'm still curious and interested in new tasks.  My confidence grew with experience and tool savvy.  Your confidence will build on successful results and learning which tools can perform the job properly.

Becoming an accomplished DIY mechanic means doing professional grade work.  Without the demands of flat rate time, you can wade your way through unfamiliar territory and get satisfactory results.  Time is a concern, as you will spend a great deal of time learning how to perform quality automotive service work.  Time can even be a deal breaker.  While tools and parts cost, your time is also valuable.  Family will quickly let you know when the clock has run out.

Yes, you can save a considerable amount of money by performing your own service work.  The rewards and satisfaction can be substantial if you enjoy this work.  Account for your time as well, however, when deciding whether the savings are worth it.  Consider the learning curve, you're developing a second career if you take this work far enough.  For major tasks, there's no half way.  The work is too demanding, and your safety is at stake.  Repairing your vehicle's ABS brake system or troubleshooting a Ford E4OD automatic transmission is way different than replacing your home's screen door or garbage disposal.

There are many benefits and rewards when doing your own automotive repair and service work.  Troubleshooting can be a great test of your analytical ability, at least as good as working crossword puzzles.  Safety is always a concern, as pinning yourself to the floor beneath a vehicle could be catastrophic.  The first order of business is shop safety for yourself, any children in the area and your spouse/helper.  Gasoline is flammable.  Electricity can shock.  Knocks, burns, crushed fingers and lacerations that require E.R. attention are simply not acceptable.

I am producing an intensive library of streaming rental videos for the magazine's Vimeo On Demand catalog.  How-to subjects will include setting up a DIY home garage or a smaller independent shop, emphasizing the use of common and specialized service and diagnostics tools.  Meanwhile, become familiar with shop manual language and procedures.  Review the magazine's hundreds of free how-to videos.

—Moses Ludel



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