Chicago resident Elisa Solomon has had more than her share of auto body shop experience. First hit: “I went out of my house in the morning and found the rear left side of my car, parked on the street, smashed and undrivable.” Second hit, same car, almost a year to the day later: “It was a bad storm. The tree fell down and totally crushed my car.” The double whammy had one happy—sort of—result: She found Foreign and Domestic Auto Body in Evanston.
On the first job, the shop helped her negotiate with the insurance company to get everything covered quickly and did the repairs fast and flawlessly. On the second job, Foreign and Domestic concluded that the car was not worth repairing and advised her on how to negotiate with her insurance company. In the end, the insurance company paid almost as much as what she had paid for the car two years earlier.
In evaluating Chicago-area auto body shops and surveying more than 6,000 customers, the nonprofit magazine and Web site Chicago Consumers’ Checkbook (checkbook.org) has found many shops that not only do top-quality repairs, but get them done quickly. Beyond that, these top shops negotiate effectively with insurance companies and keep costs down.
The table on pages 72-73 lists 28 of the shops rated highest by Checkbook out of the 264 shops it reviewed (see note on methodology on page 73). And when Checkbook got undercover price quotes from these shops, all had prices that were better than average or at least not more than 5 percent above average.
Choosing a shop that does high-quality work is important for the safety and drivability of your car, especially if it has been in a serious accident. The work should look great immediately—and years—after the repair.
Doing the job right takes serious skill. On the smooth skin of a car, any blemish shows. And precision is equally critical below the surface—even the smallest error in the adjustment of a modern car body frame can affect a car’s performance. The knowledge and skills of a good body shop’s technicians must cover a wide range of subjects: the properties of metals and plastics, the mechanics of new suspension and steering systems, new welding methods, paint tinting and blending methods, ways to spot accident-related problems in different types of systems (electrical, mechanical, etc.), and more.
Almost as important as technical skill is a shop’s ability to communicate. If insurance is involved, you want a shop that can convince the insurance company that there really is a need for repair or replacement using proper quality parts, even when the company might prefer to cut a few corners. And if you will be paying out of your own pocket, you want a shop that clearly communicates your alternatives. Can you save a significant amount by making a few compromises on the kinds of parts used, or the way the work is done?
Another key consideration in choosing a shop is whether it has a record of getting the work done promptly. Thousands of Chicago-area customers surveyed complain about delayed service, with comments such as this one from Elmer Thogersen in Des Plaines: “Automobile was damaged by a falling tree on May 30, 2008. It is now September 11, 2008, and car has not been repaired.”
Cost is not as big a consideration as quality for most auto body shop customers, since an insurance company typically foots the bill. But if you are paying yourself, or if you just want to minimize the chance that you will have to battle an insurance company to pay the shop’s full estimate, it makes sense to choose a reasonably priced shop.
Compared with auto mechanics, auto body shops don’t vary so much in their prices. When Checkbook did its undercover price shopping, almost all Chicago-area shops were charging the same labor rate for body work—$46 per hour plus or minus a couple of bucks. But there is enough variation when both labor and parts are factored in that it makes sense to get several competitive quotes if you will be paying. For example, quotes from local shops to replace the trunk lid on a 2001 Nissan Maxima GXE ranged from $600 to $1,087, with an average of $870.
For auto body repairs, prices in the Chicago area are about average compared with six other major metro areas where Checkbook has done extensive price checking. The $46 average hourly rate and the $870 average for that Nissan trunk lid compare with averages of $39 per hour and $807 for the trunk in the Washington, D.C., area and $75 per hour and $1,048 in San Francisco.
Illustration: Patrick Leger