Just stay home? Not really.

By Mike Allen, the Saturday Mechanic

I’ve just read CarMD’s latest Vehicle Health Index, and it’s fascinating.

How can it be that the costs, both in labor and parts, are so wildly different in different parts of the country? I attribute it to several things:

  1. Simple economics. These states are sparsely settled, at least over much of the real estate. That puts parts at the long end of a logistical chain. When a mechanic, when you can find one, needs a part for your car, it often has to come from many miles away, and from a smaller pool of auto parts distributors. In many cases, the only source for a part in any reasonable length of time is the dealer. Even if the part is available from an aftermarket source, availability probably plays a more important part in the acquisition than low price. It’s simple economies of scale.
  2. Ditto for labor prices. When there’s only one repair shop within an hour’s drive, the shop owner doesn’t have much incentive to lower labor rates to improve his bottom line.
  3. Vacationers in particular are likely to pay top dollar for repairs, because they are motivated to get their car back on the road as quickly as possible. Fishing for a less-expensive shop is time-consuming. Often, if your car is on a hook, it’s Hobson’s choice as to where to get it repaired. Comparison shopping? Hardly, when the kids want to see the Grand Canyon tomorrow like Daddy promised.
  4. Vacationers also are generally asking a lot more of their car than they might when closer to home. Loading up your daily driver with the whole family, luggage and pets—and climbing a 10,000ft mountain is likely to make a marginal problem a CHECK ENGINE light problem. Thin air is likely to make any minor issue too big for the engine computer to handle. There’s a limit to how much the computer can self-tune away. A dirty air cleaner plus a slightly lazy oxygen sensor plus thin mountain air adds up to an overly rich condition and the light is on.

Of course, this all points out the necessity of making sure your car is in topnotch condition before leaving on a long road trip, as I’ve always preached. Episodic maintenance is always more expensive than regular maintenance, and being forced to procure it while on the road only makes it even more costly.

How does this explain why some states are far less expensive than the national average? For the most part, these are states with pretty gnarly winters, and a modest amount of tourism. And locals who rely on their cars in really bad weather have learned to keep them not just in good running condition, but in great running condition. Otherwise, not only will the CHECK ENGINE light come on, it won’t start period.

Visit http://corp.carmd.com/Page/Detail/214?subId=215 to see where your state ranks and read the complete 2012 CarMD® Vehicle Health Index™ state ranking report.

Mike Allen is a longtime automotive expert and journalist. He owns and publishes SaturdayMechanic.com, a website dedicated to people who still believe in repairing their own cars. Mike spent 25 years at Popular Mechanics magazine, finishing his stint there as Senior Automotive Editor. His Car Clinic column was syndicated by the NY Times, reaching nearly 20 million readers weekly. Mike has appeared on national TV numerous times, including Monster Garage, Mythbusters, NBC Dateline, Paula Zahn and numerous regional shows. He’s also a current ASE-certified Service Technician.

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  • By don, December 24, 2012 @ 7:35 am

    what is the way to clear the unit after the problem is repaired.

  • By don, December 24, 2012 @ 7:37 am

    how do you clear the unit to check for new codes?

  • By Ivy from CarMD, December 26, 2012 @ 6:33 am

    Dear Don,

    Thank you for your question. To better assist you, we will have our technical support representative contact you shortly to answer any questions you may have regarding your CarMD device. Happy Holidays!

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