Beat the MOT cowboys

"We did an MOT and we explained that although it passed, the tread was getting a bit low on two tyres," says Daniel Hardingham, owner of S&G garage in Huntingdonshire. "The customer went to another garage to have them replaced and they also told her the bushes on the lower arms were split and needed replacing, along with the discs and pads on the front brakes and that the tracking was out.

"That’s about £300 or £400 worth of work. She phoned us for a quote and we suggested she came back to have it checked. But in our opinion, none of it needed to be done."

It’s this kind of practice that has made Hardingham wary of some of his fellow mechanics. Last year, problems with car servicing and repairs accounted for more than 23,000 complaints to Consumer Direct.

A Department of Trade and Industry taskforce estimates that consumers suffer to the tune of £4 billion a year as a result of shoddy work and poor service. That’s a shocking £790 per garage per day.

Hardingham says the problem is that most people don’t understand what’s going on underneath their bonnet, so professionals can easily pull the wool over their eyes. He carried out a study into bad practices, and found a few of the most common.

"One of the most prevalent is when a garage services a car and say it needs a filter changing," he says. "Then they clean it up with a rag and say they’ve changed it. It cheats the customer out of about £10 a time. It’s not a great deal but it adds up."

Another trick is to lie about the oil used in an oil change: "Sometimes a garage will fill a car with cheap mineral oil which costs about 60p to 70p a litre, and charge for synthetic at about £6 a litre. Sometimes they won’t change it at all. Then there are the spark plugs - you may be told that they need to be changed, at about £30 or £40 each. They’ll take them out, brush them up, and put them back in again."

The other thing to look out for is if you are told you have a "split cv gater", which fits round the front drive shaft. "If you have one of these you will notice it, because it leaks," explains Hardingham. "If it hasn’t been leaking there’s a chance the garage has cut it themselves to get a £120 job".

Of course, these problems aren’t universal, so how can you tell an honest garage?

It may help if you have a friend in the trade. However, as Hardingham points out, this is no guarantee: "We had a MOT that failed on a brake calliper. The owner took it to a friend to fix and brought it back for its free check-up. He told us he had a new brake calliper and a flexible hose. But he didn’t. It was a second-hand calliper and a non-flexible hose. There was nothing wrong with them, but he’d been charged for them as new, and this guy was supposed to be his mate."

Hardingham says you should look for proper accreditation. "We’re a member of the Good Garage scheme," he adds. "We give customers a feedback form, and they send it direct to the scheme to publish on the website, so there can’t be any tinkering with honest feedback. We’re also a member of the Retail Motor Industry Independent Garage Association, and Autosafe, which operate codes of practice."

You may also want to look out for the Independent Motor Industry Service and Repair Code, which was accepted by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) at the end of September 2008. This will keep a close eye on garages, including visits by independent RAC inspectors and customer surveys.

It demands certain basics, such as a quote in advance, and that no extra work can be done beyond that quote without the permission of the owner. It also has the power to terminate the membership of garages that don’t comply.

John Procter, spokesperson for the code, says: "There are plenty of codes to help raise standards, but only this one has teeth."

Charles Wallace, head of consumer codes at the OFT, adds: "Consumers need to know that when they take their car to a garage they are going to be treated in an honest and reliable manner. By using a garage that has an approved code, customers can be assured that they will receive a much higher standard of protection."

Hardingham says accreditation is a great start but, if consumers are still concerned, he recommends a second opinion. And if you are having parts replaced, he suggests asking the garage to keep the old part to show you. "We do this for every customer," he adds.

Drivers can go further by taking a beginner’s course in car maintenance. Hardingham operates free classes for women once a month, and your local adult education college will have courses to help you understand the basics. However, even if you are blissfully ignorant to the inner workings of your car, you’re not guaranteed to get ripped off.

While it pays to stay on your guard, Procter insists these bad practices are the exception to the rule that taint the reputation of the industry. "Most garages are interested in satisfied customers, because that’s how they get repeat business," he insists.