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Fix It Yourself, or Pay A Shop?

Fix It Yourself, or Pay A Shop?

This is not going to be a typical article where somebody on the internet preaches about always doing everything right and reaping the benefits. In the real world there is an enormous chance that things will go wrong and a responsible party (you) will be left to pick up the pieces. People are afraid of things going wrong, but they rarely put in the effort to prepare for the inevitability. In this instance we will be taking your lack of preparation into account by assuming that you have no tools before you start the job. Without further adieu:

Cost to fix your car yourself


Towing it to a shop and having them deal with it

We will delve into this by looking at 3 specific examples, ranging from very simplistic fixes to catastrophic events. I will sort them by perceived difficulty here:

  1. Headlight burned out

  2. Battery’s dead for good

  3. Transmission won’t shift ever again

We will also assume the following resources are expended by you, the car owner:

  1. Time

  2. Money

We will start with the most simplistic fixes, the battery and headlight failures. Disclaimer: these problems are often not as simple as they seem to diagnose and treat. What I mean is, a battery may indeed be dead and test as so at a shop, but the battery may not be your only problem. It could also be the alternator, the ground wiring, a bad stereo install from 6 months ago, or the weather. I am assuming that you know how google works and can glean the root cause of your problem from the literally thousands of sites dedicated to the purpose of fixing cars.

This article is assuming that you CAN fix your car, but what is the COST of doing so?

For the headlight, we will surmise that the problem is only a burned out bulb. To fix this: you drive with your brights on because it’s a separate filament. This works until you either get pulled over for “failure to dim” or until you blind an elderly woman with already failing eyesight, and she creams an unsuspecting cyclist. Really what you need to do is buy a replacement bulb and change it out. Headlight prices range from absurdly cheap at around 15$, for an older style, to absurdly expensive ~200$ for the worst case of brand new OEM Xenon BMW stuff. On average though, most headlights will fall between 20$ and 50$ at a hardware store, and a phone call can get you the exact amount. How convenient!

The next factor is the time invested. The good thing about the headlight is that the car still runs and drives so there is not so much time involved except a trip to the auto parts store and back, and the time it takes for installation. Most cars can be done in about 10 minutes with the simplest of tools. Some cars can take a couple hours with specialty or uncommon  tools if you have to pull out air intake tubes and various panels. So let’s ballpark a round trip to the hardware store as 1 hour, the installation as .5 - 2 hours. Remember I said that we would be approaching this from an inevitability standpoint, as a completely unprepared human, so tools will have to be purchased. For basic screwdrivers and pliers it’s about 10$, and a socket set could be 30$ on top of that, if your car is one of the more complicated versions mentioned above.


Now if you were going to take it to a shop the table would look like this:

Headlight repair Shop cost

Essentially the hourly investment in both of these cases appears to be almost the same, so why wouldn’t you do it yourself to save some money? If you have a valid excuse (or a bad experience,) please share it below in the comments.

car broke down tow it

Let’s try the same method on example 2 with the dead battery. The bad thing about the battery is that if it dies when you’re not parked at home, you have to fix/diagnose it wherever you may be at that moment! For the inexperienced mechanic, I would suggest getting it towed to either a shop of good report or back to your house where you can troubleshoot further and take your time. However, if you are familiar with the mechanical dance then you already know what to do. Interestingly enough 99.999% of all batteries ever made can be replaced with only an open end wrench set, so let us set the price for that one holy grail set at 20$. Assuming the battery is at fault and the car is at your house then here is the breakdown:

Battery replacement cost comparison

Just looking at these simple fixes flags a couple of major expenditures:

  1. Towing -and the time it actually takes to arrange/direct the tow to a willing shop will take quite a bit of time no matter what you do. Also the fee is usually a flat rate around 100$ for anything local. Not cheap in the case of the battery because it rivals the cost of the entire repair just for the tow. Pro tip from Don - if you sign up to be a member of the AMA (American Motorcycle Association), you receive free towing once a month for up to 35 miles away.  If you need a tow once a year, the membership pays for itself.  You don’t need to have a motorcycle to be a member.  

  2. Shop hourly rates- perhaps I am being unreasonable in saying a fully equipped shop could take up to 2 hours to change a headlight and charge 100$ an hour to boot. I suggest: ask around, perhaps even call the dealer for a quote (shudder), and get ready to hear some horror stories! Shops CAN charge exorbidant rates for their services and often, they do just that. There are many reasons for this but they will not be covered in this article, suffice to say that it is very possible it will happen.

With the above battery failure it is almost a no-brainer that you need to learn to do it yourself. It saves both time AND money, which is super duper financially cool!!!

Last example: the dreaded transmission repair

Now here we get into some serious number crunching. I am making the following assumptions to come up with these numbers:

  • Car is at your house and you have a place to work on it

  • Transmission has failed and you will not opt to rebuild it in your yard, you will replace it

  • Junk yard transmission is the low price point for this (80$,) rebuilt is the high end (2000$)

  • You will have to buy a jack with stands and an entire array of unspecified tools which can be anywhere from 200$ to 300$

  • The shop will uninstall, rebuild, and reinstall the transmission for you if you take it in.


Generally speaking, the major cost driver for this will be the price of the transmission itself. For a unit from a junkyard, ebay, wrecker, etc… the vendors always will have a return policy which you really don’t want to use because it means you would have to remove/send back/reinstall another transmission. This mitigates the price risk on your side, but has a time sink risk associated with it. I have purchased transmissions for FWD cars as low as 80$ at a junk yard, and have also seen some cars that will price out a transmission at 2,000$ even for a used unit. The application plays a big role in determining the price for a replacement transmission.

Money Car Ride

The time it takes to replace any transmission can be as low as 2 hours (again, this is possible for a small FWD car) and up to 24 hours of labor for odd and complex drivelines (porsche, any 4WD, etc). Let’s say a shop will do it faster by a few hours in each case so we will simply multiply your time expenditure by 60% to get a shop time estimate. Also I am giving additional hours to the do-it-yourselfer for the amount of times you will have to drive to the store for tools and additional parts. I have seen people do it with one trip, but that is not likely at all my friend! Especially unlikely if you do not own any tools to begin with.

Transmission Repair Self Cost

Now if you were going to take it to a shop the table would look like this:

Transmission Repair Shop

To Summarize:

For smaller jobs the difference between doing it yourself and having a shop handle it is not very pronounced. That being said, generally, if you do these tasks on your own you will be incurring slight risk and also saving some money.

The astute reader will be quick to point out that there is a tangible tradeoff between the amount of time one must invest and the amount of money one must invest in the case of the transmission. Also, anybody who has ever had to take their car to a shop for a transmission repair will notice that 4339$ is probably pretty close to the average amount a shop will charge for the removal/rebuild/reinstall of a transmission with their warranty on the back end. Usually they will itemize fluid, filter, torque converter, seals, etc… to pump up the price and who will blame them? A shop does not want to re-use these questionable components on a rebuilt transmission and possibly have to do it all again under their own warranty as this would most likely put them out of business quick.

So what should you do? If you are a grown man with a good career and don’t have much time on the weekends, it might actually be in your best interests to take the car to a shop. At some point it does get very hard to teach an old dog new tricks, even if that dog is yourself. If you are a college student with tons of time between classes and plenty of extra testosterone pumping through your veins, do it yourself. Just skip one or two hangovers and you’re back on track and you’ve saved thousands in the process!

Another thing, arguably the most important thing, is that if you are looking at this from an all encompassing perspective----> tools and experience, which are both very real and tangible, are present when the work is taken on yourself and then completed by yourself. That is to say that when you are done changing your battery on your own, you will no longer be daunted by the task and you will have a set of open end wrenches. You can’t tell me that isn’t cool!

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