Savvy Consumer Tips

It happens like this: A dent repair imposter will approach you in the parking lot of one of those big discount stores and offer to fix a dent or scratch on your vehicle while you’re shopping. Bill Davis, owner of DentPro of Salinas, Santa Cruz & Monterey Peninsula, a Diamond Certified company, says when you come back to your car, it’s covered with white paste or wax. The scammer will tell you it needs to cure for about four hours, but once you remove the paste later that day (you have to pay in advance for the repair), you’ll discover cracks in the paint or realize that very little was done to the car. You can’t track down the scammer either, because his business card has no phone number or address.

Without a paper trail, you have no recourse other than to report the imposter to the authorities. Mr. Davis says he gets calls every week from women who report the same modus operandi. His advice? Warn your female friends so they know when they’re being ripped off.

Consumers who do business with car dealers often have to trust the dealers to follow through on certain steps. For example, many people who trade in their old vehicles expect the dealers to pay off the outstanding balances on their purchases or lease contracts. If the dealer doesn’t follow through, the consumer remains liable.

Likewise, dealers collect license and registration fees from car buyers. If the dealer doesn’t forward that money to the DMV, the car buyer can’t register the vehicle. But what happens if the car dealer goes out of business before forwarding your money to the intended recipient? The Consumer Motor Vehicle Recovery Corporation (CMVRC) compensates consumers if dealers fail to pay off their trade-in balances, forward their license and registration fees to the DMV, or pay them the sales proceeds from consigned vehicles. To learn more, visit www.cmvrc.org or call (800) 961-6175.

The California Lemon Law protects new car owners whose vehicles have serious defects that aren’t repaired after repeated attempts. The defect must substantially affect the car’s use, value or safety. According to lemon law attorney Mark Anderson, with Anderson, Ogilvie & Brewer, you usually have to bring the car in four times for the same problem during the warranty period in order to qualify. If the defect affects your safety, then two repair attempts will suffice. You may be entitled to a refund, a partial refund or a replacement.

Mr. Anderson says a lot of people don’t realize that trucks and RVs are covered by the lemon law. He also says the most common problems these days occur in the first year a model comes out. Many times, the electronics system is defective and it takes a while for the manufacturer’s engineers to work out the kinks.

Kris Cesena, owner of Auto Medics - Honda and Acura Specialists, a Diamond Certified auto repair shop, has a tip about spare tires. “Most cars have a space-saver spare tire, or what we affectionately call the donut spare,” she says. “This tire is only intended to take you from where you got a flat tire to the auto shop. Don’t drive around on your donut spare for days, and don’t drive over 55 miles per hour.”

Ms. Cesena also warns against having too many things dangling from your key ring. “A heavy key ring can cause your ignition switch to wear out as the weight bounces and swings while you drive,” she explains. “If you must carry a lot of keys or charms, consider using a ‘quick disconnect’ ring that allows you to easily detach your ignition key from the rest of the ring while it’s being used.”

My car was in a hit-and-run—again. Luckily this time, a witness identified the car, jotted down the license plate number and left a note. I called the police department and an officer told me to call the “hit-and-run detail.” That office referred me to the district station to file a report, where an officer suggested calling “hit-and-run” in a couple of days. When I did, they told me they don’t pursue property damage cases. In other words, they wouldn’t help me track down, fine or prosecute the vehicle owner.

The good news is that my insurance company will help, but that still doesn’t guarantee the guilty party will pay. My insurance company sent a “tracer” on the license plate to identify the insurer. They contacted that company and the insured party, and maybe a few months from now, I’ll be reimbursed…but I’m not holding my breath.

Richard Cordes, owner of European Sales & Service, Inc. Mercedes Benz, a Diamond Certified company, says it’s a mistake to wait 12,000 to 15,000 miles between oil changes, as some auto manufacturers now recommend. Longer intervals between maintenance visits mean your shop might not be able to detect small problems early, which can lead to big, expensive problems later. The more miles on your car, the more important regular oil changes and check-ups become.

Mr. Cordes says oil is inexpensive, and by changing it at least every 5,000 miles, you’re buying “cheap insurance.” He also reminds you to check the oil change requirements of any after-market extended warranty you’ve purchased. Some companies will void your warranty if you don’t have regular lube and oil changes every 4,000 miles or four months, whichever comes first. Check the fine print to see exactly what your policy says.

When I was a kid, my parents would go out and warm up the car engine 15 to 20 minutes before we had to leave for school. Today we understand that's too much, but should we warm up our car at all? I decided to ask a Diamond Certified expert, Tom Cebellero, owner of Metric Motors of San Francisco.

His response: absolutely. Here’s why Mr. Cebellero says you should warm-up the engine for at least 30 seconds. "The warm-up cycle is really to get the oil moving, get it up into all the oil jackets, all the oil squirters, and to properly lubricate everything that's moving inside the engine. And also to quickly go through a check of all the electronics in the car." A little extra TLC is good for your engine, and it’s easy enough to do—especially while you’re setting up your iPod and hands-free cell phone.

You just bought a brand new car and figure that because of the new car warranty, all servicing has to be done at the dealership. Some salespeople even infer that, but it’s not true. Tyler Edgren, owner of Precision Auto Repair, a Diamond Certified company, says many of his customers believe this, so he directs them to their owner’s manual.

Here is what is clearly stated in the manual under Maintenance Schedules: “Service at a dealer is not mandatory to keep your warranties in effect. Any qualified service facility or person who is skilled in this type of automotive service may do maintenance. Keep all the receipts as proof of completion, and have the person who does the work fill out the Maintenance Record."

You can even perform the work yourself. It’s important, Mr. Edgren notes, that like his shop you always use genuine factory parts and fluids.

If you have a high mileage car, or one that's not running well, you may be worried about passing the next scheduled smog check. One bit of advice from Jim Livingston, owner of Pioneer Auto, could save you money, time and trouble. Jim suggests getting a pre-test because you don't want the vehicle to not pass or worse, fail as a "gross polluter." Gross polluters are required to get smog certification at designated shops, which is a hassle for you.

A pre-test is not official and lets you know where you stand. When you're ready to get smogged, call and ask three questions: 1) do you perform pre-tests? 2) how much is it? and 3) can you fix the car if it doesn't pass? A test and repair facility is preferable.

The Center for Auto Safety has rated all the state lemon laws in the country, and according to the Center's Director Clarence Ditlow, California's is ranked #1. But even the top-rated lemon law won't do you much good if you don't know how to use it! To qualify for lemon law protection, the shop must attempt repairs for the same defect at least four times, or the car must be out of service 30 calendar days within 18 months or 18,000 miles.

You may also qualify with a "reasonable" number of attempts during the entire expressed warranty period. Only two repair attempts are needed for safety defects, which may cause death or serious bodily injury. California law also covers some business vehicles. Mr. Ditlow urges lemon owners to keep all documentation and repair records and to directly notify the manufacturer as you proceed.

This is the time of the year to get your car's air conditioner checked out, even if it's not acting up. Most of the time all you need is a little preventive maintenance, Freon and oil, and it doesn't cost much. But if you unwittingly run the air conditioner without proper fluids, you can wreck the compressor, which costs about $900 to replace. Tim Johnson, owner of Dublin Car Tek, a Diamond Certified company, says air conditioning repair shops certified by ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) use the right equipment to evaluate your system and use the right fluids. Service technicians, who don't know what they're doing, sometimes use propane instead of Freon causing serious and expensive damage.

One of the many pitfalls in buying a used car is knowing whether the vehicle has passed the state's Smog Check test. You could end up with a car that needs costly repairs. Department of Consumer Affairs Director Kathleen Hamilton says help is now just a click away.

Now you can review a car's test history by entering its license plate number or its Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) at the Bureau of Automotive Repair's website: www.smogcheck.ca.gov. If you find the vehicle hasn't passed the state's test, you can negotiate repairs with the seller or start looking for another used car.

Have you ever had a streaking windshield caused by a wiper blade that was getting old? Until you have time to get it changed, here's a tip to temporarily clear up the problem. Lyde Waitley, owner of Olsen Auto Repair in Livermore, suggests you wipe your wiper blades with an alcohol based hand wipe. You can use eyeglass wipes or even baby wipes.

Or, if on the road use the hand wipes from a fast food chicken restaurant. This should clear up your windshield for a little while until you have a chance to change your wiper blades. Clear sailing!

Many people do not believe Atle Erlingsson, spokesman for the California State Automobile Association, when he tells them that they don't need to buy premium gasoline for their cars. More than 90% of cars run perfectly fine on regular. It is purely a myth that premium gas is cleaner, improves mileage and overall is better for your car. One case where you may need a higher-octane fuel is if you hear a knocking sound after filling up.

But Mr. Erlingsson says let your mechanic or auto manufacturer tell you whether you need to buy premium, not an oil company. By switching to a lower-priced fuel, the average driver will save about $200 a year. Some of that savings can be put toward oil changes every 3,000 miles. That will make a bigger difference in your car's performance than premium gas will.

About two-thirds of the people who come in for service at Pennzoil 10 Minute Oil Change are at least one quart or more low on motor oil, according to Darrin Schlafer, Operations Manager for this Diamond Certified company. He says you can't depend on the dashboard oil light to warn you that you're running low.

In most cars, by the time the light goes on, your engine is starved for oil. Without enough oil, the system doesn't cool and lubricate properly and the oil breaks down faster. A warning light means you should stop and check the oil level immediately. To avoid engine damage, you must not drive your car if the oil level is low. To play it safe, Mr.Schlafer recommends eyeing the dipstick every time you fill up. Even every other time would be doing your engine a favor.

Never use the cruise control on your car in bad weather. That advice is coming from Augie Barone, Service Writer for a Diamond Certified company. What can happen is that traction control systems will not work in some vehicles when the cruise control is on. If you have to make a sudden stop, you might panic and slam on the brakes, which is the wrong thing to do. When you're dealing with wet or icy pavement, it's better to ease up on the accelerator and back off the throttle gradually.

That isn't an option if the cruise control is on because you have to touch the brake pedal to disengage cruise control. It's best to use the cruising feature in good weather when you're traveling at high speed for long distances.

People often make mistakes when they buy used cars because they don't do their homework. One owner of a Diamond Certified Auto Dealership, encourages customers to take their time and not to get emotionally involved with a particular vehicle. He also suggests getting deep background on a used car through a service called CarFax (carfax.com).

This company has a database of roughly 2 billion vehicle history records from 800 sources. You type in a vehicle ID number, and within a matter of minutes, you get the lowdown on a car's odometer history, ownership, registration status, and accident record. You can also use the website to find out if the car is legally considered a lemon or if it has been recalled. A single report is $14.99 and it could save you aggravation.

Is a dead car battery cluttering up and rusting in your garage or carport? Old batteries contain more than 20 pounds of lead and a gallon of sulfuric acid. They are too toxic to throw into the regular garbage, but what is the safest way to dispose of them? According to the American Automobile Association's Vice President of Automotive Services David Whitgob, more than 200,000 dead batteries in California are just waiting for a decent burial. That's why the AAA is launching the annual "Great Battery Roundup" this week, in honor of Earth Day.

Mr. Whitgob recommends using caution when handling the old batteries. Wear gloves and safety glasses and don't expose them to any open flames, and that includes cigarettes. Use a leak-proof box when transporting the battery, in case it is cracked and leaking acid. You can find a recycling location near you by going to aaa.com or BatteryRoundup.com.

Anytime you find evidence of a leak on the driveway from under your car, it's a good idea to inspect further. According to a Customer Service Manager for a Diamond Certified company, fluids are your car's lifeblood. They cool, clean, lubricate and protect all the moving parts of your car. A visual inspection of the fluid will give you some clues. Pink fluid generally is leaking from the transmission, transfer case or power steering. A brown stain would indicate either an oil leak or a leak at the differential. And dripping green, blue or orange fluids are usually from the cooling system.

Share this information with your repair shop and ask for a leak inspection, which is not expensive. If you choose to ignore those drips, you could unknowingly be causing damage that will be much more costly to repair later.

When I bought my last new car, I spent a lot of time investigating safety features, such as bumpers and airbags. I didn't give any thought at all to the head restraints, and yet they're key in preventing the most common injuries – neck injuries from rear-end collisions. Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says many head restraints are too low to provide adequate protection from whiplash. The restraint should at least come to the top of your ears (your head's center of gravity), and in general, higher is better. The distance between the restraint and the back of your head should be no more than 4 inches.

Car manufacturers, such as Saab, General Motors, Nissan and Volvo, are coming out with new seatback designs which have safer head restraints. For safety ratings of all late model cars, go to the Institute's website at www.hwysafety.org.

My eleven year-old minivan has a transmission leak. Should I even think about investing more than $2000 when the old one goes? Is there a point when it's cheaper to replace a vehicle rather than repair it? Hans Art, owner of Hans Art Automotive, a Diamond Certified company, thinks not. Based on his 34 years of experience, from a strictly monetary standpoint, it almost always makes sense to repair an old car rather than buy a new one. If you keep up with maintenance and repairs, the average monthly expense over 5 to 7 years is one-fourth the cost of a buying a new car.

In my case, Mr. Art advises having a thorough inspection to see what else is likely to fail in the next couple of years, before making the investment. Some cars are worth holding onto longer than others, given the repair history. Mr. Art recommends keeping Hondas, Nissans, Toyotas, Subarus, and the BMW 3 series, which can last for 250,000-300,000 miles.

After the stolen car was recovered and repaired, it still had a strange odor. The non-smoking owner discovered that the thieves had smoked up a storm. Is there any way to permanently eliminate cigarette smoke odor and other bad smells in a car's interior? Roth Schleck, owner of Premier Auto Tops and Interiors, a Diamond Certified company, says that a thorough detailing job is a good place to start and will fix many odor problems.

Deodorizers can help for faint smells. For persistent odors, the source must be located and addressed. For example, cigarette smoke rises and permeates headliner material so the material may need to be changed to rid the car of the smell. Mr. Schleck says most odor problems can be fixed, but in some cases, getting the smells out completely may cost more than you're willing to pay.

It's a common mistake to focus only on the monthly payment when negotiating a new car sale. It's an easy trap to fall into, according to the Consumer Advice Editor for Edmunds.com. Mr. Phil Reed, who worked as an undercover new car salesman at two dealerships and tells about his experiences on the website, says salespeople will ask, "What's a comfortable range for a monthly car payment for you?" Whatever amount you quote, they will start at the higher number and go up from there. The salespeople are not basing the payment on anything real at this point in the negotiations.

Mr. Reed says the best strategy is to negotiate the price of the car, NOT the monthly payment. You may want to do your homework before going to a dealership by using Edmunds.com, which lists the true market value for new cars and has a payment calculator. You may also want to check out Edmunds' new book, Strategies for Smart Car Buyers.

What's the secret to getting more mileage out of your car? Darrin Schlafer, Operations Manager of Pennzoil 10 Minute Oil Change, a Diamond Certified company, emphasizes paying attention to your car's fluids, and he means ALL the fluids. Follow the manufacturer's recommendations in your owner's manuals for changing transmission fluid, anti-freeze, and power steering fluid. Bay Area drivers should follow service intervals in the manuals recommended for "severe" driving, meaning city driving, stop-and-go, short trips and hills.

Mr. Schlafer says frequent oil changes, every 3,000 miles or so, are critical for longer engine life. They're so important that Pennzoil has started offering customers a limited warranty on oil-related parts (things like pistons and rings, oil pump, bearings) for 250,000 miles or 10 years, if they change their oil every 120 days or 4,000 miles, whichever comes first. Only cars with 36,000 miles or less are eligible for this new program.

The last time I had my car detailed, it came back from the shop with swirls in the finish. They were especially noticeable in the bright sun. Detailing experts tell me the swirls mean my detailing job wasn’t properly finished. A thorough detailing will include rubbing an abrasive compound on the exterior of the car in swirls to remove oxidation and even small scratches. Next, you buff the surface with a finer swirl-removing compound and finally, you apply finishing cream to bring up the shine. A good detailing job will last up to two years, if you keep up with maintenance. That means washing your car about once a month and waxing it (not in direct sunlight) 3 to 4 times a year. The best waxes contain the ingredient carnauba because it allows the finish to breathe.

A blind spot is literally that — the area you can't see when backing up your car. Parents have run over their own young children because they ran behind the car and couldn't be seen. Some cars' blind spots are huge, 6 feet wide and 50 feet long, according to Janette Fennell, Founder and President of the non-profit group Kids and Cars. The taller, longer and wider a car is, the more trouble you'll have with blind spots, increasing the chances someone could get hurt.

Besides taking precautions such as making sure you know where your kids are before you move a vehicle or having another adult supervise children at that time, Ms. Fennell says new technology can save lives too. Many new cars have rear sensors with warning signals or video cameras, which are like having eyes in the back of your head. Older cars can be retrofitted with either one or both of these options.

It's no secret that all new cars depreciate, even as you're driving them off the dealer's lot. Dave Sutch, President/CEO of My Car Guy, a Diamond Certified company that provides auto buying services, encourages his clients to consider how quickly one make and model will lose value over another. For example, a new Kia Spectra and the MINI Cooper S have about the same monthly lease payment, but the MINI's suggested retail price is about twice as high as the Kia's. Why is the lease payment the same? It's because the MINI retains more of its value at the end of the lease than the Kia does.

Asking a new car salesperson about a vehicle's residual value may help you decide whether it makes sense to buy the model new or used. Better yet, check out the free depreciation ratings and the residual value awards at the Automotive Lease Guide's website — www.alg.com —before you decide which car to buy or lease!

It was habit and loyalty that kept me going to the same auto repair shop for so long, even after its customer service had dramatically deteriorated. Every time I had the car serviced, they kept it longer and longer. On the latest visit, it took a month to repair the fuel pump and speedometer!

My new repair shop calls to remind me of my appointment the day before. The service manager provides updates on the job and has the car ready when promised, usually the same day. They provide coffee, newspapers and a ride to BART when you drop off the car. And several days afterwards, someone calls to ask if I was satisfied with the service and repairs. Since making the switch, I can see how much better customer service can be. You don't have to put up with mediocrity. Seek out companies that know how to serve customers because they truly deserve your business.

I just found out I have been driving around using my car's over-drive function incorrectly. Turns out most people do, according to an owner of a Diamond Certified Auto company. The reason it's confusing is that when the over-drive light is on, over-drive is off, and when the light is off, the over-drive feature is on! No wonder we're mixed up.

He says you should have the over-drive off (light is on) when you're driving around town and/or going up hills. This prevents the transmission from going into a higher gear unnecessarily and reduces wear and tear. The over-drive should be turned on (light is off) when you're driving on freeways. This is a good way to increase your car's fuel efficiency. For a further explanation on how the over-drive feature works, check your owner's manual. A better understanding will save you gas and extend the life of your transmission.

Most everyone knows that while it's a thrill to buy a brand new car, it's a lot more expensive than buying a used car. In fact, new cars lose about 20% of their value in the first year of ownership, according to Michael Medeiros, owner of Wholesale Autos R Us, a Diamond Certified company. One of the best values for consumers is a late model lease return.

A previously leased vehicle is usually a fairly new car, two to three years old. The owners are motivated to maintain their cars because they're penalized for excessive wear and tear when they turn them in. Mr. Medeiros says the typical lease return has around 45,000 miles on it, and the best part is that these automobiles are still covered by the manufacturers' warranties. If you want to make sure a previously leased car has not been in an accident, run a check yourself through CARFAX for $24.99
(www.carfax.com).

Are you someone who loads up your key ring with lots of keys and doodads? I never thought about this until my ignition wouldn't start one day. The repair bill was $250. According to Tony Leonardi, owner of Leonardi Automotive, a Diamond Certified company, I got off easy. Some ignition jobs can cost up to $900, and it's not an uncommon repair. The age of the vehicle is not a factor. In fact, the problem is worse in some of the new cars.

Mr. Leonardi says the keys swing with the weight of the dangling objects. This wears down the whole ignition assembly. With enough wear, you end up with a car that won't start, or one you can't turn off! To avoid this, don't hang everything on one key ring. Or use a quick-release ring, which allows you to separate the remote and the key you drive with from all the others.

Relax! Most vehicles can pass their smog check! First take care of any maintenance that is due (or overdue) such as an oil change or tune-up before the smog check. If you do mostly city driving, give the car a run on the freeway for 50 miles and fill up with a fresh tank of quality gas. Premium fuel can improve your odds slightly, and make sure your gas cap is intact and fits tightly. A visual inspection of the engine compartment could reveal broken or cracked hoses or components. Do those repairs before the test.

The Test-Only Smog Check, an essential part of the Smog Check II program recently initiated in the Bay area, is considered a more consumer friendly smog check and is no different from the smog performed at any other of the smog stations. 

You’ll get more life out of your car if you simply pay attention to its fluids on a regular basis, according to Dave Kusa, owner of Autotrend Diagnostics, a Diamond Certified company. Oil changes are recommended every 3,000 miles, even if the manufacturer says you can go 5,000 miles between changes. Ignore the owner’s manual.

Every 30,000 miles, ask to have the transmission fluid and power steering fluid changed and the cooling system serviced. Brake fluid flushes for anti-lock systems are now recommended too. Some cars even have computer systems that will tell you when to replace fluids based on the use of the car. What about rotating your tires? Mr. Kusa says if your tire dealer offers free rotation every 5,000 miles, do it. But if you have to pay for it every time, have it done only when the brakes are being inspected since the wheels are off the vehicle anyway.

Like most people I know, I hate checking the air pressure in my tires. Believe it or not, to be safe on the road, you should be checking your tires about once a month. That’s because on average, tires lose about one pound of pressure every month and are potentially hazardous when under-inflated.

Without the right amount of air pressure in your tires, you have less control over handling and stopping the car. Another negative is that the tires wear out prematurely. By the way, your correct tire pressure is posted on your car door, in the owner’s manual or glove compartment. While you’ve got the air pressure gauge out, don’t forget to check your spare tire. The spare loses pressure at the same rate, as the tires on the wheels do, even when you’re not using it.

How many of you “ride” your clutch, by resting your foot on the pedal?  A lot of people do. Many drivers also rest their hand on the gear shifter all the time, and that little bit of extra pressure also causes premature wear in the transmission.

It’s best to shift into neutral at stoplights. Not doing so tends to accelerate wear on the throw out bearing. Also, find a steady cruising speed to flow with the traffic as soon as you can, and when downshifting, coordinate shift changes with the speed to protect your motor and maximize gas mileage. If you’re having trouble shifting, you might first check the floor mat. Many drivers, believe it or not, have a bunched up mat under the clutch pedal so it can’t fully disengage for smooth shifting.

Can a car that’s starting to rust be saved? Herman Jew, Manager of Bryant Auto Body, a Diamond Certified company, says surface rust, which is oxidation, can sometimes be polished out. For larger spots, you have to cut out the rusted area and weld a new piece into its place, which is expensive. Rust on the underside of a car is not dangerous if it’s not structural. However, if for example, the rust is under where the seat is bolted down, the floor will be compromised. That’s serious because in a crash, you and the seat could be thrown out of the car! It’s best to prevent rust from starting by: 1) washing and waxing your car often; 2) cleaning off bird droppings right away because they eat into the paint or clear coat; 3) washing off any salt from the ocean air or from icy roads and 4) keeping the car covered as much as you can.

Do you want your sports car or truck to have that deep throaty growl when you take off at an intersection? Vroom, vroom, vroom!  It’s easy enough to do by having an exhaust system installed that lets the exhaust from the engine flow more freely out the tailpipes.  This type of upgrade will make your engine sound a lot more powerful and even improve gas mileage.

Two popular systems, which can be installed for less than $400, are Magnaflow and Flow Master. The muffler is changed and dual tailpipes with special tips are added. Some of the tips even have patterns on them. The louder exhaust systems do comply with California law, but be aware that you can be ticketed for driving around with a muffler, which you have modified yourself, that makes too much noise.

When shopping for a used car, most of us know to look for low mileage vehicles, and to watch out for things such as obvious body damage and low tread tires. But how do automotive experts evaluate an older vehicle?  Besides reviewing the service records, You should get a report from CARFAX for $24.99, which will show the title history, and whether the car’s been in a major accident, has a salvage certificate or been returned for being a manufacturer buyback or “lemon.”  The report also includes information on recalls.

It’s best to avoid used cars with mismatched tires, scuffed leather interiors and pet smells.  Other red flags are signs of rust, poor paint and body repairs, and pervasive cigarette odor. Any type of smoke permeates the carpeting, headliner and venting system and is about impossible to eliminate.

No matter what type of roof you have, it's a good idea to get prepared for the upcoming rainy season. Michael Cobb, General Manager of General Roofing Company, a Diamond Certified company, suggests that you do your own visual inspection or have a professional check now for signs of deterioration, clear out all build-up from the gutters and flush them out, check all flashings around chimneys, vents and skylights for broken seals, and clean debris from the roof.

If you have a pitched roof with composite shingles or a shake roof system, Mr. Cobb says you'll want to replace missing, cracked, or broken shingles or heavily curled wood shakes. If you have a flat roof system with tar and gravel, look for bare spots which might need touching up. Some flat roofs have been treated with a reflective coating. These systems should be re-coated every 5-7 years to provide the most protection.

Now that fuel prices are rising meteorically, people who would have never before thought of buying a diesel engine car are reconsidering. The newer turbo-diesels made beginning in 2004 are cleaner than older ones, and these later model cars can run on BioDiesel with no alterations, according to Dave Sutch, owner of My Car Guy, a Diamond Certified company.

You can't buy new diesel cars in California; they can only be registered once they have 7500 miles on the odometer. The engines are powerful and they don't need tune-ups or smog tests, only oil and filter changes. Diesels also last a long time. Mr. Sutch estimates that if you're doing primarily city driving, the engine will last about 400,000 miles - more if highway driving. The cost of diesel is now about the same as regular gas or mid-grade, but the real savings come from getting at least 40 miles to the gallon, depending on model and driving habits

It’s time to get your alignment checked if you have noticed unusual tire wear, a shake in the steering wheel while driving, or the sensation that your car is pulling to the right or left.  A professional wheel alignment will most likely solve these problems and at the same time, extend the life of your tires and improve fuel economy.

New digital imaging technology is now used to precisely measure the position and orientation of reflective targets mounted on each wheel of your vehicle. The data from four cameras are the basis for calculating the car’s current measurement, which is then compared to the auto manufacturer’s original specifications. Now the technician has the exact information to make proper adjustments. These professional alignments are extremely accurate; they’re also inexpensive and can be done quickly, often while you wait.


The smallest rock can cause plenty of damage to your windshield while you’re driving. Sometimes just the chip can be repaired, but often you have to replace the entire windshield. A chip in the driver’s line of vision is hazardous. A small ding may grow into multiple cracks, especially when the area is exposed to temperature changes.

If your windshield has to be replaced, Here are some tips on what to do in the first couple of days. Wait 3-4 hours before driving your car to let the glue start setting up. It takes up to 48 hours to completely dry. Keep the windows a little open to relieve pressure inside the car and avoid slamming the doors. You should wait at least 2 days before visiting a car wash. Most professional installers offer a lifetime warranty on all replacements.

California car buyers now have more rights when it comes to buying a used car. The new law gives you a two-day return option on used vehicles costing $40,000 or less. Rosemary Shahan, President of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS), is quick to point out that the new law does not cover used cars purchased from a private party, leased cars, out of state purchases, RVs, motorcycles or commercial vehicles.

With the return option, dealers can charge a fee based on the sale price of the car, along with a restocking fee. The dealer cannot sell your trade-in during the trial period. All terms and fees are negotiable, so why not ask for a 4-5 day trial instead of just two? Be aware that some dealers are asking customers to sign a form saying they will buy another car if they rescind the first sales contract. This is not part of the new law.

Have you ever been driving your car and suddenly you notice that the amber-colored check or service engine light has come on? Some people might "panic" and stop, thinking if they continue it will cause damage. Rob Service, owner of Central Automotive Service Center, a Diamond Certified company, wants to reassure us that this warning light is not designed to scare you. The early warning system, which monitors the transmission, emission controls, and engine, is indicating that you may need your vehicle repaired soon.

If the light comes on and the car is otherwise running normally, first check your fuel tank cap. A leak there can turn the warning light on. Another tip is to turn off the engine, restart it and see if the check engine light comes back on. If it does, go see your mechanic. If the vehicle is running okay, you should be able to drive it to the shop.

If you've had an accident and you need to have your damaged vehicle repaired it is your legal right to choose where the repair work is done. Robin Miller, owner of Livermore Collision Center, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, says your insurance company cannot suggest, recommend, force you or even mention that you take your vehicle to their designated body shop for any reason, unless you first ask for a recommendation. Many repair facilities work with all insurance companies and some offer insurance deductible discounts.

The California Motorists Bill of Rights was added to the Insurance Code in 2004. If an insurance company forces you to use one of their shops, they are in violation of the regulations. The insurer must also inform claimants of the right to select the repair dealer of their choice, in writing. Violations still occur, according to Ms. Miller, but are less likely if consumers know their rights ahead of time.

Do you know how to check all the fluids under the hood of your car? The next time you get an oil change, why not watch and learn? Darrin Schlafer, Operations Manager for Pennzoil 10 Minute Oil Change, says customers who know about their cars and monitor fluids can help their mechanics diagnose problems early and more importantly, avoid most major mechanical breakdowns.

When checking most fluids, the engine is turned off. You will get a more accurate reading for your oil if the motor is cool and vehicle is on a level surface. The brake fluid is in a master cylinder frequently located near the firewall on the driver's side. If the fluid is low, don't top it off yourself. Better to tell the shop on your next visit and have the brake linings checked. If you plan to check transmission fluid yourself, make sure the engine is running when you test it.

Most of us know that we need to get oil changes every 3,000 to 5,000 miles. That type of on-going maintenance is just the tip of the iceberg though, according to Tom Arendell, owner of Machado’s Auto Care, a Diamond Certified company. He says that following the manufacturer’s guidelines for regular scheduled maintenance is what will give you the most comfort and peace of mind.

The recommended service intervals are spelled out in your owner’s manual. Some things have to be checked every 5,000 miles. Occasionally, fluids have to be replenished or small parts have to be replaced. Major service work is performed at 15,000-mile intervals. It’s all in your manual. Mr. Arendell says by paying close attention to the little things, you will spend less money on major repairs, have fewer breakdowns, your car will last much longer, and it will have a better resale value.

One of the many pitfalls in buying a used car is knowing whether the vehicle has passed the state's Smog Check test. You could end up with a car that needs costly repairs. Department of Consumer Affairs Director Kathleen Hamilton says help is now just a click away.

Now you can review a car's test history by entering its license plate number or its Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) at the Bureau of Automotive Repair's website: www.smogcheck.ca.gov. If you find the vehicle hasn't passed the state's test, you can negotiate repairs with the seller or start looking for another used car.

Have you ever had a streaking windshield caused by a wiper blade that was getting old? Until you have time to get it changed, here's a tip to temporarily clear up the problem. Lyde Waitley, owner of Olsen Auto Repair in Livermore, suggests you wipe your wiper blades with an alcohol based hand wipe. You can use eyeglass wipes or even baby wipes.

Or, if on the road use the hand wipes from a fast food chicken restaurant. This should clear up your windshield for a little while until you have a chance to change your wiper blades. Clear sailing!

Your insurance company may suggest that you use a particular auto body shop, a shop that participates in what’s called a “direct repair program”, or DRP.  These shops discount their rates for insurance companies in return for the referrals.  As Karen Chadd, Office Manager for Phil’s Auto Body, a Diamond Certified company says, “It’s your car and it’s your choice where you have it repaired.  You don’t even have to get more than one estimate anymore.”

Your insurance company’s adjuster does have to verify the damage before repairs take place.  Nowadays, some of the communication between the shop and insurance company is done by e-mail and FAX to help ease the process.   If you have a shop that you trust and prefer, take it there. That way you know exactly what you’re getting -- a quality repair job.

Do you know what the #1 reason is that cars don’t pass their smog check? According to Diamond Certified smog check experts, a “check engine" / "service engine soon" light ON and/or high tail pipe emissions are the main reasons. The state sets the maximum allowed limits for hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen, referred to as "NOX". A worn out catalytic converter can also be one of the many causes for not passing.

Each smog check station has its own policy as to whether they charge you for a failure. The state does not regulate that. In general, shops set their own
prices for all smog checks, other than the state regulated $8.25 for the Smog Certificate.  If your car fails the smog test close to the registration deadline, you may ask DMV for an extension to make failed smog related repairs.

Most people think they can get a lower price on a used car from a private party rather than a dealer. That’s not always the case, according to Greg Meier, owner of Diablo Motors Auto Sales, Brokerage and Service, a Diamond Certified company. Now that consumers use the Internet to buy used cars, dealers have had to price them more competitively. And a certified pre-owned car from a reputable dealer can be a safer bet than an “AS IS” private party car.

When buying a used vehicle, investigate what may have happened to it in the past, unless you know the previous owner personally. A vehicle history report is available from CarFax, a service some car dealers provide for free. Go to AAA or your mechanic for an independent pre-purchase inspection. Remember that many used cars are sold “AS IS”. If you want more protection, buy from a dealer who offers a free 90-day warranty.

What can you do to maximize the chances of your vehicle passing the California Emissions Test?  According to Ken Ashton, owner of Pacific Smog, a Diamond Certified company, you should start by having regular oil changes, and then have your car tuned up prior to the emissions test if needed.

If your vehicle is a 1996 or newer and the battery has been dead or disconnected recently, or any work has been performed on the vehicle, it could fail. It should be driven for a day or two before so it will be ready to be tested.

Keep in mind that once your vehicle enters the test station, the State REQUIRES that it be tested in the condition in which it was received. The technician cannot stop the test because they think that it might fail. Testing can only be stopped if continuing presents a safety hazard to the technician or the vehicle.

Washing the car typically uses many gallons of water and sends toxic runoff into storm drains and, ultimately, lakes and streams. Products such as Lucky Earth Waterless Car Wash not only save water, they get cars shiny again with no runoff. A no-rinse product from Eco Car Care requires only a couple of gallons of water, to dilute the cleanser. And though Simple Green’s car wash solution requires a full rinse, the sudsy runoff won’t harm lawns or other greenery.

As a San Francisco Bay Area resident, you’re probably well prepared for an earthquake. But how prepared are you to deal with an emergency on the road? Consumer Reports recommends drivers outfit their vehicles with the following items:

Cell phone
Hazard triangles or flares
Jumper cables
Flashlight
Roadside-assistance membership
Tow-rope
Duct tape (for emergency repairs)
Small shovel and a bag of sand (to get traction if your tires are spinning)
Windshield scraper, blanket, and hand warmers (particularly necessary if you drive to snow country)
Based on decades of driving, we’d add water, old tennis shoes, a rain slicker, and a first aid kit.

What’s in your emergency car kit? Email us your suggestions, and we’ll share some of them in the next issue of the Diamond Certified Consumer Report.

Did you know that any repair shop can perform regular maintenance on your new car, not just the dealership? Some people mistakenly think that their warranty can be voided unless the dealer does the servicing, but, according to Kris Cesena, owner of Auto Medics - Honda and Acura Specialists, a Diamond Certified company, federal law (Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act of 1975) allows you to have the work done at the shop of your choice. It even says so (sometimes in small print) in the manual that comes with your new car. The key is to document all the work performed. Save the receipts and have the repair shop stamp and date your owner’s manual. It’s important to follow the service intervals as recommended by the manufacturer, especially if you’re leasing a vehicle, says Cesena. That’s because if you can’t prove that the service was performed at specified intervals, you can be charged for it at the end of the lease.

Like a lot of you who own old cars, I’ve been tempted by the large government rebates offered through the Cash for Clunkers program. Isn’t it about time I get rid of my 1997 Infiniti i30 and get that new convertible I’ve had my eye on? But does my old car qualify? You can find out at the government website, www.cars.gov. I was disappointed to learn that I can’t take advantage of the offer. My estimated MPG is too high. But here’s some good advice for anyone shopping for a new car. Dave Sutch, President of My Car Guy, a Diamond Certified auto broker/dealer, suggests that you always negotiate the selling price first and handle any trade-ins or rebates, afterwards. We’re hearing plenty of stories about people going into dealerships and talking about government rebate upfront, and they end up paying an inflated price, often as much as $2500 to $3500 more for the car!

 Driving on wet roads with your cruise control on can be very dangerous. Lyde Waitley, owner of Olsen’s Automotive Repair, a Diamond Certified company, says the concern is that if your car begins to hydro-plane and tires lose contact with the surface, the cruise control will take some time to react. When your car begins to get traction again, it will accelerate, making you take off too quickly. You may lose complete control of your vehicle.

The early part of the rainy season is especially hazardous. It hasn’t rained in a long time and oils have accumulated, making it difficult for your tires to stick to pavement.  Some newer cars won’t let you set cruise control while the windshield wipers are on. The safest thing is to avoid using the cruise control setting when rain and inclement weather are in the forecast. Also, be sure to replace worn tires before the first downpour.