I should have known I’d get this call. The one that came roughly an hour after I’d dropped off my car at a dealership I’d never used, for a simple oil change while on a road trip. The one where they’d tell me that things were about to get more expensive.

“Your oil change is almost done,” the pleasant-sounding woman on the other end of the phone said. “But we need to talk about all of the maintenance due on your vehicle.”

An unsavory fact about car dealerships is that a lot of their profits come from their service departments. There are several reasons for this: Relatively small margins on the cars they sell; vehicles being an infrequent purchase for most is another. Service is where dealers can draw downstream revenue. While some perform only necessary work, numerous reports and confessions from former employees say that the system encourages workers at every level—from the technicians who work on your cars, to the advisors who deal with you at the desk, to the managers who oversee the whole thing—to push customers into purchasing costly and unnecessary services.

“As a technician at a dealership, the biggest thing they want you to do is upsell, upsell, upsell because you get commission,” says Warren (note: his name has been changed), an auto mechanic with more than 16 years of experience. He adds that at most dealerships, the service advisors and managers also work on commission.

For most of his career, Warren worked at an independent garage. But after a divorce forced him into an unexpected move, he took a job as a technician at a dealer’s service center in upstate New York. He lasted less than two years: he found that he could no longer do it “morally.” During his time at the dealership, he says that even techs who wanted to be honest with customers often found that they couldn’t.

“I would tell an advisor what I saw that needed to be done, but then the advisor would come back and tell me what else they sold,” Warren says. “Which always made me feel like an asshole, but at that point I had no choice anymore. It’s already sold. You have to do it, because if you don’t, they still charge for it.”

Car Dealer Service Centers

How They Upsell You

The woman on the phone with me detailed a long list of things that, in the service center’s view, needed to be done to my vehicle. The air filters were filthy, she said. Several important fluids (besides the oil) needed to be replaced. Instead of a $35 oil change, she said my visit would cost me almost a grand. (1)

Her list included two of the three common techniques dealer service centers use to get you to spend more:

  • They sell you products you don’t need. Air filters—the first thing she mentioned—are probably the most common item here. The trick where they show you a dirty air filter and tell you it needs to be replaced is pretty well-documented. “Filters are an easy sell, because people don’t pay attention to what’s going on with their cars” Warren says. He adds a good air filter can last 20,000 to 30,000 miles, but people regularly change them far more frequently based on the advice of a serviceperson at a dealer or a big-box oil change chain. In some cases, the filter they show you might not even be from your vehicle.
  • They get you to perform maintenance more regularly than needed. Alarm bells rang for me when the woman said so many fluids needed to be replaced, as nearly all of them were new. I’d had them replaced at a routine maintenance only months before. But since I was coming from out of state, she had no record of that. Her default was to recommend the full service package, new fluids and all. Another way servicers will get customers to swap fluids and get other repairs more regularly is to convince them they fall under a “severe use” schedule, requiring more regular maintenance. But more than 90 percent of drivers are not using their cars enough to merit the designation. (3, 5) The exceptions are people like pizza delivery persons, taxi drivers or people who tow or drive off-road regularly.
  • *They sell you on services you don’t need. Warren says that techs at his former dealership were encouraged to look for services that could be performed on cars, not necessarily ones that needed to be. This included vehicle “enhancements” of dubious benefit. Chief among them? “Fuel line service,” Warren says. “It’s not needed on most cars. You could basically throw a can of fuel system cleaner in your gas tank and it will do the same thing.”

Car Dealer Service Centers

How You Can Avoid Getting Screwed

As I mentioned before, I knew that all of the services the woman on the phone suggested had just been done on my car, and that I didn’t need the work she recommended. But in the past I wasn’t so careful, and wound up paying for it. To steer clear of unnecessary charges and upsells, Warren and others suggest the following 6 strategies:

  • Read your owner’s manual. Sound boring? It won’t be. Dig in and you’ll likely notice some significant differences between when the car’s manufacturer says maintenance should be and what dealers recommend. Go with what the maker says.
  • Research the shop. This should be a given nowadays, but before you take your car for service anywhere, see what other people are saying about the place on sites like Angie’s List, Yelp and Google.
  • Keep track of your car’s service history. No matter where you go for service, don’t let that shop have the only record of the maintenance performed on your car. You’ll feel a lot more confident telling a shady tech that, no, you don’t need a new air filter when you’re armed with a document showing you just got a new one 4,000 miles ago.
  • When a technician or advisor tells you there’s a problem, ask to see it. A good technician won’t hesitate to point out the issue in question and explain why it’s a problem. “I encourage people to come in the shop,” says Warren, who today is back at an independent garage in Northeast Ohio, where he says he and his colleagues are paid salary, not commission. “It’s always good to see things with your own eyes. That’s just common sense.”
  • *Get a second opinion. If you take your car in for one thing and suddenly your advisor recommends you do four or five other things, don’t hesitate to say no. While there are some instances in which driving away might be risky (Warren says you wouldn’t want to mess around with a ball joint that was about to fall apart, or brakes that were severely worn or damaged), most of the time you can safely take the vehicle elsewhere for another evaluation. “If there’s any doubt, always have it checked out by somebody you trust.”
  • Know you can get a second opinion afterward, too. “Shops are required to hold your parts until you pick up your car,” Warren says. “If you think something is questionable, you can actually take your old parts away and have someone else look at them.”