Your check engine light comes on — you’ll need a car diagnostic test. What does it mean, how much should it cost, and where can you get one?
Let’s start with a little background.
What is a car diagnostic test?
The majority of modern fuel-injected vehicles have automatic transmissions, fuel injection systems, and ignition systems that are controlled by computers. These computers continuously receive data from dozens of sensors to optimize the combustion process. When one of these sensors reports a problem, your check engine light will turn on, and it’s time to get a diagnostic test.
“A good diagnostic test will inform you how long the issue has been present, both in real-time, key/start cycles, and drive cycles, while also telling you how many times this error has occurred during that time,” says Matt Barton of The Hero Labs. “This tells you if the problem was a fluke or if you have a degrading system that will need to be addressed,”
There are also errors which can occur in your vehicle which won’t light up your check engine light. With this in mind, it’s not a bad idea to get a diagnostic checkup periodically.
How much should a car diagnostic cost?
“Typically, it should only cost one hour of shop rate time (the amount a given shop charges for their hourly rate),” says Barton. Depending on your region, this figure should sit between $65 and $100.
RepairPal reports that a car diagnostic test costs between $88 and $111 before taxes, and Popular Mechanic says it can cost from $20 to $400.
As with any financial decision, it’s smart to check at least three places before you commit.
Can you get a free car diagnostic test?
Barton says, “As a mechanic and small business owner, my job is to make money, so I always include a free check with service. Many places will do this if you just ask, and hey, a free check never hurt.”
On the other hand, some shop owners will try to convince you that your car trouble is catastrophic to push you to spend more. Be sure to check reviews and work only with reputable establishments. If you have qualms about a diagnosis, get a second opinion.
Unfortunately, not all pricey diagnoses are scams. Sometimes you just need to bite the bullet and pay for an expensive repair or part replacement to keep your car alive.
4 ways to pay for an expensive repair
If you end up needing an expensive repair and don’t have the funds to pay for it out-of-pocket, here’s a quick list of financing options to consider.
1. Get an unsecured personal loan
Getting an unsecured personal loan is one of the easiest ways to borrow cash fast. Apply online and, upon approval, you’ll have the money in your bank account in as little as a day. Look for low interest rates, minimal fees, and good customer service.
If you need help finding your best offer, you can use our personal loan engine to get personalized offers from dozens of lenders competing for your business.
Since different personal loans come with different rates, fees and requirements, so check out what the best personal loans are to ensure that you choose the best option for you.
2. Borrow from friends or family
Consider asking a friend or family member if you can borrow the money. By doing so, you can usually pay less than you would pay to an official lender and you won’t need to pass a credit check. The downside? If something goes wrong, your personal relationship is at risk. Be sure to have a repayment plan in place to avoid emotional strain.
3. 401(k) loan
If you have a 401(k) retirement account, you may be able to take out a loan against a percentage of your funds. The interest rates will be low, and you can pay the loan off by withholding a percentage of your paycheck.
If your credit score is in the poor-to-fair range, this option is attractive because it doesn’t require a credit check. However, if you don’t keep up with your regular 401k contributions, your retirement savings will take a hit.
4. Credit card with a no interest offer
Lastly, consider getting a credit card with a no-interest introductory period. During the promotional period, you will pay no interest on your balance. If you use it to pay for car repairs, you will have time to pay it off before the interest kicks in.
The catch? When the promotional period ends, the interest rate skyrockets. Only use this option if you’re confident you’ll pay off your credit before the promotional window closes. In addition, you’ll have to get approved based on your credit score.
Read about more quick ways to borrow money here.
Get your car back on the road
Even though a car diagnostic test can bring bad news, the sooner you find out about a problem, the better. Otherwise, one problem can turn into many more.
The scan itself should be around $100, but depending on the problem and the mechanic you hire, solving the problem can cost more.
Jessica Walrack is a personal finance writer at SuperMoney, The Simple Dollar, Interest.com, Commonbond, Bankrate, NextAdvisor, Guardian, Personalloans.org and many others. She specializes in taking personal finance topics like loans, credit cards, and budgeting, and making them accessible and fun.