As the amount of time that drivers hold onto their cars increases, so does the need for repairs. Back in 1930, the average lifespan of a car was 6.75 years; today’s owners are keeping their vehicles for almost twice as long: an average of 11.4 years. And that extended relationship means that the importance of auto repair is increasing, says RepairPal CEO Art Shaw. “A lot of the focus of the industry is the purchase of the car, and that has moved online,” he says. “But service is incredibly fragmented and has so little transparency. We’re trying to change that.”
Founder David Sturtz started the online auto repair advisor in 2007, with the aim of giving consumers a resource to help them understand reasonable service pricing. After all, most consumers are are fairly clueless about how to take care of their cars. Sure, plenty of drivers know how to change a tire and the oil; but diagnosing bigger problems requires a professional. It’s almost like going to the doctor, Shaw says. If a physician tells a patient he needs his appendix removed, he generally has to trust the doctor and pay the quoted price.
To mitigate this lack of knowledge and transparency, San Francisco-based RepairPal compiled a massive dataset, tracking the prices of 135 common repairs across nearly all car models produced from 1990 to the present. Finding and sorting all of this data was “a big, expensive effort,” Shaw says. The company also had to consider factors like the cost of aftermarket parts, as well as labor rates by geography. After all, a driver in San Francisco couldn’t expect to pay the same price as a driver in Chicago.
All that data informed the RepairPal price estimator, a tool that can quote modern car owners a fair and reasonable price for repairs before they go to the mechanic. “We tried to demystify the context of a repair, and make owners feel like they had their heads around things,” Shaw says.
The company got great feedback from the estimator, but when Shaw took over as CEO about a year and a half ago, he realized there was another big hole that needed to be filled. Telling customers what kind of bill to expect was helpful, but then they needed to know which shops can actually do the repairs.
“Most people don’t know where to go to go,” Shaw says. “We did some data around that— two-thirds of people are worried about where to go but believe they’ve already been ripped off in auto repair. It’s crazy. We knew the problem was deep.” So RepairPal set about building Top Shop, a mechanic recommendation engine that helps drivers hunt down reliable options nearby. “A lot of people rely on friends and family” for recommendations, he says. “But uncles, cousins and friends don’t know that much better. They might not have the same car, or live near them. We found that even shops don’t know other shops that well.”
To be recommended by TopShop, mechanics have to pass a tough review process, which includes a detailed 84-question tech assessment survey, and ratings from random sample of 25 customers. “We want to know that parts are high-quality,” Shaw says. “We do that same work on mechanics. And not just one good mechanic, because that mechanic might not be working on [every] car. We want to know that diagnostic tools are great, because they are increasingly important and expensive.”
Top Shop debuted in May of 2012, and now recommends 430 repair shops across the country in 43 states; the number of options tends to correlate with U.S. population, with more mechanics listed in California and urban centers than other areas.
All of Top Shop’s listings offer a warranty on repairs that’s good for 12 months or 12,000 miles, and two-thirds of them offer warranties for 24 months or 24,000 miles. They’re also prohibited from charging customers a rate higher than what’s quoted by the price estimator.
There are other recommendation sites out there that include auto mechanics—Angie’s List and Craigslist, for example—but Shaw says they can’t offer the same level of expertise as RepairPal. For one thing, the shops are being recommended by the average Joe, who might not know that much about cars. Plus, they just don’t work the same way. Consumers can read reviews on a coffee shop and a restaurant and have a great sense of what they need and want from those businesses. They are far less likely to understand what they need from a mechanic, what a fair price for a given repair is, and how to find someone they know they can trust. Plus, Top Shop users can review their mechanics to give other users a sense of how happy they are with their experience.
Once a company makes it through the review process, they face a review every year to make sure that they’re up to par. But, Shaw says, “The shops have made a very deliberate investment in equipment and don’t fall out on the margins very easily or quickly.”
RepairPal charges each shop an application fee and an annual listing fee. The startup also licenses its data and technology to companies like Castrol, NAPA, AOL Autos and Cars.com.
This year, RepairPal has raised $13 million in funding, with investors including Cars.com and Castrol innoVEntures; they’ve also grown to about 30 people and increased the number of Top Shops from 190 shops at the end of 2012 to 430 shops today.
It’s all an effort to push the automotive service industry—a fragmented sector with 80,000 local mechanic shops—into the digital space and to empower customers who have traditionally felt overwhelmed by the prospect of going to the mechanic. As part of that, they’ve launched a feature called MyCar that can help track the repair life of a vehicle. Shaw says it’s helpful both for keeping a car healthy, and for having a record to show prospective buyers.
“This is a hard industry to bring online,” Shaw says. “But people love what we’re doing. It’s the difference between going to a place where you’re worried or assume you’ll be ripped off to somewhere you have great trust.”