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Car repair costs jump 10 percent

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 (iStock)

Trips to the mechanic are rarely cheap, but does it seem like those visits have become even pricier than usual?

You're not imagining things. According to a new survey, repair costs returned to pre-recession levels last year -- though the news isn't all bad.

The survey in question is CarMD's 2013 Vehicle Health Index. To create the Index, researchers studied CarMD's nationwide database of repair trends, compiled by a network of affiliated technicians who uploaded details from vehicles' onboard diagnostics ports when they were brought in for repairs. Analysts paid particular attention to engine-related problems experienced by vehicles from the 1996 to 2012 model years, as well as the cost of repairing those vehicles. In all, some 161,000 vehicles provided anonymous data for the 2013 Index.

THE BAD NEWS

The worst news for car owners is that repair costs are on the upswing. In fact, 2012 marked the first increase in repair-related expenses we've seen in six years:

  • On average, the cost of car repairs jumped 10% in 2012.
  • Parts were up a fairly modest 6%, while labor surged 17%.
  • Drivers were affected differently, depending on where they lived. Costs in the Northeast jumped 11.56%, with the South following closely behind at 11.02%. In the Midwest, prices climbed 8.98%, and the West got off fairly easily, with hikes averaging 6.53%.
  • The 15 most expensive vehicle repairs -- things like replacement of transmissions and catalytic converters -- occurred 24% more often in 2012 than in 2011.
  • Problems with batteries and charging systems made their first-ever appearance on CarMD's top-ten list of most common problems. The increase is partly due to vehicle computerization, which is better able to track failing batteries, meaning that they're replaced more often. However, analysts also point to high temperatures: 2012 was the hottest year ever recorded in the U.S., which wreaked havoc on certain vehicle parts, especially batteries.

THE GOOD NEWS

There are, however, a few silver linings peeking out from the gathering clouds:

  • Although costs for repairs jumped in 2012, the number of visits to mechanics due to check-engine lights actually fell by 1.3%. That's in part because today's cars are better made than their predecessors, and also because drivers have become better at fixing minor problems on their own. 
  • Although the frequency of expensive car repairs jumped in 2012, the 15 most expensive fixes made up only a tiny fraction -- 1% -- of all service visits.
  • Expensive repairs have become more frequent, in part, because of the age and quality of our vehicles. The average age of cars on U.S. roads hovers just below 11 years, which is great for quality-minded buyers -- although it also means that when things go wrong, they can go very, very wrong.
  • Hybrid repair costs are dropping, thanks to the growing number of hybrids in use and the increasing number of shops that are qualified to service them. Though things like replacing hybrid inverter assemblies remain costly -- just under $4,000 -- that sum will continue to drop thanks to economies of scale.  

For additional details, check out the infographic above, or click over and view the 2013 Vehicle Health Index for yourself.