When your car needs a face lift

DO you have a fender-bender you need fixed? Or perhaps you'd like to halt the march of rust on your car's doors, hood, or underbody? If so, here are some guidelines for finding an automobile body shop that does high-quality work at a fair price. Get recommendations first

Since the most trustworthy advertising is usually by word of mouth, talk to friends and relatives who have had their cars repaired. If you have a mechanic whose opinion you trust, ask him for the name of a good body shop. You can also contact state, local, or national automotive trade associations. See the place for yourself

Most shops won't let you in the work area for safety reasons, but you can learn a lot by looking around the premises and asking some questions: Is the shop clean and organized? Is the painting booth removed from the sanding area to prevent contamination of the paint? Is the shop well equipped? If your car needs major collision work, the shop should either do, or sublet, frame straightening, front-end alignment, and glass installation. Inquire about techniques

Don't be afraid to ask about the repair techniques the shop uses. Here are some examples: A good shop won't fill major dents with body putty, but will either pound out the dent or replace the part. As a rule, for dings, hammer and dolly marks, and other minor damage, body fillers should not exceed one-half inch. Sandblasting, not grinding alone, should be used to eliminate rust. Metal conditioners should be applied to bare metal. This prevents moisture and air from contaminating clean metal and causing premature rust. Areas to be painted should be sanded and covered with a primer or sealer. Get a detailed estimate

Unlike many other automotive services, body work involves a lot of guesswork in trying to restore damaged areas to the original contours of your car. To be on the safe side, and to help in your comparison shopping, ask for a written estimate. All parts and labor should be itemized on your invoice. Used parts should be clearly identified. Make sure the shop will notify you before continuing the work if the costs look as if they'll exceed the estimate. Written warranties are not common for body work, but there's no harm in asking. Inspect the finished job

The best indication of good work is the finished product. Know what to look for: Chrome should not show signs of paint. If the car has been partially repainted, the new and old colors should match. Surfaces should feel smooth. Paint stripes and moldings should line up evenly. Body panels should be free of bumps and waves in the metal.

All told, your car should look like it never had to be repaired.

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