CHICAGO — When Peter Champlin, an auto mechanic for nearly 15 years, popped the hood on a 2003 Jeep Liberty, he fixed a leak with a new clamp on the lower radiator hose and installed a new ignition coil. The bill was $189.33.
Routine stuff for an experienced mechanic like Champlin, who is certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence as a master technician, with one exception: The repairs were done in the owner's driveway in suburban Chicago, not in a repair shop or dealership service department.
At a time when few medical doctors still make house calls, a growing number of car doctors are driving to customers' houses or places of business to perform repairs and maintenance while the customers continue their usual daily routines.
For the customer, there's no waiting around at a repair shop or shuttling back and forth to drop off and pick up the car. They come to you.
Independent mechanics began advertising mobile services several years ago on Craigslist and similar sites. Now, though, start-up companies have set up shop online offering mobile repair services, rosters of experienced mechanics available seven days a week, instant online price quotes for a variety of repairs, and 12-month/12,000-mile guarantees on parts and labor.
Champlin, for instance, works for Otobots, a company based outside Chicago that has mobile mechanics in Illinois, California and Texas and plans to expand into several more states in the next few years.
A more established and much larger competitor, YourMechanic, based in Mountain View, Calif., operates in most major metro areas, including Philadelphia, and 33 states, with plans to add more areas in the near future.
Both claim to perform maintenance and repairs at lower cost than dealerships and repair shops.
Arun Simon, the CEO of Otobots and a cofounder of the company, said he came up with the idea three years ago after spending considerable time trying to find a mechanic on Craigslist. The solution, he thought, was to use technology to make it more convenient for consumers to find a mechanic and schedule service online and have the mechanic come to them.
"The biggest problem we're solving here is the actual inconvenience that is associated with the hours of waiting at a repair shop," Simon said in a telephone interview.
The online scheduling process works like this: The customer enters the year, make, model and engine of the vehicle, chooses what's needed from lists of available services and repairs and receives a price quote. If the customer decides to go ahead with the repair, he or she can choose among available time slots for when the mechanic should come. Customers have to enter a credit-card number to schedule an appointment.
If a customer's car won't start or the cause of a problem is unknown, Otobots charges a $64.99 diagnostic fee, and YourMechanic charges $70 to $80, depending on location.
For John Scalet, the owner of the Jeep Liberty that Champlin repaired, Otobot's mobile service allowed him to keep working at home without taking time away from running his graphics and sign business.
"I wanted to try something a little different. I feel it's safer than Craigslist. When you go online you can read the credentials of the people who are going to be working on the car, so it's not like you're blind to the people that are working on it," Scalet said.
Anthony Rodio, CEO of YourMechanic, said in addition to the convenience factor, consumers like the instant online price quote with comparisons to what local dealers and repair shops would charge.
"That price transparency is a big part of our value proposition, because historically consumers have felt that (auto repair) is a very opaque experience. They didn't know what they were going to pay until after they dropped the car off and got a call a few hours later with an estimate that might not be the final bill," Rodio said in a telephone interview.
YourMechanic says they can perform most services a shop can complete. A referral process is in the works for customers whose cars can't be repaired after initial investigation.
Both companies screen mechanics by verifying their credentials and conducting background checks, and they say they match the skills and experience of the mechanic to specific jobs or types of vehicles, such as diesel engines. The mechanics supply their own tools and work vehicles, and they work as contractors who are paid by the job, not as salaried employees.
Rodio said YourMechanic relies heavily on technology to schedule mechanics and order parts so that most jobs are completed within 48 hours of a customer placing an online order.
When a customer books an appointment online, parts are ordered for the job at the company's headquarters in California through parts stores such as Advance Auto Parts, Auto Zone and O'Reilly Auto Parts. The assigned mechanic picks up the parts from a local store on the way to do the repairs.
"Our technology kicks out what the parts need to be, and then we have a parts department that actually reviews them and makes sure we have the right parts for the job," he said. "A large part of our value proposition is that we want to use technology to be able to do this at scale in a more efficient way than the traditional model."
Ordering parts in volume enables YourMechanic and Otobots to negotiate lower prices from suppliers. Rodio said YourMechanic also is working directly with parts manufacturers to make them exclusive suppliers. Castrol, for example, is their exclusive supplier of motor oil and lubricants.
Moreover, neither company bears the cost of maintaining a repair shop or dealership service department, which they say enables them to charge less. Instead, they perform repairs on private property such as driveways and office parking lots (not on public streets).
Both mobile mechanic services do dozens of maintenance and repair jobs, such as oil changes, batteries, timing belt replacement, brakes and air-conditioning repairs, but they don't do internal engine or transmission repair or other jobs that require specialized equipment or a shop setting.
Labor charges vary by location, and both companies use standard rates based on industry guides for specific tasks.
For example, based on online quotes, in the Chicago area Otobots charges $117.62 to install a serpentine drive belt on a 2010 Toyota Camry, with $80 for labor and the rest for parts and tax; YourMechanic charges $130.58, with $77 for labor.
To replace the front brake pads and rotors on a 2012 Honda CR-V, Otobots charges $384.78 (with $128 for labor) and YourMechanic charges $303.30 ($112 for labor).
Though mobile mechanics currently take only a small slice of the auto repair business, Rodio said they are part of a "massive disruption" of the auto industry. Part of the shift, he adds, is desire for alternatives to the traditional, bricks-and-mortar repair shops.
"People are much more open at this point to a better way or different way of doing things, instead of just the way it's always been done," he said.