The Total Story - BodyShop Business

The Total Story

Why are some cars repaired when they should be totaled, and others totaled when they should be repaired? Because, too often, poorly trained people are estimating damages. If it's a total, then total it. If it's a borderline case, communicate with your customer and your tech. But keep in mind that customer safety is your No. 1 priority.

I find it ironic that when I ask collision techs, “When is a total not a total?” the answer is often something along the lines of, “When the body shop manager has already seen (and drooled on) the $12,000 check.”

Borderline totals are among many techs’ least favorite repairs. For commission-paid techs, hard hit wrecks have a reputation for being difficult to make money on. Many techs associate the complexity of a hard hit wreck with overlooked procedures and/or P-page procedures that many shops don’t charge for. While many body shop managers – maybe yours – like to believe they’re making money on hard hit wrecks, they’re actually lucky to break even.


The Mark VIII Mistake
Some time ago, I was assigned to repair a 1998 Lincoln Mark VIII that had been rear ended pretty hard. I took a glance at the floor of the trunk and knew the damage to the frame rails was severe enough to total the car. The insurance company’s estimate called for a rear section and listed no P-page procedures. By the time all additional procedures, parts, materials and labor were written up for supplementation, the total repair bill was nearly $13,000 – and I still expected to find items we overlooked.

Too many weeks and a couple of supplements later, all we’d accomplished by repairing this car was an upset customer, an irritated technician and a Mark VIII that was tying up valuable shop space. The customer was upset because of how long it was taking to repair a vehicle that he would’ve preferred be written as a total loss. The tech was irritated with the insurance company’s constant fight to avoid covering all necessary procedures. And by the time the insurance company finally agreed to pay for everything, the claim was well over $20,000 including the rental car bill. Other 1998 Mark VIIIs around town were selling for about $17,500. (On top of all that, the customer filed a diminished value claim.)

When the cost of repair exceeds the cost of replacement, I certainly agree with the decision to total the vehicle. However, too many improperly trained – or even untrained – people are estimating damages. If a more thorough and accurate estimate had been written initially and if the shop’s office staff had been more diligent in obtaining full coverage of all necessary procedures, the Mark VIII would’ve been determined a total loss – and we could’ve moved on to more profitable jobs.

The vehicle owner and the technician who diagnosed the damage both wanted the Mark VIII totaled. However, office personnel from both the shop and the insurance company – all of whom are skilled professionals at their own jobs, yet possess limited hands-on experience in repairing collision damage – determined the vehicle repairable. Well, anything is repairable if you want it repaired badly enough, but the cost of repairing this particular vehicle grossly exceeded the cost of replacement.


When a Total Shouldn’t Be Totaled
Too often, the customer and the technician are allowed little or no influence in the decision of whether or not to total a vehicle. I’ve often wondered if we should use factors other than just a vehicle’s value to determine whether it’s a total loss. Quite often, I’ve repaired or replaced large portions of a more expensive late-model vehicle’s structure while a less valued, well-kept, older car with a lot of superficial sheet-metal damage was totaled. Why total a clean, good running car if it went accident free for a dozen years, and its first accident was minor? Why make the owner go shopping for another car if he likes the car he has?

Every body shop owner has seen dozens – if not hundreds – of 15-year-old vehicles with deep gashes all the way down one side from headlight to taillight. Because of the minimal damage to the structure, the vehicle would be a quick and easy repair. But because of the vehicle’s age, the vehicle is determined a total loss and towed away. But if the vehicle is mechanically sound and well-kept, what are the customer’s chances of finding another vehicle in the same condition, less the damage, for the money the insurance company will pay for the totaled vehicle?

For some customers, it may be worth a few hundred dollars out of pocket to pay for damages that push a borderline total over its limit. However, I’ve seen very few shops offer the customer that option. Usually, when the insurance company declares a vehicle a total loss, that’s the end of the negotiation process. In borderline cases, it may be worth closer examination. Will your customer settle for plain wheels instead of the $600 wheels he had before the accident? Granted, it’s not up to the shop to negotiate some of these things with the insurance company, but sometimes, it’s better to offer the customer the option rather than to just call and say, “We’re sorry, Mr. Jones. Your car was totaled.”


A Civic’s Lesson
Sometimes, there are ways to save a borderline case from totaling, but the technician isn’t allowed the authority to determine what’s best for the customer. A perfect example of this is a 1989 Honda Civic I was once assigned that had been hit in the rear bumper, causing the left quarter panel to buckle. Upon closer inspection, I learned that the vehicle had been damaged in a previous accident and that the left frame rail and trunk floor had been very poorly repaired. The trunk floor had wrinkles that were poorly covered with plastic filler and sloppily painted, while the frame rail still had a severe kink that hadn’t been repaired at all.

Because of the kink in the frame rail, I decided it would have to be replaced. With the frame rail removed, I could repair the damage to the floor before installing the replacement part. When the service advisor wrote the supplement, he found that the replacement of the frame rail would total the vehicle. “So, total it.” I said. “The car isn’t worth repairing.”

A few hours later, the advisor returned to inform me that the vehicle was the only transportation a man could afford to give his daughter to drive back and forth to college. “If we total this car,” he explained, “we leave this man in a financial bind.”

Understanding the situation, I suggested we replace the frame rail and repair the trunk floor. “When I put the car on the frame machine and pull the rail and floor,” I explained, “the bulk of the damage will come out of the quarter panel. We just won’t do any plastic repair or paint work to the quarter panel, and we’ll install a used bumper assembly. This way, the car won’t total, and it will be safe to drive.”

“We can’t do it that way,” the advisor insisted. “The customer wants the dents fixed and the quarter panel painted. That’s the way we’re going to do the job.”

After butting heads with the advisor for a day and a half, I went to the shop owner, who agreed with the advisor that we should repair the quarter panel and leave the kinked frame rail in the vehicle. “That’s the way the guy wants it fixed, so that’s the way we’ll fix it,” he shrugged.

“Has it been explained to him that his daughter will be driving an unsafe vehicle?” I asked.

“It will be as safe as it was before the accident,” the shop owner said. “Quit making such a big deal out of this and fix the #&+!% car, Bailey!”

So I did what I was told.

It would be my guess that the customer was never contacted about the condition of the frame rail. The shop’s management and ownership chose to compromise safety and structural integrity to keep from totaling the vehicle. The car’s appearance took priority over the safety of future passengers.

Shortly after that, the shop lost a good technician. I’m sure they replaced me with someone who could put out more work and make them more money – someone who wouldn’t make waves and would just do what he’s told. But how many unsafe repairs will they put on the road before one comes back to bite them? Will someone have to die for them to learn the importance of doing things right?


Keeping Totals In Perspective
The best advice I can offer any shop owner or manager is to go over every vehicle with a finetooth comb. If it’s a total, then total it. If it’s a borderline case, communicate with your customer and your technician. Find out what repair methods would be in the best interest of both of them. When you diagnose a borderline total, keep in mind that your customer’s safety must be your No. 1 priority, but your business and your employees must also make money on the repair.

I’m thankful that my current employer places customer safety first and foremost in every repair. And as long as I can make a decent living while producing safe repairs, I’ll stick around.


Writer Paul Bailey, a contributing editor to BodyShop Business, has been a collision repairman for 17 years and is an avid photographer and writer who maintains a consumer-awareness Web page in his spare time. He resides in Florida with his wife, Cathy.


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