Dear Car Talk:
The alternator died on our 2002 Honda Odyssey a few days before a planned vacation. Our regular Honda service department had no appointments, so we took it to a mechanic recommended by a friend. With the alternator replaced, we set out on our trip ... only to have the car die completely 90 miles from home. While the dashboard instruments were failing and the car lost power, I was on the phone with the mechanic, who told me the alternator he installed must have been faulty, and that he would issue me a credit. Once towed home, we had our regular Honda service team replace the replacement alternator. Now the original mechanic is telling me he needs his defective part back (so HE can get a refund) in order to issue me my refund. Is this commonplace? Seems to me the mechanic should issue a full refund for the part and work done poorly. What do you advise? — Ellen
Well, if I were advising mechanic No. 1, I'd tell him to give you all of your money back and reimburse you for the tow. It might not have been his fault that the part failed, but it severely inconvenienced you. And ethically, he's responsible. So I would say regardless of whether you can return the old part at this point, he owes you your money back.
But to answer your question, returning used parts is common. If we buy a part and it fails, the company we bought it from usually wants proof that it failed; they want to know we're not just trying to scam them out of an extra alternator.
Plus, alternators –even failed alternators — are worth something. Many of the old alternator's parts can be reused, so the promised return of the old, failed alternator often is factored into the purchase price of the new one.
It sounds like there was a lack of communication between you and mechanic No. 1: He failed to tell you in advance that he needed the old part back, and you probably didn't tell him that you were going to a different shop to have the repair redone. But given that you were 90 miles from home when the alternator died, you would have been perfectly justified in having it done then and there by whatever shop was open.
So, given the inconvenience to you and the lack of clear communication from him, mechanic No. 1 should just suck it up and give you a refund and consider it a cost of doing business.
And if he has a good relationship with his parts supplier, he should be able to get the supplier to issue him a credit for the bad alternator — since it cost him his labor time and a customer, too.
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