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The High Cost of Free Repair Advice

Brake job gone bad

We often get comments on our YouTube channel, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook posts asking why anyone would spend $20 or more for our products when free how-to videos are all over the internet. Besides those, commenters in enthusiast forums are consistently willing to tell you the right and wrong way to do things, or at least the way they did it. The problem with free internet advice is, it is worth exactly as much as you pay for it. 

Recently we got a Facebook message critical of the fact that one of our manual's recommended taking the vehicle to the dealer because the job was too difficult. Responding required research, so we looked over the manual, looked up the vehicle on the internet, and even did what many of you do; search for a video on YouTube. The job in question was changing the fluid and filter on an automatic transmission that is relatively common on many European cars, and it seemed straightforward enough.

Digging deeper, and watching a video on YouTube, it seemed as easy as dropping the transmission pan, and swapping the filter, as the YouTuber said in beginning his three-minute video. Getting the pan out was complicated by a bolt in, structural cross member in this application, but there were just four bolts, and though they weren't easy to get at, they could be removed. However, the part two video of the job was more than 20 minutes long, started with a prayer, and included worries that he may not be able to get to work on Monday. Loosening the cross member bolts had not provided enough room to remove the transmission pan, and removing the cross member required taking down the entire exhaust system, which required removing four oxygen sensors, which were seized to their bungs.

What had seemed like an hour of work had exploded to absorb the entire weekend, and then some.

cutting springs to lower car

Yes, obviously we are here to sell you our books or online manuals, but we have also been hard at work for more than 50 years to build a trustworthy reputation to back our repair advice. When we tell you the proper way to do a job, it is because that is how our experienced, professional technicians did the job when we tore apart that very model to produce our book. Unlike the people with free videos on YouTube, we go out and buy an example of every vehicle we produce a manual for, from a dealer with our own money, and systematically tear it apart. As a testament to how good our technicians are, these vehicles leave better than they came in and are then resold to the public.

Our manuals go deep, detailing engine and transmission overhauls in many cases, despite how few home users are likely to use those sections. When and if we do gloss over a job, it is not without reason; in the case of the transmission filter above, it requires a lift and hours of labor, and does not need to be done more than once every 100k miles with regular fluid changes.

Five years ago we contracted with a respected research company to discover the quality of online repair advice, and they rounded up a group of 209 ASE certified mechanics, all with more than five years of experience with various makes and models. We presented them with six different common scenarios on vehicles ranging from a Nissan Altima, to a Pontiac Grand Am, to a Chevy Silverado 2500 diesel, and the diagnosis and repair information found online by the researchers (who were not trained mechanics) for evaluation.

  • Nearly 80% of the mechanics rated the repair information as not very accurate (less than 50% correct), or only somewhat accurate (50-69% correct).
  • 76% of the mechanics agreed that the information provided online would not allow a DIYer to accurately complete the repair.
  • 56% of the mechanics indicated that the online repair suggestions could potentially cause damage to vehicles if used as the sole source for repair information.

Just this spring we did another study, this time asking you, the home mechanic, your opinion on how you prefer your repair information. We were as surprised as anyone at some of the results, such as more than 50% of the 2000+ respondents prefer the original printed manual to just a video or online format. But also, 67% of respondents use our manuals in conjunction with YouTube videos in order to double check the videos for accuracy.

When asked their opinion of various sources of repair information we were pleasantly surprised by the answers. 80% of respondents said of the Haynes manual "I always find the content to be exactly what I am looking for". When asked about looking for repair videos on YouTube, 35% complained that it was difficult to find useful information and 42% indicated that it is difficult to know if the information is correct. Polled about information from enthusiast forums, 39% said the information was hard to find, and 31% said it was hard to know if it was correct. And the less said about your opinion of Facebook groups the better, with 54% of respondents saying they don't believe them because they have found mistakes and incorrect information there.

According to the poll, most of you like that YouTube is free, and who doesn't like free stuff? A substantial portion did say that some jobs are just easier to learn from a video than from the text and pictures in a manual, which is why we have been trying to produce our own video content for inclusion in online versions of our manuals. In fact, when asked what we could do to improve the Haynes manual, adding video was the top answer, with a Hayes seal of approval for third-party videos a distant second.

shade tree mechanic working under car

The world changes at a much more rapid pace than in the 1960s when John Haynes first started making manuals, some for the better and some for the worse. For the better, we now have vast amounts of information available in our pockets, or at our desktops, and the Haynes online manuals are optimized for mobile use. For the worse, there is now the feeling that anyone with a cell phone camera can be a YouTube authority, but the number of flat earth and moon landing conspiracy videos are a perfect example of the dubious quality of much internet expertise.

If you look at the broader cultural picture, we seem to be have entered a post-fact era of "fake news", and nobody knows where to turn to for the real facts. How to videos go beyond what even our best images and instructions can show, which is why we now include our own professionally produced clips in our latest online manuals. For other cars, our print manuals at $29.95 for most titles, provide a trustworthy reference to double check other online sources' videos against.