LOS ANGELES – Satisfied and savvy car buyers typically know vehicle pricing before going into a dealership and realize they got a good deal driving out in a newly purchased vehicle.

Such pricing transparency, largely brought about by the Internet, is expanding to the service department. A growing number of websites now provide impartial pricing information for vehicle maintenance and repair work not covered by warranty.

Customer-pay auto repair is one of the most complex services people buy, says David Sturtz, cofounder and CEO of RepairPal, one of the first websites that tell consumers what they should expect to pay for parts and labor at their local dealerships and auto-repair shops.

Customer satisfaction can suffer if consumers think an auto repair facility overcharged them. But they may mistakenly perceive that out of pricing ignorance.

On economic grounds, some people feel bad about a dealership service-department experience, Sturtz says. “They don’t know a water pump can cost $700 to fix. They don’t know what should be included in the cost of service. They don’t know if they got a fair deal.”

He says sites such as his eliminate back-shop “sticker shock” by setting customer expectations early on.

RepairPal’s online pricing information is the result of 75,000 combined hours that retained mechanics and others spent surveying labor rates and parts costs for 40 vehicle brands.

Internet users get a cost-estimate range after entering a vehicle’s year, make and model, zip code and needed repair work.

For instance, search results for the cost of replacing a ’03 BMW 330i’s radiator at dealerships and shops in the Los Altos, CA, market show an estimated range of $283 to $361 for labor and $306 to $391 for parts.

The site offers a list of repair facilities in a particular area. Highlighted are ones who buy RepairPal ads targeted by region and vehicle make. The site also contains consumer reviews.

“Reviews are more important than ever,” Sturtz says at a recent 2010 Automotive Customer Centricity Summit here. “They increasingly influence purchasing behavior. The importance of online reviews cannot be overstated.”

He got the idea for a vehicle-repair-estimator site while studying for an engineering degree from Stanford University in 1997, at a time when the Internet was emerging as a transformational business force.

“There are about one billion service visits a year in the U.S., but no one was addressing all of the decisions related to those,” Sturtz says. “The opportunity was very big. Fixing cars ranks in the top three customer worries.”

While some dealers might dislike the idea of a third party posting repair costs on the Internet, Sturtz sees benefits for them, including a chance to increase customer loyalty, expand business through competitive pricing and provide unbiased price validation.

“We help consumers and quality dealerships and shops achieve their common interests,” he says. “People wondered if there could be a common interest. Of course there can. It doesn’t have to be an adversarial relationship.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com