Under the best of circumstances, car repairs and maintenance can unexpectedly bust your budget, but an unscrupulous auto mechanic can make things just that much worse. In truth, most car repair shops aren’t out to “get” you. Their goal is to make you happy, keep their personal liability at a minimum, and make money.
But there are a few bad eggs out there, and no one wants to be taken advantage of, especially when you’re working with a tight budget.
Since people generally fall into one of two categories (I Know Everything about Cars or I Know Nothing at All about Cars) here are a few helpful tips on how to pick an auto mechanic that will provide good service at a fair price.
First, you want to find a good mechanic before you really need one. Once your car has broken down and you’re desperate to get it back and running, you’re not going to be in a very good position to shop around. So use routine maintenance as an opportunity to find the right mechanic for you.
Where to start your search?
Word of mouth. Ask around. See what experiences people nearby have had with different mechanics. Just make sure you consider the source: just because someone likes their mechanic doesn’t mean that shop does great work or charges fair prices.
Read reviews. Online reviews from sites like RepairPal are helpful for building a consensus, but don’t necessarily tell a complete story. Be sure to read those reviews critically – businesses aren’t above stuffing review sites with fake reviews. Similarly, consider the content of the reviews – a negative review solely complaining about the coffee in the waiting area can probably be ignored.
Talk to the amateur experts. As I said before, some people know lots and lots about cars. It’s a personal passion and you can tap into that knowledge. If you live in a sizable area, there’s a good chance that there’s a local “car club” centered on your car make. Reach out to them and ask for a suggestion. You can also visit online forums for car enthusiasts and solicit their opinion.
Before you go
Review your service manual. Your service manual will tell you when it’s suggested that you replace certain parts or need certain maintenance services performed. It’s in your best interest to know this information beforehand. A pushy mechanic suggesting repair work you’re thousands of miles from needing is suspicious and might be cause for a second opinion.
Get your check engine light diagnosed for free. Most of the major auto parts retailers, like AutoZone and PepBoys, offer free computer diagnostics if your check engine light is on. Use this service. For starters, the more information you have ahead of time, the less likely it is that a mechanic will be inclined to take advantage of you. Also, if you know where the issue exists, you might want to take your car to specialty shop. Some mechanics specialize in transmission issues, for example, and offer better rates on those services.
At the shop
No half-repaired cars baking in the sun. It’s generally agreed that a good auto repair shop has a high turnover rate. Cars come in, get fixed, and go back out. If the same 20 decimated cars are sitting outside for months on end, that’s not a great sign.
Clean, well-lit garage. A neat, well-ordered garage doesn’t mean that the mechanic isn’t over-charging you, but it does mean they take pride in their work, and probably hold themselves to relatively high standards. A dim, messy garage isn’t damning evidence by any stretch – just consider it as part of the overall picture.
Charging you ridiculous rates for simple replacements. I’m basically incompetent when it comes to cars, but even I can replace my car’s windshield wipers and light bulbs. Be wary of repair shops that try to strong-arm you into buying these relatively cheap replacement items, especially if they want to charge you big money.
Don’t hesitate to seek a second opinion. If you need major repair work, have the mechanic write up your estimate and then ask around to see what other shops might charge for those services. Even if your car isn’t mobile, if the repair bill is significant enough it may be worth it to pay for a tow from one shop to another to use a more affordable mechanic.
Keeping your car on the road is rarely cheap, but do yourself a favor and take a few extra steps to make sure you’re not overspending on your next repair job. A little work on your part can pay big dividends over the life of your car.