Respect. Courtesy. Fair treatment. Honest answers to your questions. Good prices. All are important when you're looking at how to find a good car mechanic.
How to Find a (Good) Car Mechanic
Respect. Courtesy. Fair treatment. Honest answers to your questions. Good prices. Don’t forget friendly service. Speedy service, too, is nice. All those things should be part of every business transaction. Yet for many people, of all the routine business transactions they make in life, bringing their car in for service creates anxiety on an unparalleled level. Let’s look at some ways to lessen the anxiety about finding a repair shop that you would like and feel good about patronizing. How to find a car mechanic.
What to Look for in a Mechanic
Every professional business lauds its certifications, special designations, and credentials these days. If you are the kind of shopper who places great emphasis on seeing those things, then your shopping is easy. Pick the highest-credentialed repair shop and hope for the best.
But it’s not that simple. The best repair shop for you is the one that best matches the way you like to do business. Let’s see what that might be.
Ask Your Friends
Good automotive technicians love referrals. For them, it’s free advertising. Generally speaking, their best customers are the ones who give referrals. And since nice people tend to have nice friends, their good customers are sending nice people to the repair shop. So, ask around. If you have been referred to a repair shop, expect them to acknowledge their gratitude for the referral, and to say something nice about your friend.
But be careful. Suppose you have a friend who is a well-known cheapskate, and he or she begrudges every dollar they have to spend. The chances are that type of person is doing business with a repair shop that inadvertently attracts those types of customers. How so? The shop might:
- Advertise exclusively with discount coupons on low-cost work that is not profitable for them (Oil changes, tire rotations, and other low-skilled work are not very profitable for a repair shop.) Shoppers who want the absolute best in service won’t care very much about saving $3.00 on an oil change, so the coupon does not appeal to them, and they go elsewhere.
- Pride themselves on doing every repair as minimally as possible. That’s not always good. Penny-wise but pound foolish is, well, foolish. We’ll see more on that when we talk about prices.
- Employ lower paid, lower skilled people.
- Have old, outdated equipment, and so on.
If that is what you want, and you drive an older, simpler, low-tech vehicle, then great. But if you feel that you might want and can afford a higher level of service, in your search for how to find a car mechanic, then let’s look elsewhere. Other automotive technicians cater to people just like you.
The Other Extreme of the Service Spectrum, the Dealership
It takes a lot more than tools and equipment to repair cars these days. It takes information and a lot of it. Why? Because your newer, tech-heavy vehicle with all the latest electronic gadgets and computerized control systems requires a ton of service information, module upgrades, reprogramming, and other electronic procedures that can’t be done with a hammer and a wrench. How so, you might warily ask?
Think how powerful a tablet or smartphone is these days. Tiny little devices pack a ton of computing and communication power, including live streaming, data, and sound. Now imagine that your new car has dozens of electronic modules, each the size of your cell phone, scattered throughout its makeup. Many of them have to communicate with other such modules, and when they don’t, your car will not drive right. Does it need parts replaced, or software upgrades, or both? Let’s not get into that quagmire.
Anyway, the information it takes to work with all that is expensive. Maybe the laptop computer to access it is not exorbitantly priced, but a yearly subscription to gain direct access to the latest factory service info is. And that’s just for one car line. For a general repair shop to buy that direct access for every car line they work on would be price-prohibitive, just unaffordable for most.
That’s why the low-price, lower skilled, shop we talked about earlier would most likely have only a general repair information subscription they lease from an aftermarket vendor. It’s good enough for most general operations across car lines, but not specific enough for everything your late model vehicle might possibly need.
Sure, the dealer has all the latest information and supposedly the best training material as well. They are required to. And most technicians would say that factory-supplied parts are the highest quality available, with a few exceptions, depending on personal preferences. That’s why it is thought, or presumed, that the dealer can command the highest service prices. Maybe so. Then, what can go wrong?
Communication breakdowns. That’s what happens when you can’t speak directly with the technician who is working on your car. Think about the dealer experience. You drop your car off by appointment, expecting to have an unhurried, pleasant conversation with your personal service advisor to discuss your concerns, worries, vehicle’s history, your budget constraints, and the like. Let’s throw in the common worry that might be on your mind, that the needed repairs might be too expensive and perhaps you should trade the car in for a new one instead. You probably would like to discuss all those issues thoroughly, right? It makes sense to want to be completely informed.
Yet you find a long line of other people who expected the same treatment, all of them in a hurry to be served. Quite likely some important clues you tell your harried service writer do not get recorded in the cryptic language he or she uses to type out your repair order. Communication lapse number one. Not good.
If you are lucky, the repair order will go directly to a technician. If not, it might be routed to a team leader, who will then dispatch it to a technician based on the day’s workload, the skill level available, problems left over from the prior day waiting to be solved, the mood he or she is in, and who knows what else. Any verbal clues you gave your service writer that might help the technician precisely, accurately, and quickly diagnose your car’s problems have long been lost in the handoffs between people. More communication lapses. You’re not looking at how to find a good mechanic, now you’re in the hands of the service writer.
Reduce the Chances of Poor Service
What can you do? If you like patronizing the dealer, then these things should sway the odds for better service into your favor:
- Always try to deal with the same service adviser whenever you bring your car in, no matter how minor the problem. He or she will get to know your car with its idiosyncrasies and yours as well.
- Don’t insist on early morning appointments, lunchtime appointments, or late afternoon appointments. Avoid those busy times when everybody else is dropping off or picking up their vehicles. Ask your adviser when the least busy time of day is for him or her, then schedule your appointment for that time. The less hurried they are, the more time they can devote to you.
- Bring a written list, typed is better, of everything your car is doing that you don’t like. Be specific, and don’t leave any detail out. Sometimes a speedy and accurate diagnosis can hinge on having one tiny detail the customer provides. Details like what? Does the car not run right all the time, or does it happen only when it is cold, or only on a long drive? That tidbit, left out, can force the technician into long diagnostic procedures to narrow down the possibilities of the cause of the problem(s). At today’s very high labor rates you don’t want that to happen. Enough said. Just tell them everything, in writing. Better yet, make a copy and leave it in the car for the tech to see, in case the harried service advisor leaves the original buried in a pile of paperwork on his desk.
- Ask if you can speak with the technician doing the work. If you like the technician, request that tech for all your work on each successive visit. You will become a favorite customer. Nice, right? And, yes, many techs do accept and appreciate tips.
If the dealer experience or the low-buck repair shops don’t appeal to you, then you will be looking at general repair shops to do business with. Here are some tips for how to find a car mechanic in that group.
How Do They Speak with You on the Phone?
OK, so you found a credentialled shop that presents a modern, professional image. Their advertising is sharp, their premises are clean and attractive, and they have mostly good online reviews. I say ‘mostly,’ because all customers don’t match every business. For instance, your cheapskate friend who always brings his own (cheaply purchased, low quality) parts to a repair shop to save some money will feel overcharged at a shop that insists on using only the highest quality parts and offering the longest warranties. You get the picture.
Call the business on the phone. Do they answer quickly? Do they come across as rushed, or do they give you ample time to ask questions and to discuss your concerns? A good shop will be busy, sure, just as a good restaurant will always have cars out front. If they want to take your number and call you back, that’s OK. But you should feel like they are taking enough time to understand you, and not rush you into committing to an appointment.
More Shopping Tips
- If you drive by a repair shop every day on your commute, pay attention to the cars waiting there to be fixed. Do they seem to stay there a long time, for days on end? That could indicate the repair shop has a problem with employee absenteeism.
- Notice the condition and ages of the vehicles waiting to be fixed. Are the vehicles mostly newer, nice, clean and well kept, or are they old clunkers? That tells you what clientele that shop is attracting, and helps you decide if you would feel comfortable going there, or not. Pay attention to obvious details, then trust your instincts.
- How do they explain things to you? At the very least, expect your recommended repairs to be separated into categories, like this:
1. What is directly causing the problem you brought the car in for?
2. What else is closely related to that problem, is in the same system, and is likely to fail very soon? Remember, don’t be penny wise but pound foolish by buying an incomplete repair.
3. What is soon-to-be-due regular maintenance that you can put off if your budget doesn’t allow it at the time.
Don’t settle for ‘one price’ to ‘do all the work.’
- On the matter of prices, how would you find good, fair prices and how do repair shops quote them? In this country, the automotive repair business generally runs on the antiquated system of flat-rate pricing. You will be quoted labor in hours (to the nearest 1/10thof an hour) and parts by list price, regardless of the actual skill and experience level of the person who is doing the work, how long it reasonably should or will take, and with total disregard to free market pricing on parts. Sheesh, no wonder people get frustrated and feel anxious about car repair. You are just going to have to find someone you can trust.
- Also, with respect to prices, you can use any number of free online price quoting programs. Just type in what you believe your car needs (let’s hope your diagnosis is correct), the year, make and model of your car, and soon several quotes should arrive on your smartphone from various repair shops near you. After you receive the price quotes (they are estimates, of course, because they have not seen or inspected your vehicle), then you can call each repair shop and see what impression they make over the phone, as we discussed. Sound good?
The Specialty Repair Shop Versus the General One
Some independent repair shops only work on one make of car, perhaps yours. Since that is all they do, it is quite likely they purchase access to the latest factory repair information, as we discussed. Provided they also have the right tooling (mostly electronic), they should be able to do anything the dealer could do for you, except for warranty work. When shopping for a repair shop, rather than just asking about prices, ask them questions about these other things as well. They should be impressed with how savvy you are.
Learn How to Speak with Your Mechanic
Part of the anxiety over car repairs comes from the fact that most drivers are not expert mechanics. They don’t feel comfortable with the language of repairs. To see some tips on how to more easily communicate with your service people, you can read our article here.
When You Need A Repair Shop Versus DIY
With each passing model year, and with the increasing complexity of today’s vehicles, and the proliferation of electronics in today’s fuel efficient, environmentally friendly vehicles, the relative ability of the average do-it-yourselfer decreases. They just will not have access to the information needed to service many of the systems on today’s vehicles.
So, if you keep running into problems you can’t fix with a hammer, a wrench and a repair manual, perhaps it would be wise to start scoping out some friendly repair shops with whom to do business. That’s when you need to know how to find a car mechanic