Trouble-free car care doesn’t mean that you have to do it all yourself. It means doing as much as you feel comfortable with and finding a trustworthy mechanic (or mechanics) to do the rest. Understanding how your car runs and knowing what’s involved in its maintenance and repair are important steps in finding a good mechanic and knowing when to hire him or her to do the work.
You might want to select more than one mechanic, depending on what work you would rather not do and the quality of the mechanic you’ve found to do those jobs. You might prefer to do your own tune-ups and oil changes, for example, but leave other parts replacement to a dealership’s garage. Or you might use the local service station mechanic for some work and a local muffler shop for other work. It’s your choice, and your choice is based on understanding your car and your own preferences.
The Dealer’s Service Shop
Most car dealers have a service shop for maintaining and repairing cars they’ve sold or cars from the same family (Ford, GM, VW, and so on). For new cars, this should be your first stop for maintenance service. Dealer service shops know your car, know the maintenance requirements, and usually have exact replacement parts on hand. In fact, some new car warranties are void if anyone other than an authorized shop does any maintenance or repairs on the car. The purchase price of some cars includes basic maintenance work.
So if your car is “under warranty,” read the car’s warranty and find out what you can and cannot do to maintain your car. You typically can perform any scheduled maintenance without voiding the car’s warranty if you follow instructions in the manufacturer’s service manual and use approved parts. Keep receipts for parts so that you can prove you did the work, and that you didn’t just write it down in a book.
Is your dealership’s service department honest and fair? The best way to find out at the least cost is to have some regular maintenance done at the shop. Take it in for a lube and oil change, for example, and stay in a customer area where you can watch while it’s being done. Just as important, you want to watch the entire service department at work and take note of issues like these:
- What is the attitude of the mechanics toward the cars?
- Does the service manager seem genuinely helpful or is he or she full of excuses?
- Is the shop organized well?
- Ask other customers waiting for cars about their experiences with this shop and with other shops.
- Ask the service manager what training programs are used to keep the mechanics up-to-date.
- Ask the service manager what the hourly shop rate is, and then use this figure as a comparison to the rates of independent shops.
- Check with your local Better Business Bureau or Chamber of Commerce to see if consumer complaints have been filed against the dealer or shop.
How can you make sure you get the best price from a dealer service shop? Keep these guidelines in mind:
- If you bought the car at the dealership, ask your salesperson or the sales manager for a discount on the standard shop rate-in writing. If you can’t get a discount on labor, ask for one on parts. You might not get it, but it’s worth a try.
- Ask for a written estimate before any work is done. Most shops do this anyway to protect themselves. However, by making sure the service manager knows you will watch the bill closely, the manager usually will, too.
- Let the service manager know you’re not a complete idiot when it comes to cars. Ask the manager to explain what is being done and why. If the explanation isn’t clear, ask for a clearer explanation. They’re working for you.
What if you’re not satisfied with the work done by a dealer service shop? Don’t walk away without letting them know they have a dissatisfied customer. Dealers understand what that means to their future business and often will try to do something about it. If the service manager doesn’t make it right, talk to the sales manager, the dealer, or the manufacturer. The manufacturer’s customer service telephone numbers are typically found in the owner’s manual. You have that right.
General Mechanics: One-Stop Shopping
Not all good automotive mechanics work for a dealership. Some prefer to operate an independent garage. An independent garage may work on all cars, on foreign cars only, on older cars, or on other specialized groups of cars. However, a general mechanic probably will work on any part of the car: engine, transmission, electronics,whatever. And the hourly shop rate for an independent garage is typically (but not always) about 10% to 20% less than that of a dealer’s service shop.
Some general mechanics have their own garages, whereas others own or lease bays in service stations. A few work on a percentage of sales, keeping half and giving the garage owner the other half. It doesn’t matter as much where they are located as how professional and honest they are. Selecting a good general mechanic is similar to selecting a dealer shop. Some shops are operated by ex-dealer mechanics who wanted to be independent. Others are run by those who have no training and little experience. As a consumer, it’s up to you to sort out one from the other. Need some tips?
- Look for ASE and other certification programs for automotive technicians.
- Ask for the hourly shop rate and compare it with that from dealer shops and other automotive service shops. A shop rate that is too low will tell you as much as one that is too high.
- As with dealer shops, take your car in for minor service and watch how it’s done.
Watching the mechanics work will tell you about their knowledge and attitude.
- Ask the service manager how much of the work is done by trainees or apprentice mechanics. Is the hourly shop rate for apprentices lower than that for experienced mechanics? It should be.
- Ask your friends and neighbors for recommendations about independent mechanics. You’ll also get horror stories. From these, you can better decide which mechanics to consider and which to avoid.
What can you do if you’re not satisfied with the work done by a general mechanic? First, complain to the service manager or owner. If you don’t get satisfaction, contact the local Chamber of Commerce to find out what options you have. Some chambers have a grievance committee. Others will refer you to a local or regional Better Business Bureau. Another option is to file a small-claims suit against the shop. By doing a little research in advance, you probably won’t have to take it that far.
Specialized Shops: I Don’t Do Electric Windowsill
Some mechanics specialize in servicing and repairing one or more systems on cars. An engine shop, for example, rebuilds and installs engines on all brands of cars.A transmission shop services and repairs all types of transmissions, or may specialize in manual or automatic transmissions. A muffler shop installs mufflers, pipes, and related components. A brake shop services brake systems, no matter what brand of car. Some muffler shops also work on brakes.
Why should you consider a specialized shop for servicing your car? For the same reasons you would see a specialist rather than a family physician. You already know what part isn’t working well, and you want someone with lots of experience to fix it. A dealership mechanic might repair a couple of transmissions a week. In the same time period, a transmission shop’s mechanic might work on two dozen of them. A muffler shop will have or can make tailpipes to fit any car rather than wait a week for one to be ordered.
Tune-up Shops: Adjusting Your Car’s Attitude
A tune-up shop specializes in automotive maintenance called the tune-up-the adjustment or replacement of parts needing frequent service. Operating parts such as spark plugs and fan belts are designed to be replaced every so often. However, even if you own a car with a carburetor, it probably won’t need replacing. It can be adjusted. A tune-up shop might also use sophisticated electronic equipment to diagnose the car’s operation and to make needed adjustments.The hourly shop rate for many tune-up shops is lower than that for full-mechanic shops. Service can be done by mechanics who know lots about ignition and fuel systems, but aren’t trained in automatic transmission repair, for example. They know more and more about less and less.
Lube Shops: Fast Food for Your Car
Lube shops have sprouted up across the country. Why? Because all cars need periodic lubrication and because it can be done efficiently by shops that specialize in it.
The typical lube shop has two or more bays or work areas. Your car is driven in from one side. A technician in a pit under the floor lubricates your car from underneath while another technician opens the hood and works from above. Standard servicing includes changing the oil and filter, checking and maybe changing the air filter, lubricating the steering components (if your car needs it), and checking fluid in the transmission and other parts. Your car then is driven out the other side of the bay to make way for another car. Pretty efficient.
Most lube shops take 15 minutes or less to perform a lube service. Depending on the car’s needs and what’s done, the service costs $20 to $40. About half of that goes for parts and the rest for labor costs. Many shops also print a service report that tells you what has been done, what’s been checked, and any service needs your car may have. It also tells you when you should bring your car back for the next servicing. Depending on how many miles you drive each year, this will be about every six months. Idea: Your car needs a lube every six months and you’re supposed to visit the dentist every six months, so how about a franchise that offers both services at the same location? Call it Cavity City or Drill’n Oil.
Lube shops have become popular because they are faster than taking a car to a dealership or even an independent garage. They usually are conveniently located next to a shopping mall or a restaurant where you can spend money while you wait. And because lube shops don’t require certified mechanics to do the service, costs are usually lower. Lube shop service people typically are not trained mechanics, however; they can’t help you spot, diagnose, or repair problems. You’re on your own.
The same rules apply for finding a good lube shop as for finding any mechanic: ask your friends, take your car in once and watch how they work, and compare costs. Know what you’re buying and what you should expect for your money. Many lube shops are franchises. The advantage of any franchise is consistency. The technicians are trained, the products are comparably priced, and good service is important to repeat business. Make sure that the people who serve you and service your car have a professional attitude. There are too many competitors for a lube shop to be less than courteous and professional.
Don’t Pollute And Do It Safely
Depending on where you live, your car may need periodic inspection for emissions or safety. Your state or county may require an annual or biannual inspection and certification by an authorized shop. This job can be done by your regular mechanic, if certified to make the needed inspections, or by a shop specializing in such inspections. Unfortunately, you can’t do this one yourself. As a consumer, your best bet is to already have a regular mechanic or dealership lined up that is certified. Why? Because the inspector has you in a difficult position that may require you to use that shop to do any required repairs. You want someone you can trust to do needed repairs as well as to tell you what repairs are really needed. Don’t go to strangers.
The Least You Need to Know
- When you’re shopping for a mechanic, ask if the mechanic is certified by the ASE or another certification organization. Certified mechanics have to demonstrate their knowledge by passing regular exams.
- Ask your friends, relatives, co-workers, and acquaintances to recommend a mechanic. You’ll learn who to hire and who to avoid.
- Help your mechanic do the best job possible. Describe what you see, hear, and smell as well as when the symptoms occur.
- Remember that you are ultimately the one who must be satisfied with the mechanic’s work. If you aren’t, take action.