How to Find a Good Mechanic

In many of my previous entries, I’ve written at length about the complex workings of your car and the many problems that can arise, from minor glitches to serious setbacks. Throughout these entries, I’ve emphasized the importance of having a trusted mechanic that you can turn to should problems arise. Now, it’s time to discuss how you can go about finding said trusted and reliable mechanic (if you aren’t lucky enough to have found such a mechanic already.)

In terms of trustworthiness, car mechanics certainly don’t have the best reputation. However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t f reliable and honest mechanics out there. If you’ve read my various entries on how cars work, you’ll know that even the most basic car is a very complicated and ingenious machine. The best mechanics are extremely knowledgeable and skilled professionals with a passion for their work. As you begin your search for a mechanic, look, above all, for someone who seems to enjoy and take pride in his work.

WHERE TO BEGIN
First of all, don’t wait until you have a problem to start looking for a mechanic. You’ll be under pressure to find one quickly and then will have to trust a serious to repair to someone you haven’t yet established a relationship with. Instead, try taking your car to a mechanic you are considering for a routine service, such as an oil change, and see how you feel about the service you receive. Make sure to read your owner’s manual and be familiar with the suggested service schedule, so that you know when you should be taking your car in. When you’re ready to begin the search for your new mechanic, you should take the following steps, each of which I’ll discuss in detail below:

1. Compile a list of reputable potential mechanics in your area.

2. Visit and evaluate the mechanics on your list.

3. Choose the shop that impressed you the most and take your car for an oil change. If satisfied, become a regular customer. If not, wait until your next service is due and try a different shop.

4. Build a relationship with your mechanic.

Note that large chains and dealerships are often more expensive than local mechanics. Additionally, you will be more likely to develop a strong relationship with a smaller, local shop, since maintaining a strong reputation and lasting customer relationships are very important for the survival of a small shop. If you take the time to find a local mechanic who seems trustworthy and reliable, you will save yourself money and hassle in the long run.

FINDING A MECHANIC

So, you’ve decided to find a new mechanic. Where do you begin? First, compile a list of prospective mechanics. Word of mouth is often one of the best sources of information. Ask friends, relatives, and neighbors in your area where they go to get their cars serviced. In particular, ask anyone you know who has a car that is similar to yours, as many mechanics will specialize in a particular kind of car.

There are a number of online sources that may be useful to you. NPR has a great car show, called Car Talk; check it out on the radio or via podcast if you can! The Car Talk website has a feature called the Mechan-X files, where they keep a database of mechanics. These mechanics are ranked in different categories (cost, efficiency, etc.) You can search by zip code and for different attributes; you’ll also be able to read reviews posted by visitors to the site, all at cartalk.cars.com/content/mechx/

Call the Better Business Bureau (or check out their website) to look for recommended mechanics or see if complaints have been filed against any mechanics you are considering. You may also want to look to the National Institute for Automotive Excellence (www.asecert.org) or the American Automobile Association for further advice (www.aaa.org).

Continue to ask around. Check with local auto clubs, particularly if you have a specialty car. You could also ask the local police where they have their fleet serviced. Finally, try calling your dealer’s wholesale parts department. This is the department at your dealership that sells parts to independent mechanics (avoid the department which supplies parts to the dealership’s own mechanics). Mechanics who buy their parts directly from the dealer are likely more concerned with quality than cost. Ask the parts department which mechanics frequently buy from them; they will likely be happy to recommend some of their best customers.

EVALUATING A MECHANIC

Once you’ve compiled a list of mechanics, start checking out their shops. Remember that, while you may not be an expert on cars, you do have basic knowledge about how a good business should be run and an intuitive sense of people. Trust your gut instinct about the place and the people who work there.

First, take a look at the shop and its yard. What kinds of vehicles are there? Are some similar to your car? Are the yard and shop clean and well maintained? Are the mechanics’ uniforms similarly well maintained? Are the waiting room and bathroom clean and pleasant?

These may seem like superficial questions. However, a shop that takes pride in its appearance will be more likely to take pride in its work as well. While a certain amount of grime is expected in this trade, a really slovenly shop probably isn’t a good sign.

Next, look for accreditation, both AAA and ASE (National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence). While ASE training doesn’t guarantee great service, it’s a good sign that the mechanics and the shop are committed to providing quality service and take pride in their work. You can see on each certificate what areas a mechanic has trained in and when. The ASE requires that those who participate in its programs keep these certifications up to date.

Ask about the shop’s policies. What kind of warranty is on offer? Does the warranty cover parts and labor? A great warranty will last for six months; 90 days is also acceptable. A 30-day warranty isn’t a good sign. Also ask about the prices; remember, though, that the cheapest shop isn’t necessarily reliable, but the most expensive shop may not be the best. You may also want to test the reliability of the shop’s pricing system. Call prospective shops and ask for a quote for a particular service. Two days later, have a friend call for the same quote. Are they the same? You may be surprised to find that some shops don’t have regular pricing schemes.

Don’t be afraid to ask the service writer—basically, the customer service representative—for the names of customers you could call for references. The staff should be friendly and willing to answer questions; if you don’t feel comfortable at a particular place, look elsewhere.

Finally, ask to take a look inside the garage itself. Notice the size of the mechanics’ tool boxes. Experienced and committed mechanics accumulate vast amounts of expensive and specialized tools. A large toolbox (roughly the size of a refrigerator or larger) indicates a mechanic has a great deal of experience.

AT THE SHOP

Once you’ve identified a shop that looks promising, take your car in for a “test” service, such as an oil change.

When you arrive at the shop, you will speak first with a service writer, unless the shop is very small. The service writer is, first and foremost, a salesman. He or she communicates with the mechanic and works to ensure the shop turns a profit, which is necessary for the shop to survive. Don’t be intimidated by this, and don’t let the service writer sell you services you don’t need immediately. Stay focused on what you came in for and insist, politely, that the mechanics stick to this service, noting any potential problems as they do so. You can discuss these other issues after the initial service is complete.

Make sure to also ask for a full explanation of what will be done. For example, different shops provide different arrays of services under the heading of a “brake job.” Ask questions so that you understand what is going on.

If the service writer does inform you that another issue has been encountered, make sure to be specific about the nature and extent of the problem. For example, the service writer may tell you that a pump “needs to be replaced.” Be clear about what “needs” means: has the pump failed? Does it have a flaw? Is it just very old? Establish what actually must be done and what could wait until later.

If you are having parts replaced, ask to have the old parts returned to you. You should also clarify whether the parts will be new or refurbished; new parts are, well, new, but refurbished parts may be cheaper. A great mechanic will give you different options and explain the pros and cons of each, if possible.

Also ask the service writer to show you what is wrong with the car and where work needs to be done. Talk to your mechanic as well. Take an interest in your car, how it works, and what is going wrong. Both mechanic and service writer should be willing to answer all your questions. A mechanic who is willing to take the time to educate his customers about their cars cares about his work and is passionate about his profession—and will likely do a good job taking care of your car.

If you have the time and inclination, you could also ask to watch the work being done. That way, you will gain a first-hand understanding of exactly what is going on.

Once the car is repaired, you may want to ask to take it for a brief test drive before paying, to make sure the problem is, in fact, fixed. Finally, take the time to look over your bill before paying. Make sure you know what each item on the bill is and don’t be afraid to ask. If something doesn’t look right to you, discuss it with the service writer; be polite but firm. Mechanics have been known to pad bills with extraneous items, assuming the customer won’t understand the technical language. Ask questions until you DO understand this language and avoid paying unnecessary charges.

BUILDING A RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR MECHANIC

Once you’ve found a mechanic whom you think is competent, reliable, and honest, become a loyal customer! A great mechanic is a rare and valuable asset who can greatly prolong the life of your car. These people are very skilled professionals who have to master a lot of complex and technical information. While car trouble can be frustrating and stressful, always be patient and respectful and take the time to build a strong relationship with your mechanic.

First of all, spread the word, both to your friends and through online reviews. You’ll be doing your mechanic a good turn to repay the great service he or she has given you. Also try to keep your car in good repair and have it serviced regularly, rather than waiting until a major problem arises and then panicking.

When you take your car for repairs or service, make sure to be as specific as you can about what seems to be going wrong. Communicate with your mechanic, and, once you have a relationship established, trust him if he tells you that major repairs need to be done. Try to avoid becoming defensive or hostile in such a situation. You should always bring your car in with at least ¼ tank of gas. If the mechanic needs to run your car for diagnostic purposes, not having enough gas can be very frustrating. Finally, if you drop off your car in the mornings, think about bringing donuts, muffins, or another breakfast food. A little kindness like this can go a long way in improving your relationship with your mechanic.

Be honest with your mechanic—you expect him to be honest with you! Let him or her know if you’ve had your car serviced elsewhere, or if you have tried to repair something yourself (even if you are embarrassed that this has gone horribly wrong!) He’ll find out sooner or later anyway.

Be reasonable in what you expect from your mechanic. You know the saying—cheap, fast, or good: you can have any two but never all three. Don’t expect miracles! Also, give your mechanic the benefit of the doubt. Cars are complex systems, and mistakes do happen. If a repair doesn’t fix a problem or causes a new problem, take the car back to the shop immediately and explain, politely, what you have noticed. A good shop will care about their reputation and will try to fix their mistake.

Finally, if you are very pleased with the service you receive, take the time to express your thanks in a written note to your mechanic’s boss, likely the service manager. First, writing a note indicates that you have gone out of your way to praise exceptional service. Next, your mechanic will likely see the note and could get a bonus for providing great service. Whatever the outcome, this is another small act of kindness that will help you to build a good relationship with your new mechanic.

To read more on a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit DefensiveDriving.com’s Safe Driver Resources website!
Check out these sites for more information about defensive driving and business driver safety.

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3 Trackbacks

  1. […] problems, however, will require the assistance of a skilled mechanic, so make sure that you’ve found a mechanic you can trust before any serious problems […]

  2. By Road Trip 101 « Defensive Driving Blog on May 16, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    […] that you see everything you want in your allotted travel time. Be sure to take your vehicle into your mechanic before any long distance trip to make sure the basics such as tire air pressure, wheel alignment, […]

  3. […] Have your mechanic give your vehicle a general maintenance checkup to ensure there are no problems or potential […]

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