Ask Clark: How do I find a good mechanic?

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Auto repair shop
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I’m asked all the time how to find a good mechanic. The reality is this is something you should do before your car breaks!

Of course, sometimes life doesn’t work out that way. So here’s what you need to know about finding the right shop or garage to help you get back on the road.

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Need car repairs? Here’s what you need to know

If you’ve followed my advice in the past, you know I like for you to buy used cars that are two to three years old. Yet while there are many fine vehicles that still run great after 36 months, none of us can avoid the need for auto repairs all the time.

As I mentioned earlier, the best time to find a mechanic is before your car breaks down. My preference is for you to go to local independent mechanics and to avoid traditional dealerships for repairs because of the markup in price.

The one time you may want to consider a dealership is if you know that your vehicle has a common problem with others just like it. In that case, the manufacturer may put out a technical service bulletin (TSB). TSBs aren’t full-blown recalls, but they are an acknowledgement that there’s some systemic problem with a particular make, model or year of a vehicle.

Now here’s the best part: If there is a TSB on the books, you may be able to get a free repair for that specific issue at the service department in a dealership!

But other than that situation, stick with local independent mechanics.

Find a mechanic before you have a problem

In looking for a good independent mechanic, you should try to establish a relationship when the stakes are low and you just need regular maintenance like an oil change.

You want an ASE-certified (Automotive Service Excellence) mechanic because it means they’re more likely to be on top of current trends and have the latest education in the field. Garages that participate in the Blue Seal program typically feature the most highly trained ASE-certified mechanics. Visit ASE.com to find one near you.

If, for some reason, you just can’t find a mechanic this way — or if you need one on really short notice — always start with referrals from people you trust: those you work with, your friends and people you know through other channels.

That’s not going to guarantee you’ll find the right shop, but it will improve the odds you’re going to the right place with the right mechanic.

Make sure the work that’s going to be done is put down in writing

Always talk with the mechanic who will be doing work on your car. I am not a fan of the traditional dealer service model where you only talk to the service ticket writer, not the mechanic actually doing the work.

If you are dealing with a service writer, be sure they note the symptoms you’re seeing in your vehicle, not the remedy of replacing this part or that part. Too often they’ll just write “do a tuneup” when you’re saying the car is intermittently losing punch while driving. The problem then becomes that you sign your name to authorize “do a tuneup” while the true nature of the problem remains undiagnosed.

Your estimate needs to clearly include what it’s going to cost

The shop needs to tell you the price before the work gets done! If you get an estimate that’s very high, go elsewhere for another quote.

And if you’re a woman getting a quote over the phone, have a male friend call up and see what story they get. Women are generally quoted higher on car repairs than men, according to one recent study.

Now there may have been a time in the past when men generally knew more about the workings of automobiles. But the technology in cars today has been an equalizer between the sexes; nobody really understands what’s going on beneath the hood, unless that’s your field of training!

But there’s another reason why you need to know the price before work begins. Unfortunately, the way state mechanic lien laws work, if you don’t strictly have that written down, a mechanic can do whatever he or she wants to your vehicle, bill you any amount of money and they have a legal right to possession of the vehicle if you refuse to pay.

So that’s why you’ve got to do these things right upfront to prevent hassles.

Keep up with your maintenance schedule

Do your scheduled maintenance to reduce the chance of a big repair. Simple things like oil changes and rotating your tires can save you money in the long run.

Only buy vehicles with high levels of reliability

Taking a step back from this whole discussion, probably the single biggest thing you can do to avoid excessive trips to the mechanic begins with Consumer Reports.

Each year, the magazine publishes reliability rankings for a wide range of makes, models and years of vehicles. If you drive your cars until the wheels fall off as I recommend, you’ll want to consult the annual reliability ratings over at ConsumerReports.org.

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Clark Howard About the author:
Clark Howard is a consumer expert whose goal is to help you keep more of the money you make. His national radio show and website show you ways to put more money in your pocket, with advice you can trust. More about Clark
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