If you’re a fairly handy person, you probably do simple car repairs yourself, such as changing the oil or replacing headlights. However, for more complex jobs, such as replacing a radiator, you need a mechanic – and it’s worth taking the trouble to find a good one.
It takes time and effort to find a mechanic you can trust, but doing so saves you both time and money in the long run. If you rush your car to whichever garage is nearest when something breaks, you can’t be sure the mechanics there will know what to do with it. You could end up taking the bus to work for days on end while the shop tries to fix the problem – and possibly spending hundreds of dollars on “fixes” that you don’t need. A good mechanic, by contrast, will get the job done right the first time and charge you a fair price.
That’s why the time to look for a good mechanic is before your car breaks down. This gives you time to look at lots of local mechanics, checking out their credentials, prices, and the quality of their work. That way, when something does go wrong with your car, you can feel confident you’re taking it to someone who knows how to handle it.
What Makes a Good Mechanic
All good mechanics have three important qualities in common:
- Competence. Good mechanics truly understand cars. They know all about how a car works, and what can stop it from working properly. When you come to them with a problem, they can accurately diagnose it and repair it on the first try.
- Honesty. A good mechanic is also an honest mechanic. Shady mechanics sometimes try to sell you extra services you don’t need, or worse, charge you for work they haven’t actually done. For instance, if you bring them a simple job that takes half an hour to do, they’ll bill you for two or three hours of labor – a practice sometimes called “gravy work.” Honest mechanics, by contrast, charge you only for what they’ve done – and sometimes not even that. One time, my husband and I took our car to our trusted repair shop because we had trouble starting it when it was cold. However, when they tried it out, they had no problem starting it, so they didn’t charge us anything – not even for the time they’d spent testing it.
- Reasonable Prices. “Gravy work” isn’t the only way mechanics can soak their customers for extra cash. For instance, some shops insist on using parts from a specific, high-priced brand – even if there are cheaper brands that are just as good. Others simply charge prices that are way above the going rate for basic repairs. A good mechanic will charge a fair price for both parts and labor.
Good Mechanics Save You Money
Good mechanics can save you money in several different ways:
- They Don’t Do Unnecessary Repairs. Suppose one day your car starts making a weird noise, so you take it to the garage. They spend weeks tinkering with it, replacing one thing after another. By the time they finally find the problem, you’ve spent hundreds of dollars on repairs you didn’t need. A competent mechanic will find and fix the problem right away, rather than waste your time and money on jobs that don’t need doing.
- They Finish the Job Faster. If your mechanic takes several days to find and fix a problem, that’s several days during which you can’t use your car. You’ll have to take public transportation or use a ridesharing service to get to work, which will add even more money to what you’re paying for the repairs. A skilled mechanic will get the job done without wasting time so you can get your car back on the road.
- They Don’t “Up-Sell” You. Some mechanics fix things that aren’t broken on purpose. For example, if you come in for a simple oil change, they’ll try to convince you to do a much bigger job, such as flushing the cooling system. (Some mechanics privately call this practice a “wallet flush.”) In other cases, they’ll charge you extra for something trivial like checking and topping off the fluids – a job that you could easily do yourself. An honest mechanic will simply fix what needs fixing and leave it at that.
- They Prevent Bigger Problems. When small problems aren’t fixed right away, they can turn into much bigger problems down the road. For instance, replacing the brake pads is a routine job that costs around $150 per axle. However, if you don’t do this simple job, the pads can wear through completely, causing major damage to the brake system that could cost hundreds of dollars to fix. Worse still, the worn-out brakes won’t do a very good job of stopping the car, so this problem also endangers your life, not just your wallet. Fortunately, a good mechanic won’t let things get to this point. They’ll spot the problem while it’s still a small problem that’s easy – and relatively cheap – to fix.
How to Find a Good Mechanic
It’s easy to talk about how important it is to have a good mechanic, but it’s not so easy to find one. You have to put in a bit of work to find mechanics in your area and to sort out the wheat from the chaff.
There are some things, such as a mechanic’s credentials or costs, that you can check online or with a phone call. However, to get a real sense of how good they are at their job, you’ll need to get hands-on. You have to see the shop, talk to the mechanic in person, and try them out with a simple job before you commit.
1. Search for Local Mechanics
The best mechanic for you has to be one you can get to easily. That means the first step to finding a good mechanic is to look for garages that are close to your home or workplace. Here are a few ways to search:
- Ask for Recommendations. Talk to people who live in your area about where they take their cars for repairs. You can ask friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, pals on social media, or even the clerk at the local drugstore. Ask them how they like their mechanics and whether they would describe them as reliable, honest, and fairly priced. If the same name comes up more than once, that’s a sign you’ve found a good lead.
- Talk to Businesses. Lots of businesses rely on cars or other vehicles – taxis, delivery vans, company cars, and so on. Because they count on their vehicles to keep their business going, they have a good incentive to get them the best possible care. Check with a few local businesses to find out who services their fleets. If you’re not sure how to find out, try asking the drivers themselves, such as the delivery person who shows up with your new couch or the cabbie who gives you a lift to the airport.
- Search Online Reviews. A final place to look for recommendations – or to double-check the ones you’ve already received – is online reviews. You can search sites like Angie’s List, Yelp, and Google to find local mechanics and see how they rate with their customers. Another useful site is the Car Talk Mechanics Files, which has listings for over 30,000 mechanics. Be careful sorting through online reviews, though. Don’t rule out a business just because of a single one-star review; even the best businesses aren’t immune to angry reviews from cranks. Similarly, even a bad business gets the occasional rave review from a customer who happened to have good luck there. Instead of making your decision based on the best or worst reviews, look at what the majority of reviewers – the ones in the middle – tend to say.
2. Check Credentials
By this time, you’re likely to have a fairly long list of possible mechanics. To narrow it down, check the mechanics’ credentials. Here are a few sites to consult:
- ASE. The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) is the most reputable organization that certifies auto mechanics. To gain ASE certification, a mechanic has to pass a long test covering several different types of vehicle repairs. You can search the ASE site to find garages in your area that carry the ASE Blue Seal, complete with their addresses, phone numbers, and detailed maps.
- AAA. The Automobile Association of America (AAA) also maintains a list of auto repair shops that meet its qualifications. Members of this Approved Auto Repair network are all staffed by ASE-certified or manufacturer-certified mechanics. They must pass an AAA inspection every year and also provide customer satisfaction survey cards to all AAA members, so their service is constantly being checked for quality. You don’t need to be an AAA member to search for an AAR facility; just visit the website and enter your zip code.
- BBB. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) doesn’t certify auto mechanics, but it can help you find ones who deal honestly with their customers. If any business, including an auto repair shop, is accredited by the BBB, that means the BBB has reviewed its business practices and found that it has made a “good faith effort” to deal with any complaints from customers. The BBB site also gives businesses ratings from A through F based on the transparency of their business practices, number of customer complaints, licenses, government actions against the business, and fair advertising practices.
3. Compare Prices
When you pick up your car from the garage, you want to know that the bill for the repair is reasonable. A fair price is close to the average price that other mechanics would charge for the same job. If it’s much higher, that could mean you’re being ripped off; if it’s much lower, that could be a warning sign that your mechanic isn’t putting in the necessary work.
To compare prices for different mechanics, find out the baseline price for a sample repair. If there’s nothing your car actually needs, check out the price for a routine maintenance job, such as an alignment or a timing belt replacement. Do an online search for this type of repair, along with the make, model, and year of your car and the word “cost.” You can also enter this information into the NAPA AutoCare Repair Estimator, which finds typical costs for the repair in your area of the country.
Write down the range of prices you find from this search. Then, call up the mechanics on your list and ask them to give you an estimate for the same repair. Compare their prices to the range you wrote down to see if they look reasonable. The ideal price should be somewhere near the middle of the range – not too high, not too low.
While you’re at it, you can also ask the mechanics how long this repair will take them. Comparing their answers will give you an idea of how long you’ll have to wait to get your car back after having it serviced. A shop a few miles away could end up being more convenient than one right around the corner that keeps you waiting an extra day every time you need a repair.
4. Visit the Shop
At this point, you should have your list of mechanics pared down to a few finalists. The next step is to take a look at each repair shop in person. Checking out the conditions will give you a sense of how well the business is run. Here are a few things to look for:
- Neatness. Naturally, you don’t expect a garage to be sparkling clean, but it should at least be reasonably tidy. Tools should be neatly laid out where they’re easy to find, not strewn haphazardly all over the shop. Watch out for red flags like spilled oil or grease, which pose a risk of accidents.
- Lighting. A repair shop needs to be well-lit. If it’s not, there’s a risk the mechanics will make mistakes simply because they can’t see what they’re doing.
- Parking Area. While you’re at the shop, take a look at the parking lot. If cars are parked haphazardly, blocking access to other cars, it makes it harder for customers to pick them up after a repair. Check out the condition of cars that are being returned, as well. If the cars parked in the lot have greasy smears on the door handles or steering wheels, or the windows have been left wide open, your car is likely to end up in the same condition if you take it here. On the other hand, if you see paper protectors on the floors and the seats, that’s a sign that the mechanics are going the extra mile to protect the cars from damage.
- Courteous Staff. Finally, watch how the staff interacts with customers. Instead of just walking in and saying you’re a potential customer – which could inspire the staff to go out of their way to be polite – do a little eavesdropping to see how they interact with their existing customers. They should be polite and professional to everyone who walks in, explaining what was done to the car and why.
5. Interview the Mechanic
While you’re at the repair shop, go in and ask them a few questions about how they do business. If you can, try to talk to the mechanic in person, not just a receptionist. You might feel awkward asking to do this, but experts say it’s the best way to get a sense of what kind of work you can expect. Mechanic Chris Johnson, speaking with The Art of Manliness, says your goal should be to “establish a relationship with them, much as you would your barber or your pastor.”
Here are a few questions to ask your mechanic:
- “How Long Have You Been in Business?” The more experience your mechanic has, the more likely they are to know how to handle a wide variety of car problems.
- “What Insurance Do You Carry?” There are three kinds of insurance an auto repair garage should have. The most important, from the customer’s point of view, is general liability insurance. This type of policy pays for damages if you, or your car, is harmed on the premises. It’s also useful for mechanics to have a business owner’s policy, which covers their property and assets, and worker’s compensation, which covers on-the-job injuries.
- “Do You Have any Specialties?” Some mechanics specialize in particular vehicles or types of work. A mechanic who specializes in your make of vehicle is more likely to understand all its quirks. They’re also more likely to have the right parts for your car in stock, rather than having to order them. However, you’ll usually pay more to go to a specialist than to a local, independent shop that deals with all makes and models.
- “What Type of Parts Do You Use?” Repair shops can use a variety of parts – new or used, OEM (original equipment manufacturer) or aftermarket (made by a different company). Aftermarket parts are usually cheaper, but in some cases, only OEM parts can do the job. Also ask whether you’re allowed to provide your own parts – for instance, whether you can buy a set of tires online and have them installed at the shop.
- “What Are Your Rates?” It may seem a little embarrassing to ask this, but there’s nothing wrong with wanting to know how much a job is going to cost. Make sure to ask if the rate the mechanic charges for labor varies based on the type of work.
- “Are Estimates Free?” For common repair jobs, most shops can give you an estimate ahead of time of how long the job will take and how much it will cost. This service should be free of charge. Also, ask whether the estimates the shop gives are guaranteed.
- “What Are Your Payment Policies?” It’s important to know ahead of time what your options are for payment. Most shops expect payment in full when you pick up your vehicle, but some will allow you to pay in installments. You also need to know what types of payment the mechanic accepts – cash, check, credit card, or debit card.
- “Do You Guarantee Your Work?” Some mechanics offer a warranty on their work, meaning that if the problem comes back within a certain amount of time – say, a year – they will repair it again at no charge.
- “Do You Offer Loaner Cars?” Some garages provide “loaner cars” for customers to use if their cars have to stay in the shop for more than one day. Others don’t offer loaners, but they provide a shuttle service to help people get to and from the shop after dropping off their cars.
6. Start With a Small Job
Once you think you’ve found the right mechanic, it’s time to try them out. However, you probably don’t want to jump in at the deep end with a major repair like an engine rebuild. It’s better to start off with a small, simple job, such as an oil change or a routine inspection, before deciding whether to put your car in this person’s hands. Think of it like choosing a doctor – you’d rather get to know a new doctor during a basic checkup than major surgery.
After this first job, ask yourself a few questions:
- Was the work done properly?
- Was it done in a reasonable amount of time?
- Did the price seem fair?
- Did the shop try to up-sell you on a bunch of other services you didn’t need?
- Did they seem trustworthy?
If the answers to all these questions are positive, congratulations: You’ve found your new mechanic. You can now entrust your car to this person for all kinds of repairs, big and small, and be confident the job will be done right.
When looking for a mechanic, it helps to understand a bit about how your car works. If you know nothing at all about what’s under the hood, you have no way of knowing whether a mechanic’s being honest when they tell you a part needs replacing. They could be pointing to something that has nothing to do with your problem and you wouldn’t be able to tell.
At the very least, read your owner’s manual. It won’t go into detail about your car’s systems, but it will tell you the basics about what kinds of service your car needs and how to diagnose a problem. For more information, you can check out sites like Popular Mechanics or the Gearhead 101 series on The Art of Manliness. These sites offer a basic overview of how the various parts of a car work.
You can also do a simple online search on “how a car works” or check out a library book about cars written for children or teens. These resources are easy to understand, even for a complete novice. By getting the basic facts about your car, you’ll be able to check up on your mechanic and make sure they’re being straight with you.
Who’s the best mechanic you’ve ever had? How did you find that person?