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How to find a good auto repair shop

How can you avoid getting ripped off when getting your car repaired?

It’s a common concern, to be sure. According to a 2016 AAA survey, two out of three car owners don’t trust auto-repair shops.

The late Ken Purdy, among the best automotive writers of his time, wrote about a mechanic who called himself “Honest Eddie.” He wouldn’t steal a whole car—just parts of it. He’d double-talk some sucker into replacing a part that wasn’t defective: “The 'portoflan' opening on the coil is clogged,” he’d say. In went a new coil; the old one was stuck in a box and sold the next day as factory rebuilt.

In truth, these days Honest Eddies are few and far between. Both independent and new-car dealer repair shops have massive investments in facilities, tools, and diagnostic equipment, and they need repeat business. What they don’t need is negative ratings from customers.

But like a tax audit or a cracked tooth, an unexpected, budget-busting car repair can ramp up your blood pressure. You’re stressed, and your mechanic (“technician,” or “tech,” as they’re called these days) has the delicate task of confronting you with bad news. It’s a recipe for conflict.

The antidote? Good communication. Here are some suggestions for finding common ground. 

What you should do 

Be specific when describing a problem. 

“There’s a high-pitched squeal between 50 and 60 miles per hour that seems to come from the rear wheel on the driver’s side” is a lot more helpful to the technician than “The wheel makes funny noises.” Mention all your observations, even if they seem silly. “A sweet smell,” for example, might lead the tech to suspect a coolant leak.

Don’t self-diagnose. 

Like doctors, technicians hate that. Honest Eddie once had a customer announce what was wrong with his car and insist that he wouldn’t pay “a dime more than $265.” And that’s what Honest Eddie charged for a few bucks worth of parts and a few minutes to fix a minor problem. Diagnosing fiendishly complex modern cars is the tech’s job, and automakers have established procedures to determine the cause of a problem. And despite your “expert” diagnosis, you may be charged a diagnostic fee before repairs can proceed.

Avoid technical jargon. 

Unless you really know what you’re talking about, using plain language will minimize the possibility of the tech going on some wild-goose chase at your expense.

Ask questions. 

If there are any terms, explanations, or charges that you don’t understand before you authorize a repair—and afterward, if necessary, don’t be shy about asking them. 

What to expect from the repair shop

Clear, complete answers to all of your questions. 

In a small independent shop, you’ll likely talk directly with the tech. In a big dealership, you’ll probably talk to a service writer, often a salesperson who might never have turned a wrench. Regardless, if you want an audience with the tech who worked on your car, a good service writer should arrange a meeting. And upon request, a shop should show you the defective parts before work is completed.

A written estimate itemizing everything before work begins. 

The shop must stick to the estimate unless you authorize any changes, so never sign a blank work order.

Options and priorities for repairs. 

Some repairs can wait, and a good tech should explain that to you if you’re concerned about your budget.

Of course, conflict is less likely if you trust the shop to do right by you. That’s why AAA set up its Approved Auto Repair program. Besides meeting stringent quality standards, shops must provide a 24-month/24,000-mile parts and labor guarantee and agree to accept AAA’s decision in resolving any dispute between you and the shop.

Veteran automotive journalist Peter Bohr has been writing about cars for more than four decades. 

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