We had a Car Pro Show caller last Saturday who was stressed out about a huge repair bill to replace a hose. She had a six-year-old car, but it only had 20,000 miles on it. I suggested she use a private garage for smaller jobs, but she did not know of one she could trust.
Many people who have cars out of the warranty period often ask me if I know a good garage to recommend. In some areas, I do but in others, I don''t know a soul.
Some people use auto dealerships for all their repairs and maintenance to their car, and there are certainly some advantages to doing that. There are benefits to having technicians who only work on your brand vehicle make the repairs. Dealerships often have the best diagnostic equipment, and they attract and retain some of the best technicians in the industry because of higher wages, benefits, and often better-working conditions. Many dealerships offer loan cars, which people seem to like. However, all that comes at a price to the consumer, and many prefer to use a non-dealership shop.
So how can you find a good garage that won't take advantage of you, and fix your car right the first time, on time?
Word of Mouth
You can get online and see ratings for independent repair shops, but often those are manipulated. I prefer the good old-fashioned word of mouth method. Ask friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers if they know a good place. You'll likely get some good ideas about places, and if someone has had a bad experience, you'll probably get an earful and also find out where not to go.
Talk to Shop Manager/Owner
Once you get some suggestions, go speak to the owner or manager of the shop. If he is customer-oriented, he won't mind answering a few basic questions. The time to do this is not when you need repairs but before that. Ask him what his hourly labor rate is, this will clue you into how he prices versus other facilities. Ask if they let you inspect any old parts that have to be replaced, and for sure ask how long they stand behind their repairs. Ask to see their service shop, and look for cleanliness. A cluttered, messy shop often signals sub-par repairs. Lastly, ask if all their technicians are ASE Certified. For me, this is critical.
Check for ASE Certified Mechanics
ASE stands for the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, which tests a technician's knowledge after he or she has worked in his or her field for two years minimally. ASE tests specialized fields such as air conditioning, engine repair, tune-ups, brakes, diesel engines, and the list goes on and on. The tests are not easy by any stretch; it takes studying and practical experience. After a group of tests is completed, a technician can earn a Master classification, which he or she usually proudly wears on the uniform. ASE Master technicians have to re-certify every five years. If a technician goes to the time and trouble to become a Master, he or she is usually the highest paid, and most dedicated to their field.
Ask about Repair Estimates, Test Drives, Wrecker Services and Insurance
Other questions to ask a potential repair shop is if it offers estimates and if those estimates include parts, labor, tax, etc. There is nothing worse than an unpleasant surprise when your bill is presented. Ask if they get your authorization in advance if the bill is going to be higher than you approved. Find out if they routinely test drive a car after repairs to make sure everything is fixed. Also, ask if they have insurance to cover your car while it is in their possession. Have a clear understanding of their hours of operation, and if they have a preferred wrecker service, should you need to have your car towed in after hours.
In closing, just like when buying a car, building a relationship with your garage is critical, it will make the difference between an unpleasant experience and a good experience. If you use a dealership, get to know your service advisor and go to the same one each visit. This will save you a lot of time, and you will feel better about your service experience.