How To Find a Mechanic You Can Trust

Experienced, trustworthy automotive technicians are out there! You just need to know where to find them.

For many people, taking their car for maintenance or repairs fills them with as much dread as a trip to the dentist. Today’s vehicles are highly sophisticated and more expensive than ever to repair. And trusting what is likely your most expensive possession to someone you don’t know is a scary proposition.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be. Finding a good auto shop and developing a strong relationship can take much of the stress out of routine service and sudden repairs. The key is knowing where to look and what to look for.

Consider All Options

When it comes time to service your vehicle, there are three main choices.

Dealerships

Dealerships have a reputation for being the most expensive place to take your car. Recently, however, many began factoring customer retention into the equation and adjusted their prices to be more competitive. And because their technicians and managers are on a career path, it’s more likely employee turnover rate is low and experience level high.

Nevertheless, some dealerships still view service as a necessary evil and seek to maximize profit on every repair, without regard to repeat business.

You’ll be able to tell immediately which category a dealership falls into. If they treat you with respect, explain needed repairs adequately and charge competitive fees, you’ll probably be happy staying there. But if you feel like a number and your bill is much higher than what another shop would charge (call around for quotes before you authorize work), you may want to go elsewhere.

Chain Stores

These well-known retail service chains come in two varieties: franchises and corporate stores. Some chains are all franchises, others are all corporate owned, and a small number have a mix of both.

The franchise type is a shop run by a local owner (franchisee) who pays a fee for the branding of his store. The franchisee has a vested interest in taking care of customers to ensure repeat business and a good reputation.

A corporate store, however, is just that. Technicians and managers have little to no personal stake in the business, and their goal is to meet quotas for their employer. The pay is usually low, so they tend to be staffed by entry-level techs and managers who come and go frequently. The result is that each customer is viewed as an opportunity to meet a bonus. You and your car deserve better than that.

So how do you know which one you are dealing with? Look on the brand’s corporate website. If there isn’t a link or menu item for “franchise opportunities,” you can safely assume their stores are all corporate owned. Also feel free to just call your local store and ask.

Independent Shops

Mom-and-pop shops may be a hidden gem in your area. They’re usually run by people who have been in the business a long time and know their customers. If they’re staying abreast of new technology, these neighborhood shops may be your best option for regular maintenance and common repairs.

While they may not be able to do everything you could ever need (for example, laser-guided cruse control calibration), they can likely perform most of your service and repair work at substantially less cost. With modern diagnostic equipment they can solve complicated problems and program new components to the car when they install them, just like the dealership does.

Look for Experience

mechanicMinerva Studio/Shutterstock

The technology in modern cars requires mechanics who truly understand how complex systems work. Since the 1990s there has been a nationwide shortage of people going into the automotive technician field, and it’s getting worse. This has forced many auto repair facilities, large and small, to hire less experienced technicians than they would have considered years ago.

While consumers are constantly told to watch out for service scams, the majority of shops are honest. Excessive repairs are more likely from poor diagnostic skill, with parts installed as a guess rather than a sure thing. There’s simply no substitute for experience. You may pay a little more upfront for a good mechanic’s time, but you will save money on unnecessary repairs.

Ask About Education Updates

While you’re inquiring about education, ask how the technicians keep up-to-date on new technology. Do they attend manufacturer/vendor classes, online seminars or other training? Are they required to achieve continuing certification through the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE)? If there’s no new information coming into the shop, you should be suspicious of the quality of the work that is coming out of it.

Also ask what reference tools are used to find repair specifications. All dealerships have manufacturer technical reference materials, but it’s not a given that other stores will have the information needed to fix your car correctly. If they say they have “books,” and aren’t a classic car-only repair shop, move on. All major repair information vendors have been online only for many years now. A good shop will have a subscription to one or more of these services.

Get Referrals

When you’re looking for a place to take your car, ask trusted friends, neighbors and co-workers where they go and what their experience has been. While many people choose shops based on location and perceived convenience, if you ask enough people, you will start to hear common names and some good stories. Make an appointment, and be sure to tell them that another customer referred you. This will mean a lot to a good shop.

Show Your Appreciation

One final tip: If a shop gives you great service or goes out of their way to help you in an emergency, show your appreciation with a simple gesture. A favorable review on their web site or a crowd-sourced review aggregator like Google or Yelp is one way. A handwritten thank-you note is another. Maybe even a plate of fresh-baked cookies if that’s your thing. This will go a long way toward making your auto shop’s owner and technicians feel valued and go the extra mile for you in the future.

Randy Udavcak
Randy Udavcak is a Pennsylvania-based writer, instructor, and ASE Master Certified Automobile Technician with over 30 years of experience repairing and servicing a wide variety of cars and trucks. His friends and neighbors call him the Hooptie Whisperer for his ability to keep their well-used vehicles on the road.