Avoid Getting Gouged

Soliciting a new car mechanic is similar to approaching a late-night motel clerk in Tajikistan when you have a limited grasp of the language. After hastily reading a guide book, you might remember a few key phrases like "distributor cap" or "power-steering belt"―which carry the same communicative clout as one of those Important Foreign Phrases to Know lists that teach handy lines like, "Yes, the sun is bright today," or "No, I don't care for shallots."

Consequently, once you decide you need a mechanic, you're reduced to hand gestures and mimicking the strange engine sounds that occur when your car tops 36 mph. The mechanic only nods, making you wonder if he is nodding in recognition of the problem or in recognition of a five-star sucker. Reluctantly, you initial a service agreement and hope for the best.

The next day you're slugged with a $1,061 bill. The problem could have been nothing more than a new timing belt. But because you don't speak the language, you pay without questioning―forever wondering how four new tires and a tinted passenger-side window helped rectify the engine's knocking.

Fortunately, you don't need to be a Pep Boy to avoid getting fleeced by a car mechanic. Instead, you can protect yourself with research, careful planning, and a "question everything" mindset.

Deciding on a Repair Shop

  • Consult friends and neighbors for recommendations. Or inquire with local consumer organizations and car clubs such as AAA.
  • Before deciding on a potential shop, inspect its facilities. Does it appear clean and organized? Are Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certificates or trade diplomas displayed on the walls? Is the staff attentive to questions? Are cars of similar value to yours in the lot?
  • Be leery of dealerships. Most base their charges on estimated time, rather than actual time. In other words, even if a mechanic takes only 90 minutes to install a new crankshaft pulley, the dealership will still charge the predetermined estimated time of 6 hours. On the other hand, their mechanics are certified, and sometimes they give you a free loaner.
  • Chain retail stores, like Sears, sometimes have great guarantees or warranties in writing, so check those out, too.
  • Check with your local Better Business Bureau to see if any complaints were filed, and how they were resolved.

Pinpointing the Problem

  • Be specific when describing the problem. Bring in detailed notes if possible, pinpointing where and when the issue occurs.
  • There are no discounts for vehicular insightfulness, so don't blab your diagnosis. Some mechanics might follow your suggestion without ever correcting the main problem.
  • If your vehicle's flaw only occurs when the car is moving, don't hesitate to suggest taking a spin with the mechanic. It's easier for a mechanic to analyze a sound firsthand than it is to follow a customer's secondhand description.

Responding to a Mechanic's Diagnosis

  • Don't nod your head and blurt, "You're the professional. Do whatever it takes." Some mechanics will hear this as, "I'm a card-carrying numbskull, and my American Express is yours."
  • If time allows, haul your vehicle to a different repair shop for a second opinion. Not only will this either confirm or refute the first diagnosis, but it also allows you to compare price estimates.
  • When it comes to signing a repair estimate or work order, treat doubt like it's an honorable human trait on par with kindness. Inspect the order with a lawyer's eye. Don't worry about taking too much time reading the fine print or asking questions. Only sign after you fully understand every listed repair suggestion.
  • If a mechanic recommends a new replacement part, demand proof. Insist on inspecting the worn part. And afterward, ask to see the new part to confirm that it has been installed. If a shop refuses your request by saying it's against insurance regulations, take your future business elsewhere.
  • If you exit the facility during repairs and receive a call two hours later from the mechanic suggesting additional work, don't approve it over the phone. Wait until you return and see hard evidence of the problem. Taming inner suspicions of fraud will more than compensate for the delay and inconvenience.
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