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Car repair shops

Car repair shop buying guide

Last updated: January 2015

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Getting started

Getting started

When it's time to take the car in for routine maintenance and especially for repairs, remember this: In general, independent repair shops continue to get higher marks for satisfaction than car dealers, according to the results of our latest Annual Auto Survey.

Subscribers found that independents outscored dealership service once again for overall satisfaction, price, quality, courteousness of the staff, and work being completed when promised. With few exceptions, the entire list of independent shops got high marks on those factors. The same couldn't be said for franchised new-car dealers.

Of course, these are general statements, and not all shops are created equal.

Where to go for maintenance and repairs

Before you consider where to take your vehicle for maintenance and repair, you need to understand the difference between the two. Routine maintenance items are those listed in your vehicle's owner's manual as part of the model's service schedule. They are intended to keep your vehicle in top operating condition. Repairs are service that needs to be performed to fix a problem. Where you take your vehicle may depend on what needs to be done. (Use Consumer Reports' car repair estimator tool.)

Scheduled maintenance can be performed at any dealership; you don't have to go to the one where you bought the vehicle. Likewise, you can take your vehicle to an independent auto-repair shop or franchise, which are typically less expensive than dealerships. Federal law gives you the right to service your vehicle wherever you like without affecting your warranty coverage. (Depending on the contract, lessees may be required to have all service performed at a dealership.) Mechanics in your dealership's service department are specifically trained and certified in all aspects of your model's service needs, and the shop will be equipped with all of the necessary diagnostic equipment. Because maintenance items are fairly basic, however, any professional auto shop should be able to perform the necessary tasks.

Wherever you go for service, make sure they have access to the manufacturer's latest technical service bulletins (TSBs), which are basically instructions on how to fix common problems with a particular model. Often, an automaker will do TSB repairs for free, but you'll have to go to a dealership to get the work done.

Repairs can range from basic tasks such as a brake job or auto-body repair to complicated service such as overhauling a transmission or diagnosing an electronics-system problem. Go to a dealership if your car is covered by the original warranty and you want the manufacturer to pay for the fix. Use a dealership, too, if your car has been recalled or is the subject of a "service campaign" in which the automaker offers to correct a defect. If you have an extended warranty, you'll need to check the terms to see who must perform covered repairs.

If the vehicle is out of warranty, the type of problem may determine where you take it for repair. A reputable independent shop should be able to handle most common repairs. Shops that specialize in your vehicle's brand are more likely to have the proper training, equipment, and up-to-date information. A good technician will let you know when a problem warrants a trip to the dealership or a specialty shop.

If you're experiencing a problem with a system that's exclusive to your model or automaker--especially electronics, such as a navigation or multi-function control system--consider taking the vehicle to a dealership. You also need to take it to a dealership to have safety recall work performed.

How to find a great car mechanic

Finding a mechanic you can trust for your car takes a lot more than letting your fingers do the walking. You have to do a little old-fashioned sleuthing. There's no single clue to what makes a good repair shop, but here are some things you should look for.

Find a shop for your brand of car

Many garages specialize in certain makes. Those that focus on your type are more likely to have the latest training and equipment to fix your vehicle.

Ask your family and friends

Especially seek recommendations from those who have a vehicle similar to yours.

Search the Internet

Look for information about local mechanics on Angie's List, the Consumer Reports car repair estimator, and the Mechanics Files at Cartalk.com. Angie's List requires a subscription, and the car repair estimator is free for Consumer Reports' online subscribers.

Check for certification

Your mechanic and shop should be certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, or ASE.

Check the Better Business Bureau

Auto repair shops rank 12th on the bureau's list of common complaints. Go to www.bbb.org; the information you find might help you figure out which shops you should avoid.

Give the shop a tryout

Before your car needs a big repair, you might want to try out some local shops with smaller repairs or maintenance items, such as oil and filter changes.

Ask about warranties

What kind of guarantees does the shop give on repair work? Warranties can vary greatly among shops, so ask about them ahead of time. Use a common repair, such as brake work, as your guide.

Make sure the shop is convenient

Even the best shop might not be worth the effort if its hours conflict with your schedule or you have few transportation options after you drop off the car.

How to talk to your mechanic

Getting the right repairs at a fair price depends partly on communicating with your mechanic.

Here's what to say and to expect:

  • Describe the problem fully. Provide as much information as you can. Write down the symptoms and when they occur. If possible, talk directly to the mechanic who will be working on your car.
  • Don't offer a diagnosis. Avoid saying what you think is causing the problem. You may be on the hook for any repairs the shop makes at your suggestion, even if they don't solve the problem.
  • Request a test drive. If the problem occurs only when the car is moving, ask the mechanic to accompany you on a test drive.
  • Ask for evidence. If you're not comfortable with the diagnosis, ask the shop to show you. Worn brake pads or rusted exhaust pipes are easy to see. Don't let the mechanic refuse your request by saying that his insurance company doesn't allow customers into the work area. Insist on evidence anyway.
   

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