Car Repair Shop Buying Guide

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

Where to Go for Maintenance and Repairs

We surveyed 40,000 CR members to find out more about their recent car repair experiences in order to come up with our best advice for finding deals and satisfaction for work not covered by a warranty. The assumption is that if it’s under warranty, customers should go to the dealer for repairs.

We found that consumers who go to independent mechanics have a more satisfying, experience and are more successful at negotiating a discount than those who go to auto repair chains or dealerships. Our survey also indicates that haggling worked more often than not when it came to getting a discount at any type of shop. Of course, these are general statements, and not all shops are created equal.

Before you consider where to take your vehicle for maintenance or repair, you need to understand the difference between the two types of work. 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 unexpected works that need 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. 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 routine 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 brand—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, as well as the experience to efficiently troubleshoot problems.

Ask Your Family and Friends
Seek recommendations from trusted people in your social circle who have a vehicle similar to yours and live nearby.

Search the Internet
Look for information about local mechanics on Angie’s List (membership required), RepairPal, or Yelp.

Check for Certification
Your mechanic and shop should be certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence aka ASE.

Check the Better Business Bureau
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. See if they can accommodate after-hours drop-off and pickup.  

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.

Consumer Reports is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to helping consumers. We make it easy to buy the right product from a variety of retailers. Clicking a retailer link will take you to that retailer’s website to shop. When you shop through retailer links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission – 100% of the fees we collect are used to support our mission. Learn more. Our service is unbiased: retailers can’t influence placement. All prices are subject to change.