As a mechanic of over 22 years, I share some obvious (and not-so-obvious) signs of a quality auto repair shop.
Find a Mechanic You Can Trust
People who don't know much about their cars are always asking me, "How can I possibly know if I am getting ripped off when I take my car into the shop?" The simple truth is, unless you are a mechanic yourself or are willing to take your car to other shops for second opinions every time it breaks, you can't. However, there are some easy things you can do to help you find a good mechanic. This is where common sense comes in.
The first thing to do is relax. When your car breaks, don't freak out. Don't panic. I remember one woman coming into my shop, and, as she began talking to me, I could hear trembling in her voice. I looked down at her hands, and they were shaking too. She was terrified. I realized then and there how traumatic getting car repairs can be for people—to a degree I'd never imagined possible before. Now I realize not everyone is nervous or intimidated to that extent, but there is still anxiety for many somewhere underneath. So, take a breath, and let's have a look at what part of this unknown stuff is still under your control.
You Know More About This Than You Think
That's right, you do. When you pull into a shop's parking lot (or follow the tow truck in) you are still the one calling all the shots. We've already accepted that you aren't a mechanic, so don't let your mind spend time trying to think like one. You are, however, a consumer and you are likely a professional something-or-another too. That means you know what good business looks like, at least on the top. So, rather than trying to diagnose a problem with your car that you really aren't qualified to do, examine what you are qualified to judge: how does this business present itself?
- Is the parking lot clean and neat?
- How about the windows and the posters hanging there? Are they new or have they been having that "Big Sale" for so long that the posters have all begun to fade?
- The signs outside, are the bulbs out, or are they ragged and unkempt?
- You can probably see into the service bays, if so, what's the shop look like? Is the floor clean, or is it cluttered with rags, scattered tools and debris? How about the walls?
- Do the mechanics all have well-kept uniforms, or are they wearing grubby clothes from home?
- When you go inside, how clean is it in there?
- Are the displays neat and informative, or are they dusty and falling apart?
- Go look at the customer lounge, do you feel welcome and willing to have a seat?
- Go inside and look at the bathroom, is it clean?
You might be wondering what these things have to do with whether you get ripped off or not. The simple fact is, a business that values its customer will take the time to prove it, and these are the ways in which they can. If a shop doesn't care enough about you to keep the bathrooms clean, it's likely not going to spend much energy taking good care of your car. A dirty shop and showroom show a lack of discipline, sloppiness, and decries an attitude that I promise you will permeate everything they do.
Now, listen, fixing cars is a messy business, that's a fact, but there are differences between professional grime and laziness. You have been a human long enough to spot the difference, whether you've ever worked in an automotive shop or not. Automotive retailers don't have to be artists and interior decorators with a great flair for style, but they do have to have the respect for you to keep their establishment clean. It speaks to their professionalism and ethics far more than many realize.
Is This Mechanic Any Good?
Is the Shop Clean?
You might be thinking, "Hey, just because a shop is clean doesn't mean that the mechanics are any good." And you are right. A clean shop is not a promise of competence; it is merely a first-line indicator. But there are other things that you can do to make yourself more comfortable once you find a tidy place.
Are the Mechanics Trained?
Look on the walls inside—behind the counter or maybe even down a hall. Many shops will hang certificates showing training courses that their mechanics and associates have been through. The value of these is minor in the grand scheme of things, but again, like a clean shop, they serve as an indicator of pride in workmanship.
A shop that displays certificates of training or licenses has 1) the willingness to send its people to training that they might improve their skills, and 2) the pride that comes with an educational accomplishment. Again, that doesn't guarantee that the mechanics are the best, but it gives you another indication that at least this shop cares enough to try.
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A Side Note About Certificates
One set of certificates, ASE, do carry a bit more weight than others do. There are many companies that issue certificates, sure, but in my experience, the ASE program is very well run and requires a good deal of effort on a mechanic's part - not to mention some educational expense.
Now, we all know that some people are better at taking tests than others, and a poor mechanic in practice might be able to score well on a written test, but overall, if you see ASE certificates—certificates, not just patches on the mechanics' sleeves—you're probably in pretty good shape. Don't be afraid to look at the certificates either, read them. The lines are short and show the field of expertise and the date to which the mechanic is certified. (Technology changes, and the ASE people require mechanics to retest from time to time to make sure they are keeping up.)
So have a look. Again, it's not a promise that the named mechanic on the certificate is the best, but it certainly shows you how much effort he or she is willing to put into that career.
Size DOES Matter
Speaking of effort going in, take a look at the toolboxes if you can see into the shop. Tools are the essential, well, tools of the automotive mechanic's trade. Experienced mechanics have a ton of tools, that is a simple fact. Over the years they can't help but acquire more as specialized jobs and specialized vehicles require the mechanic to buy new and different tools. Career mechanics invest a fortune in their tools. The size of a mechanic's toolbox, and its condition, say a lot about how much experience they have.
- If your mechanic can carry his or her toolbox like a suitcase, and that's the only one that person has, well, you're really rolling the dice letting that mechanic fix your car.
- As a general guideline, a mechanic working out of a box (or stack of boxes) that aren't much bigger than your dishwasher at home hasn't been doing it too long. If it's a brake and front-end-only shop, this might not necessarily be bad, but if you're dealing with high-end repairs like engine repair, transmission or anything involving a lot of diagnostic time, this probably is not the mechanic that you need.
- Imagine your refrigerator tipped over on its side, and maybe laid down on a set of drawers or two. Toolboxes of this size are an expensive investment and are rarely purchased just for show. A mechanic working out of one of these boxes has likely been doing it for a long time and has, over time, expanded this tool set through having done many different kinds of jobs. While this is not a promise that he or she is good, it's a darn good indicator that this person has been working on cars for quite a while.
Don't Be Afraid to Say "No"
The last thing you have to do before you decide whether or not to give these people your keys is to remember that you are in control. If you don't get a good vibe from the people working there, leave. Don't be afraid to say, "No thanks," and take your car somewhere else.
More than anything, I see people intimidated to say "No" (for more help with this kind of thing, check out my article about how to talk to your mechanic once you find a shop). You're not going to hurt their feelings; trust me, mechanics and service writers get told "No" all the time. How do you think so many of them got so pushy to begin with?
But the truth is, there are lots of good mechanics out there, small shops and large. Just use your common sense and trust your instincts. Look around and pay attention to the kinds of things you do understand, the things you know about people and about life. Use that and all of these other tools together, and you'll be surprised at how much more comfortable buying auto repair will become.
Resources to Help You Find and Assess Quality Mechanics
- RepairPal: Auto Repair and Maintenance Estimates | Auto Shop and Mechanic Ratings
Like the Florida site in the second video, RepairPal does a similar service nationwide. The quotes can vary a lot (keep in mind they average Dealership AND small shop prices), but at least you get an idea. The customer comments can be useful too.
- Automotive Service Association ( ASA )
As a consumer, this is a good site to go see how the industry thinks. ASA is an international organization made up of approximately 12,000 member-businesses that work to deliver excellence in mechanical, collision and transmission service.
- Car Talk. Car tips, advice, and troubleshooting.
Car Talk from NPR. Car advice, tips, troubleshooting, and answers to your car questions. Find a mechanic, hear past shows, play the puzzler, join their discussion boards, and learn safe driving tips. Funny stuff, too. Good show and advice.
- Welcome to CarCare.org | Safety. Dependability. Pride of Ownership
A good site with information for consumers and shops about doing good auto repair business. Some useful tips and industry insight.
- Car reviews and ratings from Consumer Reports
Consumer Reports presents expert car reviews and ratings, for new and used cars, with performance, pricing, and reliability data.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.