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Car Guy Basics: How To Find A Good Mechanic

Posted in Car Care, DIY, Featured, Funny, Garage, General, Guide, How To, Maintenance, Mechanics by Kurt Ernst | July 20th, 2010 | 2 Responses |

One of the most common questions I get is, “How can I choose a shop to work on my car?” In some cases, you’re options are extremely limited: drive a Ferrari F40, for example, and chances are you’re not going to find a local mechanic willing to turn a wrench on it. The risk is too high, and even at steep hourly rates, the reward is too low.

I’ve been around cars and bikes my entire life, and spent my impressionable years working in the family garage. It’s gone now, a victim of changing times, but it served the local community for over 60 years. We had generations of customers, some who would even drive in from out of state to get their cars serviced. Why? Because it was a small shop that put an emphasis on quality work and customer satisfaction. That type of business is getting harder and harder to find with each passing year.

I’ve seen people pay lots of money for repairs that weren’t needed, or worse yet needed repairs that weren’t done properly. I’ve seen shops with stellar reputations turn out shit work, because everyone has a bad day now and again. The difference between a shop that’s worth patronizing and one that isn’t is how they stand behind there work. Like the saying goes, “screw me once, shame on you; screw me twice, shame on me”.

I’ve moved around a bunch in my life, and as much as I prefer to wrench on my own vehicles, there are jobs I just don’t have the time, resources or inclination to tackle. When I try to find a mechanic I can trust, there are certain things I look for, outlined below in no order of importance. Maybe the hardest thing of all to explain is vibe; the best shops are places you don’t mind hanging out. Maybe it’s karma or maybe it’s carb cleaner; in any case, here are the things I look for when tracking down a new mechanic.

That's the kind of dedication I want...

Recommendation from other enthusiasts: No one is as particular about their ride as a car guy. I don’t really care where Aunt Tilly takes her Toyota Camry for service, since she’s not a gear head. Uncle Walter, the guy with the GT 350 and the immaculate Harley shovel head? I want to know where he takes the Shelby to get wrenched on, because chances are good that shop will do the quality of work I expect.

Finding other enthusiasts in your area is as simple as a search on Google. No matter what you drive, there’s an owner’s club out there somewhere. Chances are equally likely that members will have strong opinions on shops to use and shops to avoid. I don’t take any of this as gospel, but it’s a good place to start your information gathering.

Shop’s reputation: Back in my racing days, I used a shop that specialized in building winning SCCA Improved Touring cars. They did good work (usually), but they weren’t cheap. As their mechanics racked up more victories, it always seemed like their prices got higher and the work went downhill. My point? Reputation isn’t always a good benchmark for a shop’s quality. Just because they turned out stellar work in the past, it doesn’t mean they’ll continue to do so in the future.

Try to get a feel for a shops reputation from other enthusiasts. Find out how long they’ve been using the place, and take a drive by to check it out yourself. Remember, we’re still in the information gathering stages here.

Cleanliness: If you’ve taken the opportunity to cruise by the shop, why not stop in and check the place out. The best shops I’ve ever seen are typically spotless, because most top flight mechanics can’t stand to work among clutter. I don’t consider myself a world class wrench, but you can eat of my garage floor and I can tell you where any of my tools are at the current time. When I start a job, I make sure the floor is swept and that I’ve laid out everything I’m likely to need.

I get the fact that some shops are too busy to clean house constantly, and I’m OK with a certain amount of clutter. On the other hand, if there’s ten years worth of dead flies in the front window, the trash is overflowing and the calendar features “Parts Pups” from 1984, chances are good that I’m not going to like the quality of work the shop turns out.

Willingness to answer questions: As a mechanic, I’m not intimidated to ask questions. When I bring a car in for service, I know exactly what needs to be done and how I want it done, and I’ll spend as much time as I need to communicating this. In my experience, the best shops are the ones that take (reasonable) time to communicate with their customers. The best mechanics seem to have endless patience, and can often troubleshoot a problem from customer dialogue. If the mechanic isn’t listening, or worse yet isn’t answering your questions, it’s time to find another shop.

Beware the upsell: This is one reason why I rarely use car dealerships for anything other than warranty service. I’ve had service advisors try to sell me a dizzying array of services that I don’t need, ranging from fuel injector cleaning through HVAC maintenance through high speed spin balancing of wheels and tires. I recently had a shop tell me I needed new tires and an alignment; what they didn’t know was that I’d rotated and inspected them the week before. I avoided being scammed, but most people wouldn’t have.

Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion, especially if you’re facing major repairs. Sure, there are plenty of shady mechanics who prey on unsuspecting drivers, but good shops make mistakes from time to time as well. If you’ve got any doubt in your mind, have another shop look at your car.

Certification: Most shops employ mechanics who are NIASE certified, which means that they’ve passed a series of standardized tests about automotive systems. You can tell this by the NIASE certification stickers in the shop windows, and many mechanics have their diplomas posted in the office for customers to see. As with any other degree, NIASE certification really isn’t an absolute guarantee of knowledge, but at least you know the employees have gone through a formal training and testing program.

Attitude: As with any other profession, those who are truly gifted tend to love their work. A bad attitude could be nothing more than a bad day, but it could also be a sign that the guy missed his calling and would rather be doing anything else. Like removing land mines with a combat knife, on his hands and knees, in the Iraqi desert. Do you really want this guy changing your timing belt?

So there you have it, my suggestions for finding a shop you can use with confidence. Hit me up if I missed anything, and if you’ve got good stories about your local place, let’s hear them.

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2 Responses

  1. Bryant says:

    You forgot to mention “You get what you pay for.” Ofcourse there are exceptions to every rule but if someone is real cheap compared to everyone else its one of two things 1) your getting cheap parts or 2) your getting cheap labor, which usually means less care.

    Another good rule of thumb is be aware of the bigger shops and national chains. I am a used parts salesmen and have seen several small but good shops move up to bigger buildings only to go down hill. Most reacent one went from a three bay with the owner/service manager working part time and three mechanics to a large shop with 8 lifts. That took them from 3.5 employees to two full time service managers a secretary and six mechanics for a total of 9.5 employees. Adding that many employees at once hurt them because the owner couldnt make sure they all were good and doing good work. And chain stores like Monroe and Midas are ok for smaller stuff but a lot(not all) of those places have younger kids that dont know a whole lot and are poorly paid and most of them recieve bonuses for selling you extra things you dont need. They try to get your car in and start working on it and then say hey you need this this and this also and say itll be cheaper since im already in here to fix that too, which is true but there are many time you dont really need those repairs.

  2. Kurt Ernst says:

    Bryant, good call. A buddy of mine and fellow auto journalist spent some time working at a tire and brake service chain in college. You’d be amazed at the stories this guy has about having to up-sell customers on stuff they didn’t need just to keep his job. I think he quit after a week.