Kevin Watterson is a writer and blogger based in Minneapolis. Originally a farm kid from Iowa, he knows how important it is to have a trusted mechanic who can keep your vehicles on the road—or in the field—when you need them.
Unless you understand the spaghetti mess of hoses, valves, and pipes under the hood, taking your car in for maintenance is a daunting experience. You know something is wrong but not exactly what. And definitely not why. It could be as serious as transmission repair or something simple that would come up in a routine vehicle inspection. Or maybe you let your car go way too long between oil changes because you dread the inevitable upsell for more services.
Having a service shop you know and trust can put you at ease, but finding that shop can be intimidating. The search for a good car repair shop is easier if you take charge of it, starting with knowing what to look for.
ASE Certified Mechanics
You deserve to know the person you give the keys to is capable of performing the work you need. The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence recognizes this and developed the ASE Certified Technicians standard for car owners in your position. The ASE maintains independence from dealers and manufacturers so you can be assured it is not playing favorites.
Technicians perform tests to prove to ASE they have the knowledge and ability to do good work. The ASE provides a website for you to find a Blue Seal Recognized Shop in your area. This is a good place to start your search, and you can do it before you even need car repair.
AAA, iATN Approval
If they aren't ASE certified, go ahead and give them a call to ask if they are part of AAA's Approved Auto Repair Network, the International Automotive Technicians Network or another respected association. Take advantage of your state's Better Business Bureau as well. They exist to help consumers like you navigate through these situations.
Nationwide Repair Service
For an added layer of security, find a service shop with a nationwide warranty. Don't worry, these are not the extended warranties pushed on you at electronic retailers. Those are cash machines for the seller, not something in your best interest. Nationwide repair warranties are yours at zero cost as part of a quality repair shop's service contract.
Nationwide warranties will cover any potential defects in material or repair work. All of the national car service brands offer one and independent service shops can join warranty associations. They should be able to give you a resource for finding places around the country that will honor their warranty if anything ever happens away from home.
Take Charge: Interview Your Service Shop
Think of yourself during your search as an employer screening potential employees. Ask the person from the shop if they specialize in the service or automotive type you need. One that handles light trucks isn't ideal if you're looking for a front-end alignment on your sedan. Ask how long they've been in business or if they can provide references from customers. No business would hire someone who won't reveal their skills or refuses to provide references. Your car care deserves the same standard.
Car Repair Estimates
Once you have your list narrowed down to two or three locations it is time to get estimates. It's important to remember that taking your car in for an estimate does not bind you to give anyone your business. While this might be an unfamiliar experience for you, it is the standard operating procedure for service shops. They do this every day. They won't balk when you ask for an estimate (if they do, say thanks and leave) or be offended if you decide to go somewhere else.
Take mental notes while you're waiting for them to do the estimate. Scope out the waiting area. If it's clean and neat you'll know they put in extra effort to make their customers comfortable. Is there a place you can work? Many shops are adding wifi workstations to help customers stay connected with the office. Ask the other people waiting if they are repeat customers, and if so, what keeps them coming back. These will be the most valuable insights you find.
Most places will have an open view of their workshop. Let's face it, an auto shop won't be spotless and clean but it should be organized. Seeing tools and rags left on the ground is a bad sign. It shows they aren't careful and puts your car in danger. They might drive over something and damage a tire or trip and knock who knows what into a door panel.
With that in mind, the best service shops will keep their work area organized and put a protective covering over your car while it's being serviced. This is the ultimate sign that they respect your car. If you're at a dealer's service shop, ask for a free car wash, too.
One more thing to be alert for when you're waiting: How do the workers treat each other? If they're loud and rude when they think you're not looking, you don't want to deal with them if something goes wrong. Trust your gut and go elsewhere.
Making The Auto Repair Decision
Compare the estimates, take everything you've learned into consideration and rely on your good instinct. The service shop that brings up nationwide warranties before you do or patiently walks you through their estimate, answering all your questions, is the one that deserves your handshake. If they want you to sign something they don't explain or suggest a repair you didn't ask for, walk away.
One More Thing…
When you've made your decision, ask for an agreement that no additional work will be done beyond what's in the estimate unless you give permission. This will give you support in case they do the dreaded upsell. Again, it's a common request and dealers are happy to oblige. It also protects you from a surprise on the bottom line. Also, scan the recommended service guide in your owner's manual. That will give you an idea of what additional work to consider and what to refuse.
When the work is done, it's okay to ask them to show you what they did. Good mechanics love to share their work with you. If their eyes light up when you ask, you'll know you've found someone who cares for his or her craft. When all is in order they'll hand you back the keys and you're on your way, knowing that a quality mechanic did the work you needed at a good price.