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Part II » CARS - Finding Great Mechanics Instead of Fighting with Bad Ones
If you’re going to keep your car around longer to SAVE BIG, you must make it your mission to find an honest and skillful mechanic. Car repairs are one of the most expensive services that we spend money on. So working with an honest mechanic will help you SAVE BIG.

My mechanic is named “Bob” --last name withheld lest you all try to go to him and squeeze me out! The first time I went to Bob, he changed a dead taillight for me and charged me about ten bucks. When I was filing away the service ticket, I noticed that the dealership where I had gone previously had replaced my other taillight a few months before and charged me approximately $100. It’s such a relief to know that Bob treats us fairly, charges us reasonable prices and does great work.

Good mechanics are like good husbands. It’s hard to find one, and once you do, you shouldn’t cheat on them. The bit of hassle I am going to suggest in order to find your own “Bob,” is well worth it compared to the angst of wondering if you’ve been ripped off by the mechanic of the moment.

BIG SECRET: Beware of Tow Truck Bounties

If your car breaks down and needs a tow, don’t let the tow truck driver choose the shop. I once did an investigation and proved that some shops pay tow truck drivers a bounty to bring them business. We went undercover and tow trucks took our car past a dozen decent shops to get to the one where they could make a personal payday. We had to pay more to be towed farther and the shop in question had a terrible reputation.

Finding the Right Shop

The other consideration when you’re searching for a mechanic is the type of shop to give your business to. Several studies over the years –and my own personal experience—have shown that repairs at the dealership usually cost more than independent repairs. It can be worth it if you need a complicated repair unique to your kind of car. If your research shows your dealership shop has a good reputation, consider it. Just keep in mind one structural problem with dealer shops, which is that you usually don’t get to speak with the actual mechanic. Instead, you talk to the clean cut service rep in the polo shirt, who types up a puny little note for the mechanic. This version of the telephone game, where information is mis-communicated, can cost you big bucks.

Chain shops are everywhere these days, and they are only as good as the local ownership. If you know the individual mechanics who work there are good, great. But don’t let the big name lure you on its own. What often happens when there’s a dispute is that the national chain disavows any responsibility for what the local franchisee has done. Plus, some of these chains are better at sales than they are at repairs. Their people are trained to pad your bill by recommending all sorts of preventive measures that you really don’t need.

I have had the most luck over the years with small, independent shops. Those that specialize in a certain brand of car can be even more valuable, especially because their hourly rate is usually lower than the dealer’s. It has gotten a little harder for independents to make a living ever since cars became such computerized contraptions. Now every shop needs those little handheld computers that plug into your car to diagnose it. Those computers are expensive and not every shop will have one for every make of car. So, make sure your chosen shop has the technology to work on your vehicle. (There’s a battle brewing in Congress right now over the “Right to Repair.” Independents want to make sure dealers don’t shut them out by making those computers proprietary. )

BIG SECRET: You Don’t Have to Use Premium Gas.
If your owner’s manual recommends regular unleaded, premium doesn’t do a darn thing to help your car. Even if your owner’s manual does list premium, is it “recommended” or “required?” Ask your mechanic if you can just use regular. And don’t go driving around to find the best price per gallon either. You’ll waste gas searching for gas that’s only a couple of pennies cheaper. That’s Small Stuff Savings.

Check Them Out

No matter which of these sources you use to find a mechanic, do a background check before you give them the keys to your car. It’s as simple as checking the shop’s reputation at, the website of the Better Business Bureau. Also check with your county or state consumer protection office to see if the shop has been the subject of a lot of complaints. And finally, Google them. This is a technique I use for any new company I’m about to do business with. Google the name and city of the business with words like “scam,” ripoff,” or “complaint” and see if anything comes up. It’s a quick, easy cross check.

If you’re lucky enough to be choosing between multiple shops, find out their hourly labor rate and whether their mechanics are paid a commission based on the size of the bill. (That’s not ideal for customers, now is it?) Finally, consider practical factors like what hours you’re allowed to drop off and pick up your car, whether the shop is close to public transportation and its accepted methods of payment.

BIG SECRET: You Don’t Have to Get Warranty Work at the Dealership

While your vehicle is under warranty, you are still allowed to go outside the dealership for work. In fact, this right is guaranteed by law. Some dealer warranties include free maintenance, like oil changes, but, if not, you can get routine items that aren’t part of the warranty taken care of somewhere else and probably save. Just be sure to keep your receipts so you’ll be able to prove you maintained the vehicle according to what’s recommended in the owner’s manual.

The Estimate

Now that you have chosen a reliable mechanic, its time to talk to him (or her!) about the cost of your repair. When you tell them what sort of problem you’re having with your car, be sure to describe symptoms, not diseases. For instance, say, “it’s stalling at stoplights,” not, “I think there’s a problem with the alternator.” Remember, You’re not the mechanic! You don’t want to end up paying for some goofy repair that you dreamt up yourself.

Labor is one factor that makes up the estimate. Although labor is often negotiable, mechanics rely on three major labor tables (now computerized) to estimate how long a repair job will take. Amazingly, the number of hours for the same job can vary drastically from table to table. Bill B. of Maryland learned this the hard way when his Cadillac blew a water pump. Since he was on a Christmas road trip, he made a beeline for the first shop he saw and agreed to pay the book rate for labor. It was a simple job, so he was shocked when the shop charged him for three and a half hours. Other shops later quoted him anywhere from one hour to four hours! Turns out, each shop was using a different labor table.

If your labor estimate seems really high, ask the shop if it can try a different labor table. Alternatively, since you are such a loyal customer, ask if the mechanic will do the job for whichever is lower: the actual number of hours he spends or the hours listed in the labor table. Remember, labor can be negotiable.

Parts are the other “part” of the estimate. For big jobs, be sure to ask if the shop plans to use new or rebuilt parts and the price difference. New parts may give you peace of mind, but rebuilt ones could bring a big savings. Ask your now trusted mechanic if it’s a critical repair that should have the best possible parts or whether rebuilt ones will do.

Get a Second Opinion

Remember how I said not to cheat on your good mechanic? The idea is to build mutual trust, but sometimes I can be a fickle woman. If your mechanic says your car needs major work, it might be time for a quick affair. I’m not saying your mechanic is lying to you. It’s just that mechanics, like doctors, can diagnose more than one problem from the same set of symptoms. So, pick a price that’s comfortable for you and resolve that you will get a second opinion for any repair over X dollars.

When Mark L. of Florida car was pulling to the left, he went to a shop that recommend complicated, expensive repairs to the tune of $1,400.. Since Mark was skeptical, he decided to get a second opinion. So, he took his vehicle to another mechanic who simply recommended new tires. That bit of extra legwork helped him SAVE BIG. Here are his savings:

Getting a second opinion
Complicated repairs: $1,400
New tires: $ 400

Get it in Writing

Most states require mechanics to give you a written estimate. Be sure the estimate lists the symptoms to be repaired plus the parts and labor needed for this job. You don’t want an estimate that just lists the repair that the mechanic is going to make. The reason? You want the mechanic to be obligated to fix the root problem rather than performing some specific procedure that may be off-base. On the flip side, avoid estimates that are just a long laundry lists of parts, because who’s to say those parts will fix the problem?

Red alert! The number one problem people have with car repair is that they are expecting to pay the price the mechanic estimated and then that price goes up --way up. In many states it’s actually against the law for the mechanic to perform the extra work without your approval, but it happens all the time. You can avoid this by knowing the law. In most states, once the shop gives you a written estimate, it’s required to contact you if that estimate is going to rise more than ten percent.

BIG SECRET: Guard Against Mechanic Upcharges

If your state doesn’t require shops to ask your permission before doing additional work, take the law into your own hands. With a pen. Write on the service ticket either “not to exceed X dollars” or “mechanic must contact customer if price is going to rise more than ten percent.

Getting Your Parts Back

I confess that I never ask for my old parts back, but if you are a real stickler, you should. In most states, it is your right and a way of verifying that new parts were, indeed, installed. Just informing the shop that you want them back puts the mechanic on notice that you know what you’re doing (even if you don’t!)

If it’s a major, expensive repair, ask whether the parts have “core value,” which means they can be rebuilt and sold on the secondary market. If the mechanic wants to keep them, ask to be compensated for that value. You could SAVE BIG.

Here’s another step many people skip. When you buy a new IPod, you get a warranty with it, right? When you get a new car part, it may come with a warranty too. But has a mechanic ever provided one to you? I doubt it. Ask if the parts are guaranteed for a certain time frame and get it in writing. Also ask whether the shop provides a warranty on its own labor. Most do. They get to set the terms of their warranty, but six months or 6,000 miles is common.

Don’t Skip the Test Drive

Another hot tip that I learned through personal experience: always test drive your vehicle before you pay. Soon after I bought my second car, it started to shake and shudder every time I changed gears. I was convinced it was a transmission problem, but the dealer said it was something else and claimed to have fixed it.
During the post mortem test drive, the car did its crazy sputtering, stuttering routine again --with the service tech right there beside me. How often does that happen? He was forced to admit that there was a major transmission problem and fixed the problem for real with three days left on the warranty!

BIG SECRET: You May Be Able to Deduct the Deductible
Ask if you can skip the deductible when you need body work. If you get in an accident, you have the right to choose which collision repair facility you use, so negotiate. Some body shops will do the work for just your insurance company’s payment, without charging you the deductible.

Two Ways Not to Pay

If you take all the wise and wonderful steps above and still have a dispute with the shop over your repairs, pay with a credit card. Then drive your expensively repaired car straight home and dispute the charges. Often you don’t have to pay the bill while the card company is going to bat for you.

There’s also another way not to pay that is truly novel and creative. In some jurisdictions, you can go down to the local courthouse and post a bond for the price of the repairs. The law varies from place to place, but either you or the mechanic must then file a small claims suit over the money. In some states, if the mechanic doesn’t bother to file, you automatically get your money back. Talk about SAVING BIG!

I know some of these steps sound over-the-top, so just remember, the more time you spend finding a shop, the less time you’ll have to spend fighting one.

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