So, your car needed a repair. Maybe it was something simple, like an oil change, or maybe it was a bigger job, like getting your oil pan fixed. Not a big deal: a [good mechanic][link to my article on finding a good mechanic] can do all that without breaking the bank. One problem though…
You didn’t find a good mechanic.
Maybe the price tag is ridiculous, or the brakes feel funky. Or your check engine light won’t turn off, and it hadn’t been on when you brought it in. One way or another, you know something fishy is going on. So… what are you supposed to do about it?
Dealing with a bad mechanic is intimidating, but there are ways to get the problem resolved, to get most of your money back, and to get any damage to your car repaired.
Before we move on, an important note: I am not a lawyer, and none of this should be considered legal advice. This is one citizen who’s helped people deal with numerous bad mechanics trying to spread what he’s learned. It is not legal counsel!
Now, with that said… what’s the first step of dealing with a bad mechanic?
Figure out Whether the Mechanic Did Anything Wrong
Car maintenance can be surprisingly expensive, and sometimes the only way to fix a part is to get rough and use some muscle. Or, in the process of fixing the part, something else was in significant danger and the mechanic simply got unlucky. Whatever the case, there are times where the mechanic didn’t do anything wrong, but bad stuff still happened. That means the first step of resolving a customer-mechanic conflict is to figure out whether the mechanic actually made a mistake.
The simplest problem to resolve is being overcharged. First off, know something important: the mechanic should always give you a price estimate before doing any work on your car! You should know the price before you do anything that requires payment.
This is true even when the mechanic needs to do more work on your car than expected. They’re required to run the costs and the repair by you and get approval for any extra work.
If the estimate doesn’t seem right—or if they’re tacking on a suspicious number of jobs—then call a friend who knows about cars, ask an online forum, do a Google search, or just bring it to a different mechanic and see if the estimate lines up.
If the mechanic charges a price you didn’t agree to, they’ve already done something wrong.
For the layperson, it can be hard to tell when the mechanic, whether through negligence or greed, damaged your car or just did subpar, lazy work. There are two ways to figure that out.
The first approach is research and reaching out to other mechanics. Look on forums and subreddits or reach out to your friends and see whether they know anyone who is knowledgeable about cars. Failing that, if you feel something isn’t right… trust your gut, but verify. Bring the car to another mechanic for a second opinion.
The second approach is the mechanic’s reaction. My mechanic recently broke a part while doing some work on a wheel. He took responsibility for it and fixed it for only the price of the replacement part. While mechanics don’t usually have the luxury of doing these repairs totally free of charge (remember that they have to pay for the part), they can at least waive the hourly fee.
When there’s an error, a mechanic should take responsibility for it, not make excuses or blame something or someone else. If they don’t—or if they get hostile when you bring the subject up—that’s a bad sign.
So… There’s a Problem: What Do I Do?
It turns out that the mechanic did in fact do something wrong. Not only did they overcharge you, but their shoddy work also screwed up a brake line. They’re failing to take responsibility for either, and you had to pay just to get your car back.
Now you want to get your money back. First step? Knowledge and records.
Know Your Facts
The easiest part of this is one you should have already been doing: keep records of all transactions with the mechanic and any from before that could indicate the earlier state of your vehicle. As for any oral conversations, try to write up a summary of what you talked about.
Then, do some research into the problem your car was having, any parts they bought, and any usual errors that mechanics run into. Or, if you learn the fix is easy and cheap or that they appear to have overcharged you for the part, make a note of that.
The next bit of research is the hardest, partly because even the terminology varies by province. Look up auto repair protection laws in your area and read them thoroughly. Some provinces may offer you more rights than others. This can take some time, but it’s important to know the rules relevant to your case and to write them down. You want to be able to cite the sections if the conflict goes that far.
Be Polite but not a Pushover!
It’s important to be polite but not a pushover. You shouldn’t yell, scream, or talk down to the mechanic. That gives them no incentive to help you. At the same time, you need to be firm about what you know. You’ve done the research. Agreeing with them isn’t being polite… it’s letting them know they can push you around.
Talk to the Mechanic
The best bet is to start with a text or an email so that you have your communication in writing. If they ignore you, then you can talk to them in person. Start by reminding them about the email and giving them another chance to respond. Feel free to cite legal codes, but be friendly.
This gives the mechanic a chance to make good on their own, without giving either of you extra trouble.
Talk to Higher-Ups
If the mechanic isn’t the owner of the garage and isn’t being cooperative, the next step is to talk to management. Use the same email you sent, with an addition about how the mechanic wasn’t being cooperative.
Mention Google and Yelp Reviews
Here’s where things get interesting. These days, businesses need good Google and Yelp reviews. As such, it’s helpful to subtly drop a hint about those sites if discussions start going nowhere. You shouldn’t frame it like a threat, but drop it in like something you’d rather not have to do. “You know, I’d rather know I can go home today and leave some good reviews for you folks on Yelp and Google, instead of warning everyone to stay away.”
Generally speaking, this will get their attention. The potential long-term loss in business from bad reviews isn’t worth the few hundred dollars they’ll lose by giving you a refund.
Be Willing to Compromise
Unless the charges are small (say, under $200), it’s very difficult to get a full refund from a mechanic. But you can still get some of your money back. If you’ve gotten this far, you probably already have their attention. Come at them with a compromise, asking for, say, 80 percent of your money back in exchange for not leaving any bad reviews and allowing everyone to call it a day.
As before, be polite. Speak as if you’re trying to help them out, too. It’ll be easier for them to agree to a compromise and send you on your way than to deal with other consequences.
If All Else Fails, Get a Lawyer!
Honestly, I’ve never had to go further than the above to get a refund. And the refund has always been at least 80 percent. But on the off-chance you’ve dropped a lot of money and the mechanic is entirely intractable, it might be time to figure out whether it’s worth going to small claims court or hiring a lawyer.
In my opinion, this is a sort of nuclear option that’s more trouble than it’s worth. But, if you’ve spent a lot of money and you’ve already tried all the above, it might be your only option.