Your car needs some work. Nothing too extensive; maybe replacing a seized brake caliper. Thing is, you don’t know jack about working on cars, and you don’t have the time to learn. You need a mechanic.
A good mechanic.
But good mechanics are notoriously hard to find. And bad mechanics can be very expensive, time consuming, even destructive. I’ve seen a person charged $1,000 in exchange for, essentially, nothing except damage to a brake line. Then another mechanic charged $200 to fix the brake line and the original problem as well. So finding a good mechanic is crucial.
Good mechanics . . .
- Know their way around cars or at least the models in which they specialize. If the problem is in their area of expertise, they may be able to offer a preliminary diagnosis over the phone.
- Tell you when a repair is unnecessary or when it is too expensive or risky to be worth the trouble. In other words, they look out for your wallet as well as your car.
- Respond well to criticism and take care of any accidental damage that occurs as they are working on your car, which can happen with even the best mechanics. (In some states, mechanics are legally required to fix such damage for free.)
- Aren’t afraid to admit what they don’t know. Good mechanics tell you when they’re unqualified to work on a particular problem and will refer you to someone else.
- Don’t talk down to you.
- May do small five-minute jobs like tightening a belt for free.
Bad mechanics . . .
- Pretend they know about the car when they don’t know about the car. One clue: contradictory gibberish.
- Pile on as many extra “repairs” as they think they can get away with.
- Fight like hell when you try to hold them take responsible for damage or shoddy work.
- Talk down to you.
So how do you find a good mechanic and weed out any bad ones before you get a bill for half the price of your new car?
First, Ask Around
If someone you know uses a mechanic whom they swear by and are eager to tell you about, that mechanic is a good bet.
Google reviews and Yelp are good places to start ruling out questionable mechanics. If a shop has a reasonable number of ratings, perhaps 50 or so in a decently populated town, but it is collecting less than four stars, look at the reviews. If reviewers are slamming the mechanic’s work and ethics, he is probably not worth investigating further. Keep in mind, though, that mechanics are sometimes review-bombed for bad reasons. A low-rated mechanic may still be a good mechanic. On the other hand, ratings can also be skewed in the other direction by businesses that reward good reviews. So a highly rated mechanic can still be a bad mechanic.
You can begin to figure out who the top mechanics are by considering more closely what people say about them. Look for testimony about reliability, honesty, respectfulness. Fake reviews rarely contain this sort of detail. Also note the origin and size of the shop. Is it part of a corporate chain or a local business? Chains are money-focused and may not be a good bet except for certain kinds of jobs. If a particular local business seems large and corporate, this may be cause for concern.
Make a list of the top candidates and call around to request estimates. A shop may need to look at your car in order to give you one. You may discover that a good mechanic is rarely the most expensive one. This doesn’t mean that you should go with the twenty-dollar repair offered by Monkey Wrench Joe on the corner, just that high prices don’t necessarily correlate with high quality.
When you bring the car to a shop so that it can be inspected, start a file that includes all documentation about the transaction. You may also want to take notes about what the mechanic says.
Be on the alert if the mechanic starts talking about other things that are wrong with your car that are unrelated to the problem you want to get fixed. If he presses you to get these alleged other problems fixed, this can be a red flag if you didn’t ask for a checkup and conducting one is not standard in your state or city. Good mechanics may mention other problems they see, but they won’t press you about repairing them unless it’s an emergency.
While you’re there, you may be tempted to add or subtract points based on how clean and organized the shop is. Don’t. Such things rarely shed any light on the quality of the mechanic. Working on cars is inherently messy and difficult to organize. A mechanic’s time is typically better spent on being a mechanic than on trying to tidy up the mess.
Does Your Mechanic Listen?
Do pay attention to how the mechanic treats you. Does he respect you? Or does he act like you’re just another paycheck? Being focused on his work, he may take some time to get to you. That’s okay; good mechanics are often swamped. When he does get around to you, though, he should be paying attention to you. Pay attention to any contradictions in his explanation of what’s wrong with the car, contradictions of what you already know, or any tendency to be dismissive of your observations and concerns.
Once you have a diagnosis and a price, talk to a friend, family member, or neighbor who knows something about cars. Ask this person whether the mechanic’s assessment and quote sound right to him. If you don’t have anyone to consult and the price seems off, check with other mechanics to see what they say. You can forget about the most expensive ones or any who tack on a bunch of other charges.
When you have chosen a mechanic and he takes on the job, you’re in the testing phase. Pay attention to how he communicates with you. Good mechanics are often busy, but they should update you within a week of the day that they agreed to would start work on your car, even if it’s a big project. Some will report more regularly. They should not do any extra work on the car for which you would be charged without first checking with you. They also should not substantially exceed the amount of time estimated for the job without good reason, like a delay in getting a part.
Once you have paid for the work and gotten your car back, you should soon have an idea of how effectively it was repaired. If you’ve felt good about the experience up to this point, the price seems fair, and the car runs fine, you have probably found a mechanic you can count on. Still, be sure to hold onto all relevant documents so that you know what work has been done on the car.
If The Problem Persists
The mechanic should be respectful and helpful when you talk to him about it. It’s a bad sign if he denies the problem or wants to argue. If that happens, you’ll be glad you saved the documentation about the job. Take the car to a different mechanic on your list and get a separate opinion. You may also need to argue with the previous mechanic about getting a reimbursement or a refund. (That’s a topic for another article. But be sure to check applicable local laws.)
If the first mechanic you try doesn’t work out, you should be able to find a good one eventually.
Never Let Go
It is harder to find good mechanics in some places than in others. In small towns with few options, you may find a good mechanic who is connected to the community and cares about every customer . . . or rats who know that they’re your only option for miles and don’t mind exploiting this fact by performing substandard work or having a substandard attitude. If you can find a good and reliable mechanic in a small town, that’s great.
Once you do find a good mechanic, hold onto him for as long as you live in the area. Wherever you are, good mechanics are hard to find. Build a relationship; it’s worth it.