Before you pop the hood
Should you wheel to the dealer when car trouble hits, or to a good local garage? The options are narrowing.
Having your car break down is frustrating worse when you don't know where to turn to get it fixed.Skip to next paragraph
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Many car owners have heard horror stories about having, say, a new fuel system prescribed when all they needed was a carburetor adjustment.
And the trusted mechanic your father always used has probably closed up shop, bought out by a cappucino chain, maybe, or driven out by the increasing complexity of auto repair.
Many small shops have simply been worn down by the hassles.
"When somebody's car breaks down, it's just a miserable experience all around," says Kathy Reichow, who runs Dan R's automotive just outside Toledo, Ohio. "We [mechanics] are always the bad guys."
The need for repairs often comes out of the blue. As a result, car owners must deal with an unplanned expense they can't do without. On top of that, they may lack the know-how to assess the fairness of a repair quote.
Shopping around is the logical approach, but that has its limitations. One reason: Many of today's mechanics have specialized to cope with an explosion of high-tech autos.
When a car needs repairs, the main decision consumers often face is whether to take the vehicle to a dealership or an independent garage. Experts give some general guidelines:
Consider the cost. Dealers generally charge higher hourly labor rates than independent mechanics. In an independent study by CarTalk.com, dealer prices came out 15 percent higher than independents on average.
Weigh the time involved. Since dealers work on hundreds of cars like yours, they may be able to fix a problem right away. Independents may take longer to diagnose an unusual problem and you'll pay by the hour for that extra time.
Consider the type of repair involved. Standard jobs such as replacing brake pads, engine belts, and changing the oil can often easily be handled by an independent garage. Other work, such as trying to determine why a car makes an odd noise, is best diagnosed by a dealer before a deciding who should make the repair.
If the car is under warranty, go to the dealer for all but routine maintenance.
As long as you're just having repairs made, not modifications, there's no need to worry about voiding your warranty.
If you do have an independent mechanic modify your car, you can't expect a manufacturer to warranty the after-market parts used. Still, installing custom wheels, say, shouldn't void the warranty on your engine.
Consumers who choose to go with an independent should look for ones certified by ASE, the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, then run their picks past the Better Business Bureau.
But word-of-mouth remains the best route. And if you can use it to find a small operator who still wields a wrench, experts say, you might want to become a regular.
"The thing I like about independent mechanics is that you can build a relationship with them, so they know what you want," says John Paul, a repair expert with AAA Southern New England.
For the past 30 years, Charlie Kappotis has been taking his cars to Beverly Foreign Car Service in Beverly, Mass. He now drives a 1988 Nissan with 243,000 miles on it. "They keep my car alive," he says.
Once, after he took his car to another garage for tires, his regular mechanic found some expensive rubber steering boots had been damaged. "Nobody else had been under my car [since]," Mr. Kappotis says.
But consumers have an increasingly tough time finding small mechanics willing to slide under newer cars for major fixes.
"Growing technical sophistication has been a big problem for independent mechanics," says Rik Paul, auto editor for Consumer Reports magazine. They find themselves limited to basic upkeep: "Brakes, fluids, and filters. That's the place consumers can save money by going to an independent," he says.
He recommends finding an independent shop that has access to manufacturers' Technical Service Bulletins problem notices and solutions for specific cars.
Another suggestion: Ask a dealer for a diagnosis and an estimate. If the repair is too expensive, you may be able to live with the problem until you save enough money to fix it. If the problem is simple to fix, an independent may do the work for less. (Dealers may charge for the diagnosis.)
Whichever way you go, get a written estimate of the repair cost. Tell the mechanics your budget and to call you before proceeding on work that exceeds the estimate. If they balk at calling, go someplace else.