When car owners come to me with questions about mechanic shops, the two most common are “how do I find an honest mechanic?” and “how can I find the best price for car repairs?” In this series, we’ve addressed the first question by covering the different types of mechanic shops as well as a strategy for finding a shop that you trust. Read those articles first, and then this one.
Building a relationship with one mechanic is critical to the long-term maintenance of your vehicle, and this relationship is key to overall trust. We’ve been conditioned to believe that we are always being upsold and that everything that is recommended by a mechanic is a scam. That relationship will help you trust the advice you get and take great care of your car.
But how do you build that relationship?
Benefits of a Good, Local (and Independent) Car Mechanic
The occasional oil change at a random shop won’t bring the end to your car, but finding a trustworthy mechanic near you to serve as a “home base” for consistent inspections, major maintenance intervals, and repairs is the best bet for long-term vehicle health. The keyword here is consistent: when you find a shop you trust, you want to be building a relationship by visiting them routinely.
Ultimately, oil changes are the very foundation of that relationship, as they are the most consistent service you’ll need. An oil change includes a multi-point inspection and is often done in conjunction with a tire rotation. It’s an opportunity to catch failures before they become more expensive, or put your safety at risk, and build that trusting relationship.
As a mechanic gets to know you and your car, they can help plan and budget for future work in a way that will save you money. An honest auto repair mechanic will do what they can to keep your business, which means looking at your car’s long-term health and providing options for your needs and budget. For example, recommending a (more affordable) trusted aftermarket part, or listing upcoming related services/repairs that can be done together to help save on labor costs.
Amber Mills, the owner of Bill Hahn’s Automotive since 2016, calls these trusty places relationship shops. “They know you’ll bring your car back going forward and that you’ll listen to their advice, and that you trust them to advise you well,” Mills says. “They know they’ll be accountable to you for every repair and will need to look you in the eye and give you their most honest estimation of whatever vehicle situation or scenario you’re working to resolve.”
Don’t Shop Around on Repair Estimates Alone
Interviewing a potential relationship mechanic shop is critical. You don’t want to wait until your back is against the wall because you’ve had a critical failure that left you stranded, and instead, start looking when things are perfectly fine. But when comparing shops, you can’t just look at the estimates on specific car repairs. People often ask “why is mechanic labor so expensive?” or “why is this mechanic cheaper than others,” and the answer isn’t always found in the bottom line.
Mills says most independent shops have competitive pricing, but recommends doing some digging to find out why some seem more affordable than others. “Some places might be cheaper across the board because they have less overhead than, let’s say, a dealership. Some may be cheaper because they use cheapy garbage parts. The former is a good value. The latter? Not so much.”
Paying a little more for each repair you need feels like it will add up, but in the long term, you’ll still save money by not cutting corners, and getting quality repairs.
Immediate Repair Needs vs. Long Term Maintenance
A strong relationship with your shop can also help you prioritize repairs that your vehicle needs, and differentiating between your car’s immediate safety needs and long-term maintenance. Two shops may give you the same estimate with the same (completely valid) service recommendations.
However, a sketchy shop might use hardball, and uncomfortable sales tactics to get you to do all the work right now, possibly even exaggerating the risks involved, which prevent you from making an informed decision. A quality relationship car mechanic would walk you through what needs to be done to keep your car on the road vs what you should replace at your next maintenance interval, or alongside other future services.
Ask your mechanic these questions:
Why do I need this repair? Being informed, and educated is critical to making a car repair decision. Questions help you build that relationship, understand what you are paying for, and gives you a bit more peace of mind.
Can you show me the problem with the car? This will allow you to dig a little deeper, understanding what’s happening. Sometimes a visual is so helpful, especially with car problems that may be foreign to you.
Can you prioritize the repairs for me? If you can’t afford to take care of all of the services, asking this question gives your mechanic the opportunity to prioritize safety vs maintenance and so forth, so you don’t have to make critical decisions without guidance.
How to Negotiate With Your Mechanic
If you are hoping to get a shop to cut their price, tread carefully. “Most small shops set their rates and parts mark-ups to cover their overhead and pay their employees a living wage,” Mills says. “By pushing for discounts or wanting one shop to match another shop’s price, you are de facto devaluing the service they offer.”
While Mills knows many mechanics who do occasionally price match, she recommends instead asking about pre-existing offers, such as AAA or senior discounts, bundling services, or scheduling non-urgent work for off-peak times. Mills says that above all, “It’s a two way street with a relationship shop. Find one who values the opportunity to earn your business and your trust.”
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Feature image courtesy of Kwik Kar Marsh, Carolton, Texas.
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