So you probably already know that I teach automotive fundamental classes for the average driver. This causes my inbox to overflow with people from all over the world asking me if I can fix their cars or know of a mechanic they can trust. They wonder about the differences between a dealership, an independent shop, or even Costco.
This is the first in a three-part series on how to find a reliable honest mechanic. It will serve as your handy go-to way to understand what type of mechanics are out there, I’ll also delve into how to find a mechanic and don’t worry, I’ll cover what to look for once you’re actually at the mechanic.
Building a relationship with a mechanic is one of the absolute best ways to take care of your car. It will also save you money, not at the car’s expense. Before you can get going on the relationship building, you actually have to find one you’re willing to check out. First, you have to determine what kind of repair shop you even want to go to. Dealership? An independent shop? Corporate repair chain? Let’s talk about the differences.
First things first, if your car is still under its original warranty, taking it to the dealership is usually your best bet. This way there is no chance that you’ll void the warranty by not following the rules. You can take the car to a private shop if you choose to, but you do it at your own risk.
The upside to taking a car to the dealership is that you are getting it worked on by technicians that specialize in the specific car you own. If there are any unique or unusual problems, usually the dealership will know what to do. Not just that, but any recalls or manufacturer’s warranty items have to be taken care of at the dealer too. Dealerships do often offer shuttle service and sometimes if you’re lucky even a loaner car.
On the flip side, dealerships are expensive! Prices are significantly higher than either corporate chains or independent shops. Both parts and labor cost more and often not for a better end result. It also typically takes longer at the dealership, they expect you to drop off your car for anything more than a simple oil change.
Corporate Repair Shops
But what about my local Pep Boys, can I just take my car there? Well, let’s break down what a corporate repair shop is. Corporate repair shops would be your Pep Boys, Sears, Costco, Sam’s Club, Walmart, and so on.
These repair shops typically offer nationwide warranties and a great system for airing grievances if you ever have them. Since there is a long chain of command, at the end of the day if you try hard enough you’ll reach someone who can help solve your problems. However, corporate repair shops do also have pretty high turnover on the front end of things which can make building a relationship for the long term difficult.
I’ve worked at some of these shops and the nationwide warranty is incredibly useful for people who travel outside the area that they live in. They also allow you national access to your records and as long as you go to the same chain, it also means that you’ll be less likely to duplicate services.
The last thing I’ll mention is the most corporate repair shops don’t have the ability to offer extensive services. While they can often do simple maintenance, brakes, tires, radiators, etc, other things may stump them. They don’t attract the same kind of talent that independent shops and dealerships do. There may only be one master mechanic for ten or more express service people.
Independent Mechanic Shops
Ok, so here’s the main category of shops I want to tell you about. Independently owned small businesses. Some of these shops have been family owned for generations, others are new and working to flourish.
Independent auto repair shops typically fit into three overall categories. Franchises, network shops, and truly independent mom and pop type shops.
Franchises are usually locally owned but branded shops like Meineke, Tuffy’s, and Midas. Typically, they offer similar benefits to the corporately owned shop when it comes to warranty. While branding and oil change prices are usually the same, most everything else, including customer service varies dramatically from shop to shop. Some franchise owners have just the one shop, others have franchise groups of 10, 20, or many many more. Depending which you end up with, you’ll either have that small business feel or the more corporate colder communications.
Network Auto Repair Shops
NAPA repair shops are an example of a network shop, so are RepairPal, AAA shop network, and Ask Patty. They are completely independent shops that join this network for what, I’m guessing, are marketing reasons. However, I personally highly appreciate shops in these networks because you get to support an independent shop and get the backing of certification that ensures a level of quality and warranty.
Different networks have different requirements for joining, but the bottom line is they require quality repairs by professional technicians with great customer service skills. Some, like NAPA, offer a nationwide warranty on repairs done at any of their independent shops.
Another benefit to franchise and network shops is that they usually offer some kind of financing while fully independent shops usually don’t have this infrastructure in place. This financing, in the form of a branded credit card, may help you get an interest free option if you are stuck in a position where you can’t afford to pay outright.
Independent Mechanic Shops
Then, there are truly independent mechanic shops. These shops often offer a great financial incentive to their customers. Unburdened by the costs of franchising or being a part of a large network, they have the ability to offer superior rates. When owners are hands-on and involved in their businesses, customer service is often phenomenal. Not all independent shops are created alike, so you definitely should shop around until you find one that’s a good fit for you.
Specialty Mechanic Shops
Finally, there are specialty mechanic shops. You can split these repair shops into two categories. In most cases, these are shops you’d only take your car to for a specific issue. This would include transmission repair facilities, radio and tint shops, auto electricians, wheel repair shop, etc. The second subcategory would be shops that specialize in specific types of cars. Hybrids, European cars, electric cars, German cars, etc. This second category would be found in the same way a regular mechanic would be, discussed in part two of this series.
If you need a specialty mechanic for a one-off service like a transmission replacement, your best bet is to get a referral from your regular mechanic. Since they are focused on one specific part of the car or service, they are shops you want your mechanic to have a relationship with instead of you personally. You might even get a better rate because of that.
Now that you understand what type of shops are out there, you can figure out which ones you want to take your car to and begin the process of finding a mechanic. In the next part of this series, I’ll go over the recommended ways to find a mechanic that you trust and can build a lifelong relationship with. Then, I’ll cover how that first visit should go once you choose you. How to essentially “interview” the mechanic to determine if you want to move forward or try somewhere else.
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If you haven’t signed up for my next virtual car class, all about car maintenance, you should definitely check it out. It’s sliding scale and filling up fast!