5 Questions to Ask Your Mechanic

Last Updated May 23, 2011 9:51 AM EDT

Nobody likes going in for auto maintenance or repair. But a recent Consumer Reports survey confirms what you probably hear from your friends: Car owners who go to independent repair shops pay less and are more satisfied than those who go to dealer service departments. (See Save $300 on Auto Repair.)

That said: This rule works only if you you find a good repair team and learn to deal with them in the most effective way. Toward that double goal, with the help of automotive service experts we have developed five questions to ask a repair shop you are considering or have been using. The questions:

1. Do you work on my car make?
Almost any shop will work on cars from Ford, Chevrolet and other General Motors brands and probably Honda and Toyota. But if you have a German-made car, for instance, mechanics may need specialized knowledge and tools. A specialist shop might work on cars from Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Mini (owned by BMW), Audi and Volkswagen. You don't want to waste time with the wrong shop.

2. Is your shop approved by the AAA?
The national office of state and regional auto clubs maintains a list of about 7,800 shops across the country that pass their stringent tests. AAA personnel check the shop's finances and insurance, see if their staff mechanics are certified in various automotive systems and survey customers to check on satisfaction.

The AAA list available by zip code is the best screen. But if it doesn't include a shop convenient to you, do the same kind of research that AAA does. "There are always some good shops out there that we have not reviewed," says Michael Calkins, manager of the AAA approved auto repair program.

He suggests asking friends for recommendations and checking consumer review sites like Yelp. Then check for any complaints with the Better Business Bureau and the state attorney general's office. Also ask how many individual mechanics working at a shop have certification in their specialties from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (usually known as ASE).

3. Does your shop give written estimates?
This is especially important to avoid financial surprises if you are just getting acquainted with a shop. In some states, including California, it is also required by law. And the shop owner or service writer should agree to call you if additional work seems likely to exceed that estimate. Later, if you have had long and positive experience with a shop, a verbal estimate may be sufficient.

4. What is the warranty on your parts and labor?
To get on the AAA list, a shop must give a 12-month-or-12,000-mile warranty. Look for something equal or close to that. And if you hear talk of a 90-day warranty, go somewhere else. "There is no reason to be talking about a 90-day warranty," says the AAA's Calkins. "You can get more than that on almost any product."

5. My car has [symptom X]. What is wrong with it?
This one may seem obvious. But even if you have a pretty good idea what could be wrong, stick to descriptions like: "My engine overheats when it is idling," or "The steering pulls when I make a right turn." "Describe the symptoms and let the pros make the diagnosis," says Calkins, noting that a busy owner or employee at the shop may inadvertently be steered by your suggestions and ignore other possible problems causing those symptoms.

Two final notes: Some situations call for going to the dealership instead of independent shops. If a needed repair is still under the original warranty, by all means take advantage of the free fix. And some brands have made a marketing pitch out of giving free oil changes and other maintenance for, say, the first three years with a new car. (See Free Car Maintenance From U.S. Luxury Models.) Again, don't pass up free care.

And whether you go to the dealer or an independent shop, stick with that tired but true chestnut: Follow the maintenance instructions in your owner's manual. With timely maintenance and repairs, says AAA specialist Calkins, most cars built in recent years can go 150,000 miles without serious breakdowns.

Auto Repair shop photo courtesy of Flickr user Eric__I_E
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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.

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