It Will Save You Money, and it Could Save Your Life!
Your car is going to break down.
That's just a fact of life. Not only is it going to break down; you can put money on the fact that it's going to break down at the worst possible time.
Breakdowns are like Microsoft windows updates. They happen right when you're scheduled to give a presentation to the board of directors, and then there you are in front of a room with the twelve most powerful people in your company, looking at a screen that says, "Updating, don't power off."
You may think the most important professional relationships in your life are with your doctor, your lawyer, or your accountant. But every day, as you hurl down the highway at 70 miles per hour, you trust your life to the torque your auto mechanic applied to the bolts of your vehicle's control arms.
If those bolts shake loose, there's not a whole lot to stop you from bouncing over the median and hurling into oncoming traffic. It doesn't matter how talented your doctor is when you've been rendered to goo that's getting scraped off the grill of a sixteen wheeler with a spatula.
You want a good auto mechanic. You need a good auto mechanic. You deserve a good auto mechanic.
The problem is, where are you going to find one? Well, fret no further and read on for this article is about to drop a sixteen megaton truth bomb that will solve all your auto mechanic seeking needs.
First of All, Don't Get Gaslighted
The key to finding a good auto mechanic is to remember that you always have bargaining power. There is always competition, so don't jump at the first snake oil salesman who promises he can solve all your problems.
You may not know about cars, but chances are you know about people. Pay attention to that dashboard light in the back of your brain that starts to flash and say, "There's something wrong about this guy."
Even if you don't know a muffler from a headlight, you know when an auto mechanic gives you the creeps. Get out of there; go somewhere else. If you're in desperate need of a car go and rent one for a few days.
It is better to spend a hundred dollars on a rental car and give yourself the time to make a good decision than it is to rush to get your car fixed by a con artist who fleeces you out of thousands.
When Car Problems Attack!
Short of death, losing a job, or severe illness, car trouble can be among the most stressful interruptions of your daily life. American society is constructed around car ownership. Public transportation is terrible, and without a car, you might as well be isolated on a desert island.
When your car goes down, you want it fixed now! But sorry, soldier, you can't allow yourself to descend into hysteria. You've got to suck it up and tough it out. Having a plan in place is a great way to help you restore a semblance of normalcy so that you can navigate these troubled waters like a pro.
Options for short term car replacement are:
Any of these options incur an additional cost. But once you allow yourself to understand that car problems are a certainty, you'll see the value of making a small investment in a car back-up plan. Predatory auto mechanics can smell blood in the water. You can't negotiate with a guy in a feeding frenzy.
What is an Auto Mechanic?
1. The Large Dealership Mechanic: Pros--Good work, Highly Skilled, Guaranteed Work / Cons--Very expensive, Pressure to trade in
2. The Small Dealership Mechanic: Pros--Good work, Skilled, smaller duration guarantee / Cons--Moderately expensive, Some pressure to trade in
3. The Auto Garage Mechanic: Pros--Less expensive, used parts to lower cost, no pressure to trade in / Cons--Used parts subject to failure, little to no guarantee, long scheduling times
4. The Local Handyman: Pros--Least expensive / Cons--questionable skill level, no guarantee, hard to find
An auto mechanic is a car doctor. He can fix anything and bring anything back to life. The million dollar question is, "Is my car worth it?" One of the great things about auto mechanics is they always need to give you a quote and get a signature before they get to work.
There are several different species of auto mechanic, and they all exist in different habitats in the wild.
Auto Mechanic Subspecies #1: The Large Dealership Mechanic
Large dealership auto mechanics can be found in fancy, shiny car dealerships with leather furniture, indoor waterfalls, and tables filled with complimentary cookies, coffee, and brownies.
These guys are guaranteed to put brand new components in your car, and they'll do it right. If they're a dealership for the make and model of your vehicle, you'll get the most knowledgeable and experienced professionals out there. Also, the work is likely to have a guarantee.
Sounds great right? Well, there are two major problems to consider with dealership auto mechanics:
Dealerships are in the business of selling new cars, not fixing old ones. Chances are, a large dealership auto mechanic will give you an inflated estimate on the cost of repair work, followed by a low-ball offer for trade-in value towards the purchase of something new.
When to use them
You should only go to a large dealership mechanic when:
Auto Mechanic Subspecies #2: The Small Dealership Mechanic
Small dealership auto mechanics are like the little brother to the big dealership. Everything is the same, but on a smaller scale. Usually, there is no table filled with cookies and coffee, and the chairs are old sofas with springs sticking out of the tears.
You're still dealing with a business, so the work should have some sort of guarantee (don't be afraid to ask for one). Small dealerships tend to have experience with a large number of makes and models. Reputation is less important to these guys as can be seen by the lack of cookies, so take care with the workmanship.
The potential problems with small dealerships are as follows:
When to Use Them
Go to a small dealership auto mechanic when you have a car with more than 100,000 miles on it.
Auto Mechanic Subspecies #3: The Auto Garage Mechanic
Auto Garages are any small business dedicated to things such as automotive repair or bodywork. There is no reception area in a place like this other than a ratty stool and maybe a magazine. If there is coffee, don't drink it, because you have no idea when that swill was made.
These guys are dedicated to fixing vehicles with no motivation to sell, so there will be no pressure to trade your car in. Also, garages are sometimes willing to poach replacement parts from the salvage yard which can result in major savings.
The potential problems with auto garage mechanics are as follows:
When to Use Them
Go to auto garage mechanics when you have a car with 100,000+ miles on it, and price is your primary concern.
Auto Mechanic Subspecies #4: The Local Handyman
If you're lucky, you might live in the same neighborhood as a guy who retired early from his engineering job at Polaris so he could putter about his hobby farm and tinker with local vehicles. A guy like that is going to do fantastic work at a fraction of the price.
The problem is, there are a lot of guys who like to think of themselves as skilled mechanics, but in truth, they can't swing a hammer without crushing six fingers and requiring an emergency helicopter ride to the hospital.
The good local handyman type auto mechanic is hard to find. However, if you do find somebody you can trust to do good work, all your maintenance issues will be solved. Potential problems are:
When to Use Them
Use a local handyman if you find one that you can trust. A good one will refer you elsewhere if he gets in over his head.
When To Visit Your Friendly, Neighborhood Auto Mechanic
- Oil Change
Now that you've picked out a mechanic, the next question is how often do you want to schedule a visit. For this question, you should think of your mechanic like you do your dentist. Preventive maintenance is the key. Diagnosing a problem early makes it less expensive and less painful.
The thing to remember with cars is that a lot can go wrong, but you don't need to be an expert in everything. The vast majority of car problems can be prevented through basic maintenance. The two things that can kill your car quickest are:
If you start having problems while driving, be sure to keep your eyes on your control panel, if the temperature gauge goes into the red, or if the red engine oil light comes on, immediately stop your car and turn off the engine.
Stopping your car prior to an engine emergency can be the difference between spending eight dollars on a quart of oil and three thousand dollars on a new motor.
There's No Such Thing as Blinker Fluid
A lot of things can go wrong on a vehicle, bolts can loosen, and clamps can fail at any moment. This is why it's important to have a mechanic take a look at your car regularly.
You may be tempted to think they're scamming you if they always find something wrong, but if you let recommended repairs go too long without taking action, you might cost yourself a lot more money.
Scheduling a regular oil change is the best way to have a qualified mechanic take a quick diagnostic look at your vehicle. Always keep a record of the maintenance that is done on your vehicle, so you can verify if the mechanic's recommendation is consistent with the manufacturer's suggestion.
Captain, She Can't Take Much More!
If there's something wrong with your car, mechanics can run a diagnostic by plugging the car into a computer to look for error codes. This is fairly effective, but remember the diagnostic system has a hard time finding a loose bolt or clamp.
Sometimes difficult to diagnose problems are best resolved by replacing components at the mechanic's discretion. If the problem persists after repair, this does not necessarily indicate that you've been cheated. Some issues are legitimately harder to find than others.
Your Car is Dehydrated, it Needs a Drink
If oil is your car's blood, and coolant is your car's sweat, just imagine how many other potentially disgusting liquid metaphors must exist in your vehicle. Low liquid levels do not necessarily mean a leak because older motors tend to burn liquids.
Topping off all your liquid levels is the foundation of basic maintenance. Transmission fluid or brake fluid doesn't have to be changed too often, but when maintenance is necessary on those areas, it's relatively inexpensive and uncomplicated.
When leaks develop, tubing can often be replaced with few complications.
Doctor, Her Heart's Stopped, We've Lost Her!
Chances are your car has a check engine light that's been on since a half hour after you drove it off the lot. It's nothing to be overly concerned about because most cars have a sensor that's too sensitive for any kind of real world, practical use (sometimes they turn off if you put in a new air filter).
Engine problems can sometimes be resolved with something as simple as a new set of spark plugs. Other times you're looking at new coils or a new catalytic converter that's going to cost you upwards of a thousand dollars.
Mechanics can handle most types of motor issues up to pulling the old motor out and putting in a new one.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
The life of your tires can be prolonged through regular rotation which is a quick, easy, and relatively inexpensive process. Mechanics can patch flats, or provide replacement tires when necessary.
Usually, they'll check your tread and make a recommendation during an oil change. Keeping your tires properly inflated is also part of basic maintenance, and usually addressed at the oil change.
I Can't Stop!
If your brakes lose power, there's probably an issue with the fluid, or a leak. If the brakes make noise, your pads are probably worn down. Usually, the mechanic takes a quick look at your pads during an oil change and tells you if you should get new pads.
When the mechanic tells you to do something about your brakes, please do it. Drivers who can stop their vehicle live a lot longer than those who can't.
My Car Has Asthma!
A car that makes a lot of noise is another potentially easy fix. A new muffler can cut a loud engine back to size, and sometimes an old muffler can be welded back together for an even more affordable repair.
There's Something Wrong With the Power Grid!
The good news about your car's electrical system is that it's one of the first things to show up on the computer diagnostic. The bad news is that electrical problems can be a complete nightmare to get to.
Sometimes you get lucky, and you can fix a lot of problems with a new battery. Other times it's the alternator which can be a bit more expensive. Headlights and tail lights can be swapped out with ease, but if there's some problem with the housing you're looking at a bigger bill.
This Place is a Mess!
Some garages offer top to bottom cleaning services. These include vacuuming and washing the upholstery and buffing the exterior. Although the price can be high, this is a great way to restore life to an old vehicle.
An appointment to get a car cleaned and perfumed is the type of Valentine's day gift that has a much longer lasting value than a dozen roses. Just be sure to check between all the cushions for spare change before you send it in.
How About a Little Nip/Tuck?
From getting one of those infuriating dents at the grocery store parking lot, to popping out a massive dent from hitting a deer, to repairing a vehicle that's been T-boned, mechanics can be miracle workers.
Small dents can be popped out with relative ease while larger crashes might have done structural damage to the car. Your mechanic will be able to tell you whether or not a repair is feasible or affordable.
Okay, What's All of This Going to Cost Me?
Transmission fluid flush--75-100
Spark plug replacement--$100-200
Brake pads or rotor replacement--$150-500
water pump replacement--$300-750
Timing or serpentine belt replacement $400-950
head gasket replacement--$1000 to 1500
General pricing, keep in mind some vehicles far well outside of the stated range.
Anticipating cost is problematic because some vehicles are much more expensive than others. The tires, for example, on a four-wheel-drive truck, cost a lot more than the tires on a Nissan Sentra.
If you have the opportunity, always research common costs for repairs on your specific make and model vehicle. The mechanic might find other issues that will raise the price, but the more educated you are, the better chance you have of getting a deal.
The Mechanic Has to Eat Too
Before you start whipping out your pistols to go on a self-righteous rampage, it's important to calibrate your thinking. Even the most skilled and honest mechanic in the world is going to have a little mark-up on the pricing.
This is a business after all, and the people who are working on your vehicles are doing it to make a living. Things only become problematic when you are charged for needless repairs, or the charging becomes excessive.
Your bill from the auto shop is going to be determined by several factors:
A New Motor Costs What?
If your mechanic works for a dealership, you're always going to find that the parts cost a lot more than they do elsewhere. Remember that a dealership is an extension of a car company, and that company has the incentive to push its own products.
Aftermarket parts are often available for a fraction of the cost of official parts. Most of the time, these products are identical to their higher priced brothers and sisters from the dealer. However, allowing a mechanic to install these parts can void a warranty which brings about further considerations.
Used parts from a salvage yard are available for pennies on the dollar and can be a great option for savings. However, you never know if a used part is going to last you one hundred thousand miles or fail before you drive home. A mechanic can advise you as to whether a used part is worth the risk.
Used motors are potentially a very good value. If a vehicle suffers a mishap that destroys the frame but doesn't affect the motor, some value can be salvaged by placing the motor elsewhere. It's like a motor vehicle organ donor card.
The opportunity to upgrade a vehicle with 200,000 miles on the frame with a motor with 100,000 miles on it can be very attractive. The risk comes from not knowing what the motor is going to be like until you've driven the vehicle for a while.
Lawyers Don't Make That Much Per Hour!
Another difference between dealerships and garages is the hourly wage paid to the mechanics. At dealerships, they pay the mechanics anywhere from $90-$130 an hour. Again, the reason is they want to incentivize potential customers to trade in rather than repair a vehicle.
Garages tend to have an hourly wage in the $70-$90 range. That's still high and can add up quickly, but it's a difference that you notice quickly when you start multiplying the number by ten.
Large dealerships are able to charge more per hour because they're more happy to sell a new car and don't need to compete with the wages offered at small garages.
The best deal in terms of hourly wage can be found with your knowledgeable friends who are willing and able to fix your car for a six pack of beer. Although the initial savings are nice, the issue of liability must be considered.
In the case of established businesses, you could potentially recuperate losses due to injury or accident caused by defective work through a lawsuit. You're not likely to have a very strong case if you paid for repair work with a bottle of Wild Turkey and a Pepperoni Pizza.
I Hope My Car Is Finished Before the Apocalypse Comes
A low hourly wage is nice, but it's a number that can be easily manipulated by simply charging more hours. To their credit, dealerships do tend to get vehicles out the door quickly, partially because they tend to offer a loaner vehicle when service work is needed.
Billing is something that needs to be evaluated over time. Ask around, and see what you're paying for your repair work, and what your friends and relatives have paid for similar jobs. Remember that vehicles are different from one another, but you should be able to figure out where the deals are.
When your vehicle quits on the highway, you're going to need to have it towed to the nearest garage. Towing usually starts at around $100, and includes a price per mile traveled.
The process of towing a vehicle stresses out a lot of car owners, and garages sometimes use this to inflate their quote. They know you can't just drive the vehicle away, so you'll be more inclined to pay a little more.
Remind yourself not to be overly concerned by a second towing cost. If an auto garage across town is offering to replace your motor for $1,500 cheaper than the dealership, the savings easily compensate for the additional $150 towing cost.
There are a lot of great auto mechanics out there, but finding one isn't easy. When you do get a good one, commit to never changing your job or leaving the city where his or her garage is located.
You don't have to be an automotive expert to ensure you get a fair deal from a mechanic. Life teaches all of us how to recognize charlatans. Trust your instincts, do the minimum research, and don't allow anyone to pressure you into a hasty decision.
If you do end up paying too much, don't be too hard on yourself. Chances are you'll have another breakdown before you know it, and you'll be able to apply what you've learned towards savings then.
If you are still nervous about dealing with an auto mechanic, then I would suggest riding a bicycle. Although, if finding a good auto mechanic is difficult, finding a good bicycle mechanic is next to impossible.