Do you remember how you felt the last time your car broke down or had a major mechanical issue? You probably felt helpless and stressed – not only because you worried about how to get to work the next day, but also because you dreaded the impending visit to the repair shop.
It seems like those visits always end the same way -- at least for those of us who aren’t mechanics. You leave the car in the shop’s hands, and they call with a complicated and costly diagnosis. You don’t really understand what they’re saying, so you consent to have the repairs done simply so you can get back on the road.
Now, this isn’t how everyone’s experience goes, and it doesn’t have to be how yours goes either. It’s important to remember that not all repair shops are out to rip you off or confuse you. There are plenty of reputable, honest businesses out there – it’s just a matter of knowing how to spot them.
Do Your Homework
For tips on picking out a reputable shop and avoiding rip-offs, we asked the founders of Virginia-based Curry’s Auto Service, a finalist for Tire Review’s Top Shop Award.
Since it opened in 1998, Curry’s has grown from a single location and one technician to five stores with 70 employees. Founders Matt and Judy Curry attribute the business’s growth to their pro-customer philosophy. “We’re not just repairing cars, we’re building relationships,” says Judy, who also serves as vice president of marketing.
Believe it or not, a good repair-shop experience starts with you. “The best thing customers can do is educate themselves,” advises Curry’s President Matt Curry. That means researching your car’s problems on the internet, reading your owner’s manual, keeping detailed records of past services, and asking as many questions as you can.
Matt also reminds customers that routine maintenance is cheaper in the long run than ignoring it and simply waiting for things to go wrong. Your owner’s manual should outline routine services. In addition, modern cars have diagnostic systems that will tell you things like when you need your oil changed. GM’s OnStar system even e-mails you when your car needs its oil changed of the tires need more air.
Find a Trustworthy Shop
Above all, make sure that the dealership or shop you choose is a place you trust and feel comfortable before investing any money. Don’t just take your car in blindly. “Ask if you can come check out the place first,” Matt comments. “It’s like shopping for a doctor or dentist. Wouldn’t you want to meet them first?”
So how do you know if it’s a reputable shop? First, make sure the technicians are certified by a credible organization like the Automotive Service Councils (ASC), the one that certifies Curry’s employees. It’s also a good sign if the shop is approved by AAA or has partnerships with high-quality manufacturers such as Bosch. If the shop is involved in the community or sits on advisory boards, that’s even better.
The shop and showroom should be neat and clean, and you should feel comfortable speaking to anyone there. Curry’s is certified by AskPatty.com, which trains retailers on how to make the experience of purchasing and maintaining vehicles a pleasant one for female customers.
“Women statistically want to learn more and talk more,” explains Judy Curry. “We have to make sure we know how to communicate effectively. It could be a male client too, but we’re doing everything we can to make you feel comfortable.”
To that end, Curry’s provides free wireless Internet, snacks, and activities for kids at each of their locations. They also encourage customers to participate in a Show and Tell, in which they’ll show you exactly what’s wrong with the car. “It builds confidence because you’re seeing what we’re doing,” Judy says.
Any reputable shop should be happy to do something similar for you. Matt Curry says it’s something you should ask for every time, but especially the first time you take your car to a shop. “Many people just drop their cars off, but you can stay and ask them to look at it while you’re there,” he says. “You have to make an investment of your time.”
Before consenting to repairs, make sure the shop provides a warranty. Curry’s, for example, backs their work with a 12-month/12,000-mile warranty. Also make sure there’s a way for you to contact upper management if necessary.
Watch for Scams
In addition to looking for positive signs, you need to watch out for scams. A repair shop’s general attitude can be a big tip-off. They shouldn’t just want to make a quick buck – they should want to forge a long-term business relationship with you. Judy Curry advises, “Watch out for shops that just want to do that one repair and aren’t looking at the whole health of your vehicle.”
Sometimes shops might recommend work that doesn’t even need to be done. But you won’t know they’re pulling one over on you unless you ask them to visually show you the problem or broken part. If they say a headlight is out, have them turn it on and show you. “That’s why show and tell is really important,” Matt says.
Another typical scam is charging you for high-quality parts but actually installing cheaper ones on your vehicle. Again, Curry’s advises that you ask to see the new parts the shop plans to install. This is often a problem with tires because they vary so widely in price. To make sure the tire you paid for is the one installed on your car, just look at the information on the sidewall.
Above all, don’t pay for repairs until you’re satisfied. You have every right to make sure you’re getting what you’re paying for.
Don’t Go Too Cheap
If you’ve ever taken your car for a second opinion, you’ve probably noticed that labor rates and parts costs vary wildly. You might be tempted to go with the cheapest estimates, but Curry’s cautions against it.
“Cheap isn’t always good,” Matt Curry advises. For example, Curry’s pays their technicians about $10 an hour more than a dealership typically would, which makes labor rates higher. That’s because they hire people with a lot of experience and training, which also means you’ll probably have a better experience.
“If the labor rate is higher, it’s probably worth it if you’re getting things like an ASC-certified technician and a nationwide warranty,” Matt says. Again, it’s up to you to do the research and decide if the higher rates are justified.
The same goes for parts. Higher-quality parts cost more simply because they’re higher quality. Since there are so many different quality levels, make sure that you’re comparing parts costs in an apples-to-apples way. You can use a website like RepairPal.com, which provides independent repair estimates.
Once you’ve done your cost research, how do you know when to ask for a second opinion? “Go with your gut,” advises Matt Curry. If the mechanic visually shows you the problem and you still feel uneasy, take the car somewhere else.
Ideally, your search will lead you to a repair shop or dealer you can trust. Once that trust is there, the auto repair process won’t be nearly as stressful for you. And if you go to a shop like Curry’s that provides coffee and snacks, you might even look forward to your next repair.