Looking for a mechanic when your car is already in trouble is much like trying to find a doctor when you're sick - you want to have an established relationship with someone you can trust before anything major happens.

As a car enthusiast and a woman, I have learned the hard way about using dealers, mechanics and friends to work on my car, so I took the time to learn to do most of my own work. Now most people don't have the time nor inclination to do this, so you'd better find your "car doctor" and start thinking about preventive maintenance now.

First of all, read the manual that came with your car. If you don't have a copy, get one. It will explain possible problems, service timetables, etc. Get familiar with your car; half the time, you can figure out the problem yourself if you're able to pinpoint the location of the noise, hum, squeak, etc.

If you are one of those who believe your warranty will be voided unless you use a dealer, find one that has the most service awards from the manufacturer. I personally never have my cars serviced by dealers, because they tend to charge about 25-30 percent more than the mom-and-pop shops.

The Search Begins

So here are some ways to start your search for an honest, competent independent mechanic:

• Ask friends, relatives or neighbors if they would recommend their mechanic and, if so, why.

• Call an auto club, like AAA, for a referral. Go online to the National Institute for Auto Service Excellence, www.asecert.org).

• If you have a specialty vehicle or sports car, try to get a recommendation from a local auto club -- the Alfa Romeo Owners Club or Sports Car Club of America chapter.

• Call the Better Business Bureau and check the Web to see if a garage has any strikes against it. If so, don't go there or you'll be ignoring a blatant warning.

Once you have a shop or two in mind, pay them a visit. Look around. Is the place clean and well-organized? Is the lot full of what appear to be junkers and flivvers? Is there grass growing through the floor?

Ask what the shop charges for labor before you have any work done. Also ask if they will physically show you the problem before they fix it.

Ask about the warranty. Is there one? What does it cover? Is it in writing and if so, be sure to get a copy. A reputable garage will offer a parts and labor warranty good for at least 90 days. Six months is preferable.

If you can't decide between mechanics, call each with a problem and ask about how much repairs would be. Get a friend to do the same the next day, and compare the pricing you got from each. Some mechanics have random pricing policies, depending on how they're feeling that day and whether they consider you a pain.

"My price depends on your attitude," is a not-uncommon philosophy for some independent mechanics.

Pop the Hood

Once you've settled on a shop, take your buggy in, describe the problem and get a clear understanding of when and whether someone will call with an estimate of what the repairs will cost.

Don't diagnose the problem yourself. If you say, "I need a new thermostat," that's what you'll get. Better to say, "The car overheats for no apparent reason. Can you find out why and fix it?"

I always ask in advance to have any old parts returned to me. They replaced the thermostat? Fine. I want the old one. Why? Well, let's say it tends to keep everyone honest.

Oh, by the way. Get an understanding of whether replacement parts will be new or refurbished. Both have advantages (new parts are, well, new and refurbished parts are, or should be, cheaper).

When you pick up the car, you should get an itemized work order that lists all the parts that were replaced and all the labor that went into it. Don't be surprised if the labor is more expensive than the parts. You don't work for nothing. Why should your mechanic?

If you've had major work done, ask to take the car for a test drive before paying. That way you can see if the coolant still comes boiling out at the first long light you come to.

When Problems Arise

Cars today are complex. Things go wrong and they are sometimes hard to fix, so don't be surprised if the problem is still there. Or if there's a new one.

Most important: bring the car back to the garage right away. Ask to to speak to the same mechanic who worked on the car. Explain the problem calmly: "I just went a mile from the shop and the brakes are still squealing. Something is still wrong."

Offer to take a ride in the car with the mechanic.

Ask to speak to the shop manager if the mechanic won't check the problem immediately. Tell the shop manager, as specifically as you can, what the problem is. Remain calm. Assume that the manager will make it right.

Tell him or her that you know the shop's reputation is on the line and you're sure he or she will want to take care of this "comeback" (mechanics' lingo for a car not fixed properly) right away.

Consider going to another shop for a second opinion. However, be aware that if you choose to go to another shop, the original shop may not honor the repair warranty, while the second shop may not want to deal with the problem if someone else has already done work on the car.

If the problem is not resolved to your satisfaction, you can contact the state or local agency that regulates auto repair. In California, for example, the Bureau of Automotive Repair regulates all repair shops and will send out a mediator to help resolve disputes.

If that doesn't work, you can start complaining to Web sites like this one and to the local chapter of the Better Business Bureau. Be factual. Don't sling adjectives around and call people names.

If all else fails, as it very well may, try Small Claims Court. This is often the best way to get not only your honor but your money back.

Get peace of mind

Find comfort knowing your vehicle is covered with an extended warranty.