How to tell if you're dealing with an honest mechanic

Sometimes finding a good auto repair professional can be hard, but here's some help

If you’re a fan of the show "Seinfeld," then you already know that the George Costanza character is an even bigger goof-up than Elaine, Kramer and Jerry, but in between his displays of insecurity and self-centeredness, he can spew out some words of wisdom sometimes.

Like in the episode where Jerry stops taking his car to his usual mechanic, Puddy, over an argument the two had.

After Jerry brings his car to another repair shop and says to George he believes the mechanic is taking advantage of him, George says, “That’s what they do.”

“They can make up anything; nobody knows!” ‘Well, you need a new Johnson rod in here’, he says imitating a mechanic.”  

“‘Oh, a Johnson rod, yeah, well you better put one of those on.’”

But George speaks the truth. How can a person who knows nothing about cars or car repairs know if they’re being duped by an unscrupulous mechanic?

To find out we spoke to a group of automotive experts who are either staffers or members of The Automotive Service Association (ASA), an organization that represents thousands of independent mechanics around the U.S. and establishes a code of ethics for all of its members to follow.

According to Pete Rudloff, an ASA member who serves on the organization’s Mechanical Division Operations Committee, one sign of a dishonest mechanic is their unwillingness to explain things to you in laymen’s terms.

In addition, Rudloff says you’ll have to get down and dirty with your research if you want to find a good an honest mechanic, because just giving repair shops a quick glance to determine how good they are won’t be enough.

It's not easy

“This can be difficult to do up front, it is easier to do from the trenches though” said Rudloff in an interview with ConsumerAffairs about the challenges of searching for a good mechanic.

“I believe the consumer must be willing to ask questions of their service provider if they do not fully understand the recommendations made to them. We mechanic-type folks can get overly technical sometimes, a dishonest mechanic won’t want to take the time to re-explain something in simpler terms if asked to do so.”

“I would be wary of any mechanic who cannot clearly explain in simple words why a repair is justifiable," Rudloff adds. "The good news, in my opinion, is a consumer is not likely to encounter a dishonest mechanic; as a whole, I truly believe we are a pretty noble trade. You are far more likely to encounter a mechanic who is inept, under-trained, under-tooled etc., than you are to encounter an outright dishonest one.”

And in terms of fair prices for parts and services, Rudloff says the Internet is a great place to compare prices, and fellow ASA member Diane Larson agrees.

RepairPal has a great tool on their website,” she says. “Enter your vehicle and repair needed. It will give you a range of where pricing should be for that job, and offer advice about the repair.”

Apples to apples

April Hernandez of Hernandez Collision Center in Georgia says that when researching mechanics online, make sure you’re comparing the proper parts.

“When obtaining prices for repairs make sure you are comparing apples to apples,” she says. “If there is a large price difference in the quotes obtained, then it is possible that there is a difference in the type of parts being quoted and/or work being performed.”

And when it comes to determining if a mechanic is well-skilled and reputable, state and national affiliations are more important than actual credentials, says ASA member Tom Piippo.

“I think that the more credentials the shop displays, the harder they are trying to portray their worthiness of your business,” he says.

“Look for state and national affiliations, such as ASA, AAA, BBB, etc. These organizations have minimum requirements and/or a code of ethics that consumers should look for. Also, shops that operate under a “banner program,” such as NAPA Autocare or Carquest Tech-Net, have similar requirements and codes to adhere to. Always look for an ASA-certified technician.”

Like a good doctor

Ron Pyle, ASA’s President and Chief Staff Executive compares searching for a good mechanic to searching for a good doctor.

“I know it is something most folks don’t consider and I understand why, but I liken it to seeking out a good GP (general practitioner) for my minor health care issues before I need one for a more serious problem. If the GP I choose doesn’t seem to be a fit, I have to seek out someone else and make sure they are,” he says.

Bill Moss of EuroService Automotive, who was also part of the discussion, agrees.

“Ron is on point with this,” he says. “I often relate us to the dentist. We do repairs, we do preventative maintenance and we are your advocate when decisions need to be made about your vehicle. You ask your friends if they like their dentist.”

“Nowadays you look at reviews. You visit and see if you click with how they treat you, how their pricing is, how much confidence they instill, etc. Membership in professional associations is a good sign, certifications [like] ASE, AMI or others are good confidence builders.”

Rudloff says another sign of a not-so-good-mechanic is their inability to fix your vehicle correctly the first time.

“I would recommend that if you are regularly finding that you must take your car back for a “refix,” you have not found the right mechanic,” he says.

“This doesn’t mean just because your mechanic makes a mistake you should look for a new one, because they are human, they can make mistakes. Good judgment must be used to determine if a change is what’s best for you.”

Right tools for the job

And when moving to a new town, searching for a good mechanic is something you’ll certainly have to do at some point, so Rudloff says to speak with the repair professionals in your new area, and ask if they’re using tools that are specifically designed for your vehicle.

“One of the things I recommend to customers who are moving out of town is to talk with a potential mechanic once you move to a new place and see how they are equipped from a tooling stand point for your car,” he says.

“If they are equipped with a manufacturer-specific scan tool, this indicates a pretty strong commitment from them to have complete capability on your specific vehicle. The fewer manufacturers a shop works on, the more expert you would expect them to be on those brands they do work on. This often is a good indicator of competence and improves the likelihood of a successful repair visit for the customer,” Rudloff explains.

In addition, he says certifications are a great thing for mechanics to have, but consumers shouldn’t consider them written guarantees of competency.

“ASE certifications, combined with other training certifications help, so are iATN and ASA memberships," he says. "Of course, none of these guarantee competence of the shop or mechanics, but they are certainly indicators of someone who invests at least a little bit into themselves.”

“Even though many are not, all shops tout they are competent, well-trained, state-of-the-art equipped and can fix your car accurately, so it can be quite a task to locate one that truly can.”

And “once you find a good [mechanic] stick around, even though you may be able to get a few services cheaper at the local quickie lube. "Your investment into a good local shop will pay off down the road because they will be there when you need them most," Rudloff said.

Lastly, ASA’s Executive Vice President Dan Risley said consumers should ask themselves the following questions to determine if an automotive repair professional has done a good job.

  • How were you treated and/or greeted when you called or stopped at the repair shop?
  •  Did the repair shop review the repairs completed on your vehicle and ensure you understood?
  •  Did they provide you a written warranty?
  •  Was your vehicle clean inside and out?
  • Did the repair shop call after you picked up your vehicle to ensure your complete satisfaction and ask if you had any questions or concerns.

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