A trusted mechanic can be a great resource for car repairs. “Trusted” is the key word there. As with any business, there are some mechanics who will put a quick buck ahead of what’s best for you, the customer. We’ve pretty much all dealt with someone like that at some point. The best way to protect yourself is by educating yourself so you can make more of your own decisions. Here are some things you should know, even if your mechanic doesn’t want you to.
1. They Don’t Have Automotive ESP
Mechanics don’t have psychic powers that tell them what’s wrong with your car. You can apply some of the same skills the pros use to diagnose your own problems. A good mechanic knows plenty of tests to find out what went wrong with your car, and although you may not reach the level of expertise of a pro mechanic, you can definitely learn some basic tests.
First, if your check engine light comes on, a mechanic will use a device called an OBD scanner to check for trouble codes that will point out the problem. You don’t have to take your car to a shop to get it scanned, though. Many parts stores will rent you a scanner, or you can buy one, sometimes for as low as $20. If you have an older car with frequent problems, an OBD scanner can be a good investment.
In some cases, your shop is just trying to figure out your problem by educated trial and error. They may try one part see if it works, and move on from there. Of course, with a little know-how about your car’s various parts and symptoms, you could do your own process of trial and error much cheaper, as our DJ Butler describes. No, it’s not the ideal way to fix your car, but sometimes it’s your least worst option.
2. Some Wear and Tear is Fine
There are some sure signs you need to replace something. If your brakes rotors are warped, they’re not going to work right. If you’re losing fluids, you’ll want to track down and fix the leak. Sometimes, though, unscrupulous mechanics will point to relatively harmless signs of low-grade wear as a reason to replace a part that’s really fine.
Reader’s Digest notes, for example, that it’s normal to have some metal shavings inside your transmission pan, and that you shouldn’t let a mechanic talk you into a time-consuming and costly transmission job over it. Similarly, it’s normal for shocks and struts to seep a little bit of oil, and it doesn’t mean you have to replace the shock just yet. Of course, lots of shavings or lots of leaking may be a bad sign. Again, the more you educate yourself the better able you’ll be to make your own call.
3. Some Repairs Are Much Easier Than You Think
Even if you’ve never held a wrench before, there are plenty of jobs within the reach of a first time DIY-er. Changing your oil, checking your fluids, replacing air filters, or replacing wiper blades are just some examples of jobs you can do in your own drive way in minimum time. Once you get some practice reps in, headlights, tail lights, mirrors, and even brakes will be doable. You don’t need to rely on a shop for these basics. If you need a little help getting started, you can always check out our huge collection of helpful videos.
4. Special Tools Don’t Make the Mechanic
You might think that you have to take your car to the mechanic because you don’t have the right tools to fix it yourself. The truth is, you can do most repairs with basic hand tools. A good set of sockets, wrenches, and screwdrivers will take you a long way in your automotive endeavors. For example, you could use an O2 sensor socket to remove an oxygen sensor, but a lot of times, an open ended wrench will do just fine.
It’s true that some jobs call for special tools like a two-jaw puller or a slide hammer. That still doesn’t mean you have to take the car to the mechanic. If you have friends who are mechanically inclined, you can always ask if you can borrow the tool from them. Many parts stores also rent out tools, like the OBD scanner mentioned above. Since some of these tools have such specialized uses, you’ll probably be better off renting the tool than buying it.
5. You Can Shop Around on Parts and Service
You don’t have to get your parts from the dealer. There are lots of great options for high quality aftermarket parts (like, say, 1A Auto). Even if, in the end, you decide to have a mechanic do the repair, you can always ask if they’ll install parts you’ve bought yourself. Then you can get the parts you want at the price you want, rather than paying crazy prices for OE parts.
Of course, when you’re choosing a mechanic to do the work, you’ll also want to shop around. Ask different shops about their hourly rate and their estimate for the job. Price isn’t everything, and you’ll also want to make sure they do a good job. Before going to a given shop, look for online reviews or ask around for recommendations. There may be a small number of shady mechanics out there, but there are plenty of good ones, too, and people are bound to have strong opinions about who falls in what category.
6. You Can Check Their Work
If you do go to a mechanic you want to be able to check their work for yourself. Reader’s Digest suggests asking for your old parts back, or at least asking to see them. It’s rare, but every so often an especially unscrupulous mechanic may try to charge you for replacing something they never touched. Seeing the old part shows that they really did the work.
You can also check their labor cost. As this Huffington Post article points out, there are labor guides that set the standard labor hours for a given job. If it seems like you were charged for more hours than reasonable, ask to see the guide. If the mechanic refuses to show it to you, that might be a bad sign.
Readers Digest also warns against double labor charging. For example, you usually have to remove the water pump to get to the timing belt. That makes removing and reinstalling the water pump a necessary part of a timing belt job, so it’s already included in the labor hours for a timing belt. If the shop charges separate labor for a water pump and a timing belt, they would be charging twice for the water pump work. You’d be paying twice for the same labor.
Knowledge is Power
The key lesson behind all these tips is the value of learning more about your car. The more know-how and experience you build the more independent you can be.