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Should you let dealer or garage fix car?

By William Sidney, Contributing writer
Published On: Dec 19 2011 11:19:57 PM CST
Updated On: Dec 26 2013 09:07:28 AM CST

iStockPhoto / sjlocke

You don't need technological savvy to avoid problems with your local auto mechanic, but finding a good one and getting a great deal? That's a bit trickier.

If you've been burned before by someone who wasn't quite an automotive repair professional, it can be tough to get back up on the horse when the tow truck driver asks you where you want your steaming car dropped off.

Tom Torbjornsen, a veteran of nearly 40 years in the auto service industry and a blogger for AOL Autos, has this piece of advice.

"Find a facility that you are comfortable with and one that suits your individual needs," Torbjornsen said. "Make sure they are highly qualified to do the work. Develop an ongoing relationship with them; don't hop from shop to shop looking for the next deal."

But that can be easier said than done.


Automotive dealerships, particularly the dealership from which you purchased the car originally, will usually have a service department. If that is the case, this may be where you want to go.

Dealerships, more often than not, will have the parts you need in stock, have multiple service bays to get you back on the road more quickly and, depending on how recently you purchased the vehicle, may have a courtesy car you can borrow until your repair is complete.

Branded automotive dealerships are also the best place to find ASE certified technicians. Companies such as Ford, Chevrolet, Honda and all the rest require that technicians be certified. Also, they will usually employ someone who is known as a "master technician," which makes them sort of the doctors of the automotive world.

ASE is the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, and you can ask for it by name. The tests are difficult to pass, and a technician must retest for certification every five years, according to the ASE website.

Dealers also have access to proprietary information, usually one year's worth of information on new vehicles they sell and service. This means that no one else can access this information, which is often necessary for diagnosis and repair.

However, in its April 2009 issue, Consumer Reports had one warning about dealerships. In calling dozens of dealerships and repair shops across the country to compare prices, they found that dealers often wanted to charge for extra work that the automaker doesn't require.

The magazine recommends car owners check quotes from repair shops against the maintenance lists in their owner's manual before choosing one quote over another.

Private shops

For vehicles out of warranty or too far removed from a local dealership, a neighborhood garage can still work out in your favor.

One tip, though: Don't be fooled by significantly lower prices when shopping around. If everyone on the block is asking $100 to fix your steaming radiator, and someone offers to fix it for $20, the lower price doesn't mean that they know something the others don't.

When comparing quotes, it's important to be sure you're comparing apples to oranges. Take a look at each quote and see what's included and what's not. Be sure to ask about warranties on the work and make sure they aren't planning work that isn't necessary.

There are tricks to the trade, and this is one: junkyard parts. While many second-hand parts are perfectly acceptable to use again in your car, many aren't. For example, radiators can seldom be used twice.

Ask your service consultant whether they use new or recycled parts. If you don't feel comfortable with having junkyard parts in your car, request new ones. The shop should always honor the request, but the $20 repair bill is likely to jump to $100 after that.

Technicians working in private shops should also carry ASE certification, as this is not simply a testing regime for dealerships.

Technicians who value their careers keep their certifications up to date and rely on good word-of-mouth advertising to bring in repeat customers. Don't be afraid to ask for a specific technician if you have a preference.

Think of it as choosing a doctor for your car. There are lots of them out there, but some will set you more at ease than others.

Final considerations

Torbjornsen has a couple more pieces of advice before you make your final decision.

First, you should start shopping for a repair facility before you need one. It's much easier to make a sound decision before you are faced with a broken down vehicle, he said.

"Intelligent decisions are made after evaluating the facts," he said. "Emergencies create an emotional environment that thwarts clear and decisive action."

Finally, he also recommends not limiting your comparisons to the phone or the Internet. Torbjornsen said you should be sure to visit a shop in person before making your final choice.

This will allow you to not only size up the people you will be trusting your car to, but also to look at the certifications they have hanging on the wall, talk to current customers and see what the shop itself looks like.

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