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How To Communicate With Your Mechanic

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If you don't know a lot about working on cars, it can feel overwhelming or confusing whenever it is time to take your vehicle in for repairs or maintenance.  There is a constant fear of not knowing if you are being ripped off in regards to price, whether or not certain work really needs to be done, and if they are caring for your property in a way you would like it to be treated.

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Luckily, you don't have to be some ASE certified master technician to communicate effectively with your mechanic.  Instead, you just need to know a few simple tricks that help you understand your car, and convey the information you have effectively.  This will make your life less stressful, your mechanic's job much easier, and, hopefully, your wallet a bit more padded.

Make Sure "Your Guy" Checks Out

Lots of people have this stigma in their head that all mechanics are evil and crooked and out to steal your cash.  This really isn't true, and it perfectly describes a situation where a few bad apples spoil the bunch.  Check out Yelp and similar review websites where you can examine the ratings and comments from people in your area.

If you aren't going to a good mechanic, none of these tips will be of much use to you, so this first step is vital.  Don't just go down to "the place on 7th street" because some dude in a bar mentioned his cousin once took a car there.  Do your research, or else pay the price for laziness.

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Learn to Troubleshoot

If you are noticing a weird sound or are experiencing a problem, but don't know anything about cars, there is still a LOT that you can do to help your mechanic diagnose the problem.  Why is this good for you?  Because every hour of shop labor dedicated to tracking down your issue is going to cost.  Keep in mind that many places will charge more than $100 per hour of labor.  This means it is definitely in your best interest to learn how to troubleshoot.

If you are hearing a noise, investigate it.  I'm not asking you to break out a toolbox.  Instead, break out a piece of paper and make up a "fact sheet".  Just write up some bullet points of what you have witnessed first hand.  Some questions you might answer include:

  • Does the noise get louder as you drive faster?
  • Do you hear the sound at idle in "Park" or only when in gear?
  • What part of the car is it coming from?  (under the hood, rear wheels, driver or passenger side, etc.)
  • Does it occur ONLY when the vehicle is doing a certain function (air conditioning on, while braking, while in reverse, etc.)
  • What kind of sound is it?  (clunking, squealing, clicking, etc.)

The absolute worst thing you can do as a customer is simply bring in the car and say "it makes a noise."  This information is useless to mechanics, so take some initiative, turn off the radio, and try and learn something.

Again, I'm not suggesting that you suddenly become some experienced Ferrari technician overnight.  But try and be helpful.  If you say "it makes a noise" there are 1000+ different potential problems that could be causing it.  If you learned for yourself that "it makes a screeching noise while braking" you just narrowed down the potential issues from 1000 to less than half a dozen.

Use the Magic of Google to Research Prices

Go back in time 30 years, and it was pretty hard to tell if you were getting a good deal on automotive work or not.  Nowadays with the internet, there is absolutely no reason that you should be confused as to what a repair will cost you, assuming you know the issue beforehand.

You can go to websites for any of the major parts stores (NAPA, AutoZone, Advance Auto Parts, O'Reilly, etc.) and find out what different parts cost for your specific vehicle.  In most repair instances, the parts are the cheapest thing you will buy, and shop labor rates are what will really get you, but still, this can give you an idea of what you're in for.

If you have an older car that has been out a few years, you might try Googling something along the lines of "[make] [model] [needed repair] replacement cost".  Often times individual car models will have online forums dedicated to them, and you will find past discussion threads about the prices of particular repairs, which will give you a decent idea of price.  Obviously this will differ depending on what part of the country you live in, so you can never expect this type of research to be spot-on.  However, you should have some semblance of a price.

Request a Quote

If a mechanic isn't willing to give you a quote on what a repair will cost, I would be very skeptical of them.

Don't get me wrong, I generally trust these people, and understand why some can be hesitant to answer the dreaded "what will this cost?" question.  I'm sure that day-in and day-out, for years on end, they deal with people holding them too exact price-quotes, and then throwing a fit when a $7 rubber hose also needed to be replaced.

However, despite all of this, I still do not believe in leaving your vehicle somewhere for a repair you don't know the cost of, at least until you have formed a relationship with the mechanic and know that they are fair.

Usually I will say something along the lines of "Can I get a price quote for [necessary repair].  I know little things can change you can't give an exact quote, but can you give me a rough estimate of the cost?"  This is a perfectly reasonable question to ask, and anyone not willing to help you answer it is probably not the type of person you want to hand over your money and your prized possession to.

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