How to Find an Honest Car Mechanic and Auto Repair Shop

Few things in life are as tough as finding a good mechanic. Here are 10 expert tips to keep you from getting fleeced.

by Michael Frank
Originally Published: 
an auto mechanic works under the hood of a car

How many of us have Googled “car mechanic near me” with a feeling of cold dread, scrolling through dozens of online reviews in a desperate attempt to gauge an auto shop’s reliability. Finding an honest mechanic is one of life’s great quandaries — and one most of us will have to tackle at one point or another. Unscrupulous car mechanics and disreputable repair shops are out there. When the majority of your customers don’t know the difference between a piston and a rod, it’s easy to put things over on them. It’s also just as likely that your mechanic isn’t trying to actively rip you off but is behind the curve on the latest and most sophisticated diagnostics tools to help identify what’s wrong with your car. And that can mean spending hours on the clock, taking apart the entire engine to diagnose the problem.

Either way, it’s not easy to find a good, honest mechanic. To help you do just that, Fatherly reached out to Amy Mattinat, owner of the award-winning auto repair shop Auto Craftsmen in Montpelier, Vermont, for her top tips in finding a reputable mechanic you’ll want to hold on to for life.

Make sure they’re rated.

Use to ensure the shop is rated. Why? Because auto shops that follow AAA’s guidelines demand that Automotive Service Excellence (ASE)-certified technicians are employed for every repair. ASE is an independent, non-profit organization that provides voluntary testing and certification of mechanics. If a shop has passed ASE standards, drivers have tangible proof of technical knowledge and a way to gauge a repair professional’s level of expertise before you hire them to fix your car.

Look for an Automotive Service Association (ASA) affiliation.

“It’s crazy, but there’s no licensing in the auto repair industry,” says Mattinat. She relies on the Automotive Service Association, a not-for-profit trade association that serves independent automotive professionals in the mechanical and collision repair industries, which demands mechanics always give estimates and pledges better customer service.

Mattinat is also dubious of shops that don’t have a website or Facebook presence. Not having a website is a “tell” she says, because any shop that thinks setting up a website is too complicated may find the cars they work on too complicated as well. It also demonstrates that customer service — a website is the first place people will look to interact with a business — isn’t their priority.

Is the shop clean? How about the bathroom?

Disorganization and untidiness are bad signs, Mattinat says. A good shop takes pride in its presentation. “If they can’t keep the bathroom clean, are they taking shortcuts with your car?” Just because automotive work can be a dirty job doesn’t mean the shop has to be a mess, she adds.

Can they explain what’s wrong with your car so that you understand?

The fundamental problem between mechanics and their customers isn’t that the mechanic doesn’t know what he or she is doing, says Mattinat, “It’s that they’re not trained in communications.” Too often than not, the customer doesn’t understand what’s actually wrong with their car because the mechanic can’t break it down in layman’s terms. And while she trains her staff to speak the customer’s language (figuratively, not literally), she also insists that customers ask for a better explanation if they don’t understand the diagnosis.

Do they inspect your car’s three big safety items every visit?

Tires, brakes, and wipers are the three things on your car that have to be reasonably new to keep you alive. If your car doesn’t start, Mattinat says, that’s an inconvenience. “But it can kill you or your family if it doesn’t stop.” She says any decent shop will always look at your brakes, just as a matter of course, as well as your tire wear and your wipers. If they don’t inspect as part of their normal checkup, that should be a concern.

Are they your advocate when it comes to expensive repairs?

What’s your car worth? That’s something a good mechanic is weighing against the cost of a repair. If the amount of repair estimate is more than the value of the car, and they don’t mention it, you should find a new mechanic. “This is a relationship business,” says Mattinat. “When a shop suggests the car isn’t worth the repair, you know they’re in your corner and not just looking to pad their bottom line.”

Don’t discount them just because they use generic parts.

Like generic medicine, generic parts aren’t dangerous ⏤ they’re just cheaper. Both the Insurance Information Institute and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have studied generic automotive parts and neither organization has found them to pose any higher danger than their OEM counterparts. To get an idea of whether a mechanic is overcharging you for a job, use Consumer Reports’ car repair estimator to get a ballpark figure for a similar part or repair in your area. In addition, much like getting a second opinion with a medical problem, you should always call a few other shops to compare estimates, especially on common jobs like brakes or clutches.

Make sure they’re willing to take you on a ride along.

It’s true: shops that won’t let you join their mechanic on a ride along to help show them the problem are shady, says Mattinat. They should want you along because you’re helping them get to a satisfactory repair. If you have to demand it, there could be bigger issues with the shop. Similarly, don’t be in a hurry to have them tell you what’s wrong. Your job is to study the problem when it happens, and see if you can replicate the noise, shudder, squeal, rattle, stall, etc. for them. Make sure the shop knows why you’re coming in and that you want to go for a ride with the tech to replicate the problem. Don’t just drop it off and expect them to figure it out.

Do they bring you into the garage to show you the problem?

Mattinat insists that showing customers the problem with their vehicle is the key to a good working relationship: It builds trust and demonstrates not only that the mechanic knows what they’re doing, but that they want you to know what they’ve found, why it needs to be repaired, and if it’s worth it. If the shop doesn’t volunteer to show you the repair, especially when they’ve diagnosed something expensive, she says, then demand to see it. It’s your money, it’s your car.

Trust your car’s manual, not a shop that claims they know better.

Your car’s scheduled maintenance is right there in black and white in the glove compartment. Don’t trust a mechanic or repair shop that says you “need” X or Y because they know better than the manufacturer who built the car ⏤ because they don’t, with one small exception: Oil. Depending on where you live and how you drive (like if you tow), you might need to refresh the oil more frequently than the owner’s manual indicates. And again, a good shop that knows you and how you drive will make recommendations that may vary slightly from the manual. That’s okay. Just don’t trust a mechanic who suggests too-frequent maintenance that’s not listed in the owner’s manual.

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