Ten Tips for Getting Good Automotive Service

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We could also call this article "How to Work with Your Mechanic." Consumer Affairs agencies across the country get more complaints about poor auto repair service than almost any other area. Repair services and the skills of mechanics can vary widely. But in addition to selecting a service center wisely (see FoolProof tips), using these ten tips can help you get satisfactory results working with automotive service centers and technicians.

1. Educate yourself about your vehicle.

At the very minimum, read the owner's manual; familiarize yourself with the vehicle's basic equipment and the manufacturer's recommended maintenance schedules. Learning the functions of the vehicle's basic systems or parts is also a good idea. For example, knowing the basic functions of the battery, starter and alternator, or the components of the "drivetrain" or the basic type steering, suspension and braking systems of the vehicle better enables an owner to understand maintenance and potential diagnoses of problems with these systems.

2. Practice the basics of good auto maintenance.

Many car owners could avoid unexpected breakdowns and costly repairs by following the maintenance schedule recommended by the vehicle manufacturer and by regularly checking the vehicle's "vital signs." Doing these little chores helps you learn about the vehicle, too. Every time you gas up: Check oil and coolant levels and tire pressure. As recommended: change oil and filters; balance and rotate tires; service radiator/coolant; service brakes. Check tread on tires every two months.

3. Pay attention to the vehicle's performance.

Sound, feel, smell and sight can all give vital clues to emerging problems. For example, checking out that high-pitched whine the engine has started making, the slight clicking as the wheels rotate, the slight vibration between 50 and 65 mph, the slight burning smell or smell of hot coolant, a temperature gauge that's running just a little hotter than normal—to name just a few common symptoms—can help you catch and correct a minor problem before they grow.

4. Fix little problems before they get to be big problems.

Taking a vehicle in at the first minor signs of trouble can result in easier diagnosis, quicker fix, money saved, and prevention of larger problems.

5. Be specific about the symptoms the ailing vehicle is exhibiting.

Who knows a vehicle best? The driver. So, when your vehicle suddenly starts making unusual noises or behaving strangely, describe what you hear, smell, feel, or see as specifically as possible. For instance, is the sound a rhythmic "swish, swish" coming from the right front or an irregular hollow clunking sound coming from the rear? Does any strange behavior accompany the sound? When does it happen? How long has it been going on? Does it happen in some situations and not others? Write the symptoms down to take to the service center. Go over these symptoms carefully with the service manager or the mechanic. Ask them to drive with you if that would help you point out a vague problem more clearly.

6. Don't offer your diagnosis or guess to the service center.

After you describe your vehicle's symptoms, let the service center make the diagnosis. If your car is hesitating for three minutes on startup, just describe that. Don't say, "It must be the fuel injectors." If the transmission is slipping, don't say, "I guess I need a new transmission." Voicing your own idea about what's wrong may mislead even a good shop or tempt a less scrupulous shop to sell you something you don't need.

7. Ask for a diagnosis and estimate in writing before you authorize the repairs.

After you've worked with a mechanic or shop for a long period of satisfactory service, a verbal diagnosis and estimate and authorization over the phone may be fine. But a written estimate protects both owner and mechanic.

8. Don't be intimidated. Ask questions.

If the diagnosis doesn't make sense, ask questions courteously. Ask for an explanation you can understand. Good shops are happy to explain what's wrong and to present options for repairing it to a customer. Informed customers are usually happy customers. Good shops will also tell you if more extensive diagnostic tests are needed to identify the problem and what the options and costs are.

9. If anything about the shop makes you uncomfortable, don't hesitate to take your vehicle to another shop.

Perhaps, the diagnosis doesn't seem quite right, the staff members don't have time to answer your questions, or the cost seems excessive. Even if you have to pay a diagnostic fee to the first shop, it's okay to get a second opinion on a large repair or on any recommended repair that has not been explained to your satisfaction.

10. After the repair, you should receive a written record of the work done.

The shop should explain exactly what work was performed, return the old parts if you requested them when you authorized the repair, and present a detailed bill or invoice for your records. A good center will also have a written policy about warranties, refunds, and "come-backs" (how they respond when you come back immediately because the symptom/problem you observed has not been fixed or recurs within a few days).

A Bonus Tip: If the service was excellent, say so—to the shop and to your friends.

Everyone likes to be praised for good work. If the service center and particular personnel there gave you good service, tell them so. If they went out of their way to help, write a letter for the bulletin board. Recommend the shop to friends and tell them to say you sent them.

For More Information

CarCare.org, the website of the Car Care Council, offers a variety of information for maintaining and caring for your vehicles.

How to Find You Way Around Under the Hood and Around the Car, prepared by the Motorist Assurance Program and ASE from the Federal Consumer Information Service

How to Talk with an Auto Repair Technician, an article from the Motorist Assurance Program


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