My first real interaction with a sleazy car mechanic came at the tender age of 22. I was driving from Berkeley to Palo Alto in a 1987 hand-me-down Subaru and the engine blew up. It was my fault. Still at the age of automobile ignorance, I was lax, if not blatantly irresponsible, about upkeep. How was I to know that an engine can explode when it has no oil? They don’t teach you that in college.
With a loud pop, a lot of smoke, and a motionless car, I was quickly schooled in the outcomes of negligence.
A tow truck brought me to the closest repair shop and it took the mechanic about five minutes to sum up the situation. “It’s a goner; not worth fixing,” he told me. I didn’t really trust him, but I didn’t know enough to argue the diagnosis. His analysis was going to cost me $65 but he offered to purchase the car for $50. It seemed like a good enough deal to me. The next day I brought him the pink slip and paid him the difference of $15. There and then, I made a fateful mistake. Instead of sending in the pink slip myself, I assumed (never, ever assume with mechanics) that he would send it in. I cursed myself months later when I got a parking ticket from the Palo Alto police department for an abandoned car, then cursed myself again when I got a bill from a towing company that had been charging me $25 a day for storing my car.
“But it’s not my car, I sold it to the mechanic before all this happened,” I pleaded with my parents, who still had the car in their names.
It didn’t matter. When the mechanic didn’t send in the pink slip, the car remained in my parents’ name and everything thereafter remained my problem. More than $1,000 later, I had learned my lesson.
Mechanics, like dentists, electricians, and Internet technologists, are individuals skilled in a field that the general public knows little about. They hold in their domain the ability to fix our most pressing functions: transportation, eating, illumination, and email. Sometimes, we seem at their mercy; with little knowledge of a subject, how can we dispute their claims? When someone repairs our car, how can we tell who is telling the truth and who is inventing an imaginary automobile ailment designed to drain our bank account and pad his own?
- Women, woefully underrepresented in the auto repair profession, seem like particularly appealing prey for fraudulent mechanics. They see us as being genetically programmed to know nothing about cars.
- Even those of us who may know something about cars still need to find a good mechanic when things go seriously wrong.
- Whether you decide to take your car to a dealership, chain, or independent shop, Deanna Sclar, author of Car Repair for Dummies, recommends looking for the following:
- AAA approval. The group's Approved Auto Repair Program does the leg work for you by visiting and evaluating repair shops according to stringent standards.
- Members of the Independent Garage Owners Association (California Only). If the garage has an IGO sign, that means the garage must abide by a code of ethics dictated by this organization.
- Service/achievement awards. These may include customer-service excellence awards, factory training programs that technicians have completed and other community/civic awards. Check the dates.
- A clean, well-organized facility. How long did it take for someone to help you? Do the workers seem frazzled or untrained? What kind of cars are they working on?
- Guarantees on their repairs. Less than a three-month guarantee? Go somewhere else.
- Major Repairs? “Like a patient seeing a doctor, if it’s major surgery, get a second or third opinion,” recommends Sclar.
Another way to find a good mechanic is to take suggestions and recommendations from trusted sources. After my very expensive altercation with a slimy car guy, I avowed to never have any car I owned be assessed by someone I had no background on. Now when I need mechanic, I talk to friends, family, or others who have the same type of car I have. Ask your neighbors, who may be able to suggest someone local. The Internet, with its wealth of consumer reports and ratings, can augment this type of research, but truly the best source of information is people you know. At best, they give you the name of a reliable fix-it person; at worst they tell you the ones to avoid.
One bad experience with a mechanic can make the whole profession seem rotten. But doing a little research can reward the good guys, dock the bad guys, and ensure that you are treated fairly and competitively. And if you ever need a mechanic in Palo Alto, I know someone to avoid.