Best of Deals Car Reviews Repair Shops Cars A-Z Radio Show

Finding an honest shop

My father was a self-taught mechanic who went from car engines to Navy ships and jets, and back to car engines. No (over-rated)college education, but one very smart man.

I have the greatest respect for the super-honest work he did, often at a loss just out of the goodness of his heart. It IS “knuckle-busting work” as “bennyandthejets” (who sounds pretty smart) says.

Just food for thought, though: I’m a nurse, and I make 1/4 of what a mechanic does per hour, and my work is equally important, and I do also supply many of my own “tools of the trade”, and my job is also often dangerous (as in, beaten up by a patient or being injured by lifting, by a failed equipment, stuck by dirty needle,etc.) and often is also dirty, physically exhausting work. I think there is not a retired staff nurse out there without at least 2-3 small scars and a partially ruined back…we earn our money, too. So I do wonder about the relative pay scale. I think, though, it’s the historically feminine role, because there’re plumbers, many other trades who are also relatively overpaid, by a long shot.

But, I agree, many mechanics are dead-honest,and I think the reason why we are so “paranoid” is that we are 100% at their mercy, just as when we see a surgeon who thinks they’ve figured out the problem, fixes it when we’re out cold and can’t look out for ourselves…and if the diagnosis was wrong or the surgery was botched, the personal cost is enormous and often unrecoverable.

Same as with a car when you really need yours to work and you have no money to burn; if you trust the wrong person, you are scr@wed. Up the proverbial creek, as I may soon be.

That situation leaves you jittery and looking for the tiniest good and bad signs, and a lot of fearful resentment, just as with doctors. Not very puzzling, really, and not qualifying as paranoid.

The trouble with a shop needing to earn trust is that if you have a repair and it goes bad, and you have no idea if it is the shop’s fault or not. Is it coincidence, or a low-ethics "set-up for expensive repairs in the future, or a botched job, or whatever. The only way to know is if they tell you. Or you see them featured on “20/20”. All you can do is wonder.

When shops completely disagree about what it is and whether it is due to a botched job, and you went to both in good faith, were courteous and realistic, and you gave them repeat business. and the benefit of the doubt when something went wrong, and all that…and STILL no answers, THEN you get paranoid, or depressed like I am now, LOL.

So, guys, especially “bennieandthejets”, who seems to have a balanced view and high ethical requirements, are there any “red flags” or better yet, “GREEN flags” that are hard-to-mistake signs of ethical, careful, knowledgeable work vs sloppy, devious and ignorant? Please tell us.

As you can see from my Suzuki clutch problem post, I’ve been bounced around and told different things, and have no idea whom to believe.

One more: Other than the expense and just the idea of neighbor-helping neighbor to earn a living, please let me know why to choose an independent. I like the idea, but the service seems to vary the most in honesty/quality—almost all the best mechanics, but also too many of the worst. Dealerships seem most often to be always expensive, just mediocre and hard to communicate with.

I’ve done business with the same independent garage for the last thirteen years. Here is why: My son came home from college with his Ford Taurus. The starter would spin, but not engage–a typical starter drive problem. We were in a hurry, so I took his car to Western Auto. They put in a new starter, but the car would barely crank when the car was hot. I took it back, but Western Auto claimed it couldn’t duplicate the problem. I took the car to this independent shop when it was hot. The engine would hardly turn over. The proprietor measured the current draw and determined that it was the starter. He wrote down the current draw on a piece of paper, signed his name and said “Take this to Western Auto”. He wouldn’t take a penny for his time. When I went to Western Auto, and showed them what this indpendent shop had written down, they immediately replaced the starter with no questions asked. I figured with a shop that had a reputation that other shops wouldn’t question, that this independent must be o.k. They gained my confidence and my business.

My brother owns a plumbing firm. I was with him once when he received a call about a dripping faucet. He told the customer he could come out and his charges for a service call. He then explained to the customer in great detail how the customer himself could fix the faucet. I said to my brother “You just talked yourself out of a job”. “No”, he replied. “I’ve just generated more customers”.

My Dad was like that, and BOY do I notice when I get that kind of service. I stuck with a shop for 8 years before I moved out of state, because one day when I needed to put on a new license plate and the bolts were frozen, they got it on and refused payment.

When something didn’t turn out right, I never doubted they’d done their best and that they knew their stuff. I’m in favor of the “Mom-n-Pop” shop, aka independent. (The term I will henceforth use.) Luky you–too bad your shop is not in Central MO!

Your post really got my attention on the basis that there do seem to be a lot of misconceptions about which trades pay the best. I will start out with this: Just because a shop charges $80/hour doesn’t mean that is the mechanic’s rate of pay!!! This is NEVER true unless you are paying somebody on the side to do the work on his own in your/his garage or, in my case, in the yard. Many successful businessmen who run shops say that the shop should charge about three times the average rate of pay for a technician, but thanks to greed, that rarely happens in reality.

I am a relatively young ASE Certified mechanic. I first got my certifications a few years ago at the age of 20. I was working at the time at a chain undercar shop, doing mostly brakes and custom exhaust (an art form few have or can ever acquire), but also tackling difficult diagnostics, major engine and transmission repair, and anything else that came my way. I started there in 2004 at $7/hr. The shop labor rate was $60/hr and the highest paid technician there made $8.75/hr. I got my first raise about six months after earning my certifications, basically by threatening to quit. That got me a fantastic $9/hr, note the sarcasm. I knew I could go work at McDonald’s and make more than that, but continued because I love working on cars. In fact, when I WAS working at McDonald’s, many of the girls there were talking about taking CNA classes because they can start as a CNA making $9.50/hr.

As of now, I no longer work on cars for a living, partially because I can no longer afford to do so, and also because I lost my job doing so, which was a blessing in disguise. I had an angry, impatient customer over my shoulder while I was working on his car. I accidentally dropped a wrench in the cooling fan, destroying the fan and radiator (maybe this is why friends and family are not allowed in the OR. A surgeon being rushed along by an angry, impatient spouse could get flustered and mess up the operation). We could not get the parts NOW, so he demanded a rental car and I got fired. I was still making $9/hr when I got fired, barely above minimum wage. I was offered a job at a dealership making $11/hr, but turned it down since it was per flat rate book hour, and the only pay guarantee was the service writer’s word that “we never get slow around here,” and I never believe anything a service writer says.

The most money I ever made as an ASE Certified technician was $34,000 a year, and that was including working part time at McDonald’s that year also. I was making about $26,000 a year at the shop alone, and my pay was on par with my coworker’s pay, so they weren’t making much either. By the way, the shop’s labor rate when I got cut loose was $80/hr. I’ve always said, to work on cars for a living, you literally have to be car crazy.

I am still ASE Certified, but currently work as a machine technician in a plastics blowmolding factory. I also make a lot more than I ever could working on cars, which puts my rate of income slightly above the poverty level for a family of three. Six of the top ten best-paying jobs in the United States are in the medical field, and none of the top 25 are in the automotive field. You’re in a good place. As a nurse, I guarantee you do not make four times less than an auto mechanic. In fact, you probably make more than most of them. If you can’t afford to have somebody work on your car, get some tools and a repair manual and do it yourself. That’s how most mechanics learn their trade, through necessity. As far as finding a good, trustworthy mechanic, word of mouth is the best advertisement. Ask friends, family, colleagues, etc. Hope I was insightful and helpful…

Your post was great I have the utmost respect for nurses but your pay figures are all wrong. The most I ever made as a ASE Certifed mechanic was $46,000 for BMW and I worked early,late,Saturdays,Holidays. I don’t think your salary is down in the 10K range. I posted mine now you post yours,I have no reason to lie,in fact I should be ashamed I never made more.I left BMW in 2002 making $15.00 per flate rate hour,the starting pay for BMW mechanics in Tucson now is $20.00 per flat rate hour.

I changed my College major to IT. Bureau of Labor says 70K for starting Network Administrators. Bureau of Labor says 32K in 2004 for mechanics (average and not starting pay.)

Sorta got lost in regards to answering your questions,after I calm down I will try to help.

My daughter recently became an LPN. She’s making pretty good money. More than many mechanics, I’m sure. What dealers charge per hour is not what mechanics make. I doubt you’re making only 1/4 what mechanics make. If that’s true you’re living in abject poverty.

I’ve read an responded to your Suzuki clutch post. I hope you can find a good shop to help you figure this out, but again, I’m going to suggest you consult the service manual you say you have and try to determine who’s right about the clutch cable routing.

Maybe I’m just lucky, but my experience with independents has been very good for many, many years. I’ve dealt with at least half a dozen independent mechanics over the years, depending on what brand I was driving and where I was living. I can’t remember one that ripped me off or did a bad job. I currently know of a good independent for VW/Audi, one for Honda/Acura, one for Subaru, and two for general work on a variety of brands. All of them are honest and I wouldn’t hesitate to take my cars to them or recommend them to friends.

Your last paragraph gives several good reason for avoiding dealers; expense, mediocrity, and difficulty in communicating. I like being able to talk to the owner and possibly even the mechanic who will be doing the actual work. Dealers filter everything through a service advisor who is paid on commission. The more they sell the more they make. This is not in your best interest.

An honest independent will do the work you ask for, and you won’t have to worry about verifying it. They make their money on repeat business, so they want you to be happy. They should be able to give you references if you ask for them. In order to find a good shop, ask around. Ask friends, coworkers, relatives, etc for recommendations. You’ll be surprised how many people have a favorite mechanic they’ll gladly recommend.

I can tell you this; avoid the big chain shops like the swine flu. Same goes for ALL quick-lube places. The horror stories are never-ending.

When checking out a new mechanic I like to see how the shop looks. Is it organized and clean? Are the mechanics friendly and out-going? Do they look old enough to have any experience? How long has the shop been in business? Can you talk directly to the mechanics? Do they have access to a good computerized database?

If you can’t talk to the mechanics, or the shop is dirty and disorganized, or if there are junk cars sitting around, run away.

Just a few random comments.
First, a mechanic would be in absolute Nirvana if he made double what a nurse makes, much less quadruple.
A nurse works 8 hours a nurse gets paid 8 hours. A mechanic can work 8 hours and get paid 4 hours; or even less if they’re wrestling the greasy pig called warranty work at a dealer.

The tools of the trade are far more expensive for the mechanic and it’s very easy to have 20 grand tied up just in the basic tools used.

Dealers are generally more expensive than an independent shop and the reason for that is that a dealer service department has far more expenses, and bigger ones, that an independent shop does not.
My analogy on this issue runs as follows. You need your yard mowed. The 14 year old kid next door will do it for 20 bucks and the lawn service company listed in the phone book will charge you 200 bucks. Why? Overhead, pure and simple.

You are correct that dealers can be hard to communicate with. The reason why is that you the car owner will be conversing with a service writer. Very, very few service writers have substantial mechanical ability and know anything about mechanical issues. They rely on fast talk to cover their ignorance of the field so as not to appear stupid or uniformed.

This is one reason why some car problems crop up. The car owner, the service writer, and the tech working on the car are often not all on the same page. What a service writer says may be something that a mechanic in the shop will strongly disagree with.

Most mechanics and shops (dealers and independents) are honest. The dishonest or incompetent minority tarnish the majority.
People in the field will also see, almost on a daily basis, car owners trying to scam the shop, blame the shop for every hiccup on a 125k miles beaten car, or at the least; fishing for free info so they can “do it themselves cheaper or have their buddy do it for them”.
Heck, we had a guy bring a Subaru in for a clutch estimate. He did not like the price and had the unmitigated gall to insist that he be allowed to do the job himself right outside of the shop doors. He also wanted to use our equipment and “might be in to get some advice”. Well, that ain’t gonna happen. He left mad.

And I don’t consider plumbers overpaid. It’s a nasty, physical job and anyone who can wallow around in the dirt in a spider infested crawl space deserves every penny they get.

You are a nurse and you think a college education is over-rated? That scares me a bit. When I am a patient, I prefer to have healthcare providers who value their educations. The same goes for mechanics. I value the mechanics who take a true interest in learning, and stay up-to-date on the latest technologies. If you were to see the value of education, you could further your career to a point where you don’t have to work in an understaffed facility where you are put in danger. Nurses with higher degrees, like Masters degrees and Ph.D.s, get much better treatment and have their choice of working environments. They also don’t have to do the grunt work.

The best way to find a trustworthy mechanic is to establish a relationship before you have a problem. You can do this by getting your maintenance performed at different places. Evaluate how they treat you and how you feel about the service. When you find a place you like, go there for everything. Bring cookies or doughnuts every once in a while. While you are there, establish a relationship with the person who helps you. Letting them get to know you makes them think of you as a person, and not just a customer. Talk “shop” with them a little. Get to know your car by reading the owner’s manual and if you have any questions about what you read, ask your favorite mechanic or service adviser. The benefit of going to an independent mechanic is that you get to talk directly to the person who works on your car. The possible problem with independents is that some of these guys are not good at interacting with people.

Yes, this was a help, and what a shame you were gifted and mistreated and underpaid. It is true I make more than mechanics, in that case. I am still paying over 550.00 a month in student loans 14 years later.

But I work 5060 hours a week and have a 45-minute each-way commute, so no time to do my own car…also no tools and know that one dumb mistake–or not so dumb–could do in my car.I’ve also noted that, as with doctors, if you’re not an expert yourself but know enough to ask intelligent questions, some shops get pretty ticked off.

But thank you for the insight. I will be mad on behalf of the mechanics now, too.

Okay, now I forgive you, old school, for seemingly making fun of me on my other thread. And I hope you noticed what I said about my respect for my mechanic father.

I make in the upper 50s, with a 4-year very expensive college degree, in a work environment that is grueling. My student loan payments just dropped form 750.00/month to 550, thank God.

Thank you for the insights. You are right that I had no idea what a mechanic makes.

Don’t be purposely obtuse about the college degree, please. I just know many mechanics are hard-won experts in their fields and all have heard the derogatory term “grease monkey” just as the nurse has heard about the bedpan carrier ignorant comment.

I wanted to show that self-taught can still a highly-respect-worthy education, too.

I agree with all else said…but let me be sure you are not suggesting that men bake a few dozen cookies and bring them in sometimes, too…this potentially demeaning advice usually is made to a woman. You wouldn’t be doing that same mistake, would you? Do you bake cookies for your plumber, or just add a thank-you tip and a hearty, Thanks a bunch!"? Just being sure :slight_smile:

Perhaps with the new rules regarding student loans comming into effect you can put you student loans in with your other debt and declare bankruptcy.

Really I do think some more help in regards to student loans is comming just not bankruptcy.

Why should student loan debt be treated different than any other debt? You can even put gambling debt into your debt pot but not student loans.

I know the formula for what amount you are allowed to borrow from the Stafford program,it sounds like you maxed out on Stafford and went for some private money.

You don’t have to look any farther then the Car-Talk show guys themselves. Both graduates from MIT (arguably one of the most prestigious technical/Engineering colleges in the world). One of them has his PHD from Boston University. Very well educated Grease Monkey’s.

First, I was not being “purposely obtuse.” I was sincere in my appreciation of those who value their educations.

Second, I work with several smart and powerful women. They have taught me that there is no shame in using the tools you were born with to get what you want (within reason), especially if the obstacle is bias. Above, you wrote “…if you’re not an expert yourself but know enough to ask intelligent questions, some shops get pretty ticked off.” That is because they are sexist and are threatened by your knowledge. When faced with that situation, you have two choices. You can walk away, or you can use your God given tools to achieve your objective. Either choice is valid, within reason of course.

Lastly, I never suggested you bake the cookies or doughnuts yourself. Assuming you are good at baking would be sexist. Hell, assuming your are a woman because you are a nurse would be sexist too. I never assumed you were a woman. The verb I used was “bring.” And yes, I have brought doughnuts and bagels for my physical therapist and her colleagues, and for the nursing staff at the hospital where my senile grandmother was recovering with a broken hip.

There are only 168 hours in a week. I am not sure how you could work more than 5,000 hours in one week.

I have never seen an inanimate object get ticked off. What does a ticked off shop look like?

I hope the hospital at which you work doesn’t require accurate data entry.