Corner Garage vs. Dealer Service Department

Corner Garage vs. Dealer Service Department


It's a hassle, but you really do have to maintain your car properly if you want it to run well. But where should you take your car for service? There's always the dealership service department but you know it'll probably cost you an arm and a leg. There's also Joe's Garage — right down the street, but can you trust them to do the job right?

Although most people assume that new and used car sales are the big moneymakers, the service industry is no small potatoes: Service repairs for 2007 are forecasted at almost $150 billion in the U.S. alone, according to the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association. Of this, $12.2 billion is labor, and $137.7 billion is for parts and chemicals.

So where to go? Below we've outlined some of the pros and cons of the dealers versus the corner garage. Bear in mind that "corner garage" means smaller, independent repair shops, not the chains like Midas, Jiffy Lube, Meineke or Pep Boys. Those chains, which often specialize in one "area" of the car, fall in a middle ground between the Big Boy dealerships and the mom-and-pop repair shops.

Technical Staff

The technicians at the dealer level are specialists; they are manufacturer-trained and typically work only on your make of vehicle. Most dealers have an ongoing training program for the service staff, which includes not only the service technicians but also the service manager, advisors and support staff (also see our "Roles of the Service Staff"). The manufacturers offer these training programs only to their network of dealers. The dealers typically pay for these programs to keep up with the latest vehicle enhancements and repair techniques.

A manufacturer-trained and experienced technician is one of the dealers' biggest assets. So dealers typically offer higher salaries or other incentives in order to recruit and retain these employees. Of course, these costs are passed on to the customer in higher labor rates.

This is not to say that the dealers always have the best technicians. Many independent repair facilities are started by previous dealer employees who want to operate their own repair store. Once on their own, they can continue to stay current with the latest repair advancements by taking classes and getting certified through the (Automotive Service Excellence). Many technicians are both manufacturer- and A.S.E.-certified, so don't be afraid to ask about their certifications.

Although A.S.E. training is less "make" specific than the manufacturer's training, the technicians at these facilities can be just as expert in their knowledge, depending on their experience. There are many shops that specialize in only one make and so can be trusted to know their stuff. Other shops that deal with a variety of makes may specialize less, but can be terrific if you have more than one make of car, want one-stop shopping and prefer to see the same faces each visit.

Personal Relationships

There is nothing more important than a competent mechanic, and you won't get to know your mechanic unless you go to a small garage. Smaller facilities allow for direct communication with your mechanic. You are able to get to know your mechanic (among others) by name. He (or she) may become very familiar with your vehicle and anticipate issues or problems down the road.

At dealerships, you're often just a number on a computer printout, and you most likely won't even meet the mechanic. Particularly at larger dealerships, you'll have no idea who is working on your car, what his experience is or if the same mechanic will ever work on your car again. Recommendations for the future will probably be confined to whatever is on the manufacturer's or the dealer's own maintenance schedule and will be made by a service advisor.

Although many service advisors know plenty about the vehicles they handle, keep in mind that their role is more that of a salesman than an expert mechanic, so it is not unusual for problem descriptions and diagnostic information to get lost in translation. And since they usually work on commission, service advisors have an obvious incentive to get you to spend more money. This is not to say that service advisors can never be trusted to make recommendations about maintenance or repairs that your car might require, but as a consumer, you should be wary of any high-pressure tactics.

The one-on-one relationship between driver and mechanic that smaller repair shops foster can really help consumers have confidence in both the work that's performed and in the vehicle itself. Local mechanics are more willing to help you understand how your car performs and what it needs. You can ask to look under the hood or the chassis with your local mechanic, and perhaps learn something about what goes where or why a service needs to be performed. A dealer service technician may also be willing to go over particular trouble spots with you, but your access to him depends on your rapport with your service advisor and how busy the dealership is.

Location and Convenience

Repair shops are often in more easily accessible locations than the dealers — as in the proverbial "corner" garage. You might have dozens of small shops to choose from on the drive that stretches between your home and your dealership. Chances are, if the repair or service that you need isn't major, it's a lot more convenient to drive a short way to your neighborhood repair shop than it is to go to the dealer, especially if you need to leave your car for servicing. Of course, if your car needs repairs covered by its manufacturer warranty, or is backed by a complimentary maintenance plan, then it's worth it to drive the extra distance. Further, most dealer service departments will provide a shuttle back to your office or home, provided it's no farther than five miles or so. And many luxury-brand dealers will go the extra mile, providing consumers with loaner cars to drive while warranty work is being performed. Often, these loaners are pulled from cars that are on the dealer's lot (so that, for example, Lexus owners can be given another Lexus to drive while theirs is out of commission). Some dealerships contract with rental car companies; although you may be given a less prestigious loaner to drive, it is transportation nonetheless.

Guarantee on the Work

What about warranties? There the advantage definitely goes to the dealer. First, a dealer will perform repairs for free if your car is still under warranty. Dealers are paid by the manufacturers to perform this service and require the service technician to verify the problem, so you might find that dealers are hesitant to perform warranty work for problems they have difficulty substantiating. Even if you have to pay for repairs outside the warranty period, dealers can back up their repairs with a warranty that is good nationwide. Thus, if the repair doesn't hold, it can be fixed free of charge at any other dealer.

The dealers can also offer manufacturer-backed extended warranties for both new and used vehicle purchases. The manufacturer-backed extended warranties can make service easier because there is a large network of available dealers; this is especially important if you plan on moving or do a lot of traveling in your vehicle. Small shops can offer warranties on service or repairs, but may not offer the same length of coverage or may cover only the parts or the labor, but not both. And if you travel with your vehicle, your warranty may be worthless wherever it is your car decides to give you trouble.

Customer Satisfaction

Dealership owners, or principals, have to pay vehicle manufacturers in order to work under their banner. Since they represent the manufacturer, service departments are required to measure up to corporate standards of customer satisfaction as part of the deal. In fact, customers are often surveyed by the manufacturer or the dealership to measure their satisfaction and (in theory, at least) to handle any unresolved issues. Dealer service departments know that if you're angry with their service, you'll complain to the manufacturer, and that would be bad news for them. Truth is, some dealerships are truly more concerned with keeping "corporate" happy than their customers, and it shows.

Local repair shops, on the other hand, report to no one but you. And since they're smaller, corner garages depend on repeat business and word of mouth to keep a steady stream of customers. They know that a happy customer will tell a friend, but an unhappy one will tell 10 friends. Because you are more apt to know the owner and/or his mechanics personally and may even be part of the same local community, small shops can't really afford to blow you off. They know that friends ask each other for recommendations.

Recalls and Service Bulletins

Dealer service departments have a distinct advantage when it comes to manufacturer recalls and technical service bulletins. If you've moved since you first bought your car, or if the manufacturer simply doesn't have your correct address on file, you may have no clue there's an open recall on your car. Dealers should automatically check for recalls when you come in for service.

Technical service bulletins (TSB), are special messages sent by a manufacturer to a dealer service department detailing a repair or special procedure for a particular problem.

Automotive service software such as Alldata and Mitchell OnDemand5 has allowed independent garages to get manufacturer information on recalls and TSBs, updated on a monthly basis. But keep in mind that these are paid memberships and not every corner garage will have the software at their disposal. So check to make sure that your garage subscribes to such a service. While the independent garage might be able to learn about a recall or TSB on your vehicle, you would still probably have to pay for any substantial the repairs, since your warranty is not valid at that garage.

Parts Quality and Price

Manufacturers and their dealers offer only OE (Original Equipment) parts, which represent a standard of quality and engineering that only the manufacturer can authorize. A 12-month/12,000-mile warranty on parts and labor for repairs and/or service is not uncommon at the dealer level. Many manufacturers offer some of the best warranties in the business on not only the parts but also the dealer's labor to install those parts. But while dealers can offer only OE parts, small repair shops can offer OE or aftermarket parts, which are meant to substitute for the OE part. The advantage of aftermarket parts is that, like generic prescription drugs, they are supposed to perform the same function for a lot less money. There are times, though, when aftermarket parts are inferior to OE parts. By law, if you request OE parts from any repair shop, they are obliged to provide them. So you have the choice at small shops — go with OE parts, or save the money. Depending on what you choose, you may have to wait for a part that's not in stock.


For performance-oriented car owners, small shops provide a unique advantage in that some of them will modify your vehicle to your specifications. Many of these types of shops specialize in a certain make or model of vehicle and often know it better than the dealer technicians, especially when it comes to performance modifications. Although dealers have historically stayed away from customization and performance upgrades, this is starting to change in response to increased consumer interest in the aftermarket. A number of manufacturers now offer performance upgrade kits that can be purchased from and installed by their dealers. Although serious enthusiasts are still apt to find smaller shops the better way to go when it comes to getting maximum performance for their money, dealer retrofits offer a quick and easy route to more performance, while giving you the assurance that none of the modifications will void your car's factory warranty.


Dealers do have a distinct advantage when it comes to facilities. Dealers get manufacturers' assistance with start-up costs and equipment. They get first dibs on any of the manufacturers' newly developed service tools, specifications and, as noted above, recall and service bulletins. That way, the manufacturer keeps the latest information on new cars and the hardware to best service them "in-house," at least for awhile. (This translates to keeping your money in-house, as well.)

Size also matters. Dealers usually have larger facilities and that means more service bays are available to accommodate customers. This can, but doesn't always, translate to quicker turnaround time. You may find it more difficult to get prompt service at large, busy dealerships, especially if you go in without an appointment.

Dealer facilities are often cleaner, more organized and better maintained than smaller shops. At a dealer facility, you may find a waiting room, clean bathrooms, a place to buy car accessories, even the availability of drinks, snacks and television. They may even wash your car before returning it to you. This can make the overall experience a lot more pleasurable.

So how can small repair shops compete with dealers on facilities? The short answer is: They can't. But since smaller shops incur far less overhead costs than dealer facilities, they can charge you less. Often a lot less. The other thing to keep in mind is that although smaller shops may have fewer service bays, they are sometimes able to provide faster service on shorter notice. Whereas your car may be in line behind a dozen others at a dealer service department, the slower pace at independent shops may permit the mechanic to address your needs right away.

Price of Labor

Everything else being equal, sending your car to a dealer for service would be an easy decision, because dealers have a lot in their corner. But it's not equal. Price stands out as the biggest advantage that small shops have over dealerships. Depending on your budget, that can outweigh any and all advantages the dealer has to offer. The overhead at dealer service departments — the nice facilities, trained technician, additional personnel and so on — translates into a higher labor rate per hour — roughly $15-$20 per hour higher, and sometimes more — than that of independent facilities. It isn't difficult to find a huge disparity in parts price markup as well. This means your total bill with a dealer could be significantly more than a small garage, though exactly how much will depend on the kind of service you need and the individual garages you visit. Of course, if your car is still under warranty or is covered by a free maintenance plan, you could end up paying nothing for your visit to a dealer service department. Just make sure to confirm what's covered and what's not before signing off on your service advisor's estimate.

Your Decision

If you do decide that dealer service is what you want, get your name on the dealer's service mailing list. You will get a certain amount of junk mail, but some of that will include coupons for significant discounts on maintenance and service. If you decide to go with a smaller shop instead, look for places nearby that specialize in your vehicle's make; then ask them about prices, certifications and warranties. Finally, no matter what type of service shop you're contemplating, it can't hurt to ask friends for recommendations or to check the Better Business Bureau to see if there have been complaints filed. At least this way you'll know that, no matter what you choose, you won't get taken for a ride.

To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.



  • lovelife lovelife Posts:

    Wow, this is a great article. Being a first time car owner myself, it is great to find articles -much like these- available online. Thank you

  • woodywagon woodywagon Posts:

    It seems as if the person who wrote this article owns a small garage? I have found that those small garages don't have the parts I need, the dealers who don't care for them charge them more than I would have been charged at the dealership I go to. Or often times they use off brand parts that do not work. They never have the up to date technical information and believe me these cars are a lot more complicated than my computer. I have had a couple of occasions where the dealership had a recall or and update that was done at no charge, and I know of a friends who got an entire transmission outside of the warranty period. You would never know about these things at a small garage. They don't provide loaners or give me a ride to work. There is nobody to call when they do botch a job, no factory rep, just the BBB and they don't fix cars. I think your article is guiding us consumers way off target. I do believe you need to check out the dealer and ask others and ask a lot of questions been then when you feel good about you will save a lot more money and time than some Joe Smoes corner shop without half the tools and technical information to fix a car. Oil change are cheaper than the Jiffy places and often include free ones after so many. There liability insurance is better, so your article is misleading.

  • I took my Benz to an oil change place that has been there 20+ years and the filter is on top of the engine. I got home and saw the old filter was still on it with wrench marks. Damn a $79 synthetic oil change wasn't such a great deal after all. I took it back and showed the guy and he starts nodding his head no saying we don't do stuff like that here. I had him come out and look and the mechanic comes walking out exclaiming it wasn't me it wasn't me. So they pull the car back in and attempt to remove the filter and gesture me over to "prove" that the filter was too tight and the wrench just slips so they will try to use the screwdriver method if I will agree to not hold them liable if the housing gets damaged. I just stand there shaking my head and tell them I'll take care of it. I left and went home and ordered a Benz oil wrench on Ebay for $25. It arrives, I put it on, tighten the bolt down on the side that grabs the filter and it comes right off w/o a struggle. I thought wow, a place that advertises they work on most foreign and domestic cars can't figure out how to unscrew an oil filter on an 89 300e LOL! I've seen some of their yelp reviews where they screwed up a computer and a brake job and other jobs that are pretty straight forward. I feel sorry for anyone that takes their vehicle in there to save money!

  • thecardoc3 thecardoc3 Posts:

    This old article and some of the comments amount to one large collection of false perceptions. Taking the newest comment first quick lubes are a big problem for consumers but even with their inherent weaknesses they aren't going to go away. The real problem that quick lubes cause is the entry level job that they are doing used to be performed alongside senior technicians who could assist them when the learning moments occurred. Now instead of being the gateway to a potential career position they are a stand alone dead end job. In essence the quick lube technician is getting the same career introduction to be come a journeyman mechanic that flipping burgers at McDonalds has the potential to lead someone to be a master chef. "woodywagons" response which tries to discredit the article because he/she thinks it was biased towards one segment of the trade demonstrates just as little true experience as the article itself did. For one thing, as a small shop owner I carry as much insurance as the dealer does and the comparisons don't end there. We find and alert our customers when a recall is needed and if they aren't waiting for their car have many time been able to have that dealt with prior to returning the car to the customer. We usually do give customers a ride to work or back home and we had a loaner car until one particular customer ruined it for everyone. As a small independent mom and pop shop that was a big expense for us to offer that. So now back to the article. Anyone can write something that amounts to a set of generalizations based on rough perceptions. There were some accurate points as in I started out as a dealer technician and eventually worked my way to owning my own shop. But just because I did that in agreement with the article that doesn't mean that's how it happened for the shop across the street. Their legacy goes back three generations and started out in the corner gas station with no dealer time at all. Yes the article left room to support both career tracks but it did little else to reveal the trade and what you would have encountered in a career as a technician and especially as a small business operator. For one thing we offered a nationwide warranty just like the dealers can, that was through our association with one of the major parts chains. The article made it sound like you would only get O.E. parts at the dealerships, that's not correct. Many dealers source repair parts from the national chains. Companies like NAPA, CARQUEST, etcetera acquire replacement parts from the very vendors that the O.E. licenses to manufacturer their components. All you have to do is take a few extra seconds to scan the available choices and you'll see when the "actual O.E. part" is called out. In a lot of cases the major chain sources the part straight from the dealer network supplier and as an independent business we have to do our homework because it may be less expensive for us to go straight to the dealer and get the part then it is to buy it from an aftermarket source. The article mentioned specialization and that is an entire subject all to itself. With specializing as done in a dealership today a technician doesn't only learn that manufacturer he/she may do engine work but never touch a transmission. Another may do transmission work while never doing any engine work. Electronics and computer controls while overlapping many of the specialties may have another technician ultimately specialize in just that work and so on. This has the advantage of being much more knowledgeable and experienced within their specialty at the cost of gaining no knowledge and experience that would be necessary to one day make the career step of owning their own shop as a lot of the boomer generation had the chance to do. Tools and software subscriptions, one of the greatest changes in the last decade for shops. Not all that long ago a single scan tool did everything that we really needed. Then came OBDII and flash reprogramming and all of the robotics that are built into the vehicles and a technician couldn't do the whole job anymore with an aftermarket scan tool. For many small shops the choice was to send the car back to the dealership and they chose to not make that investment in tools and training. But yet there were some independents who not only had aftermarket tooling they also stepped up and purchased the same factory tools that the dealers were using and the software subscriptions on top of that. Once the shops started down this path the dealers had a significant advantage cost wise since the dealer really only needed to support the manufacturer that they sell as new vehicles. An aftermarket shop was forced to start to specialize more or attempt to support dozens of manufacturers with all of their different systems, software licenses and tooling. When you add all of that up there are now portions of the work were top independents can easily be more expensive than the dealers might be. The trouble comes down to getting the consumer to see the genuine value in what the shop is providing which can never be measured by the price tag alone. Well that's a glimpse of just how much the article missed the mark, there is no way the writer could have known any of this without having worked in the trade over the last few decades while trying to stay at the top of the craft. The same goes with many of the responses that will come along. There are likely to be anecdotal stories from any individual perspective that will concentrate on one or several alleged events from which someone will try to paint the whole picture of the trade as they see it. My own experience doesn't paint the picture for the entire trade either, the only thing it does is advises the reader that they cannot judge anything about the trade based on what they once held as an accurate perception.

  • thecardoc3 thecardoc3 Posts:

    BTW one of the most amusing things we sometimes see is a dealership that attempts to run their service department as an aftermarket shop claiming that they can effectively work on other manufacturers products. If you are really paying attention to and understand the demands of the career then you would recognize their need to specialize limits their ability to generalize and so their people won't be going to training and they won't be buying the tooling and software subscriptions to deal with anything other than what they sell. Now do to movement of technicians inside the trade there could be someone with some product knowledge other than the name of the manufacturer on the marquis, but don't count on it.

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