Recently I took a basic course in auto mechanics so that I could become more wheels-savvy. Plus, I wanted to bond with my teenage son. Hey, I didn't grow up doing wheelies in parking lots or tooling around under the hood, learning car repair. This was all new to me.
Our professor, Vittorio Principe, who owns Vittorio Auto Repair in Bronx, New York, called the owner's manual to our vehicles the "forgotten bible" and used it as our basic auto repair guide. Having previously viewed the owner's manual as an oversized book that was way too complicated, I was delighted to learn that it was both user-friendly and full of valuable information.
Principe, who tunes Ferraris for Michael Schumacher and hosts the Auto Lab audio program, clued me in to what you should (and shouldn't) look for when you need auto repair service. Following, 10 tips to get you started, in no particular order because all are helpful:
1. Dog-ear your owner's manual.
Yes, it's your car's bible! Knowing where to find information quickly can help in identifying causes when trouble arises. You may even be able to avoid a trip to the auto mechanic in the first place if you discover that your "problem" stemmed from not understanding your car's controls. Beyond knowing the make and model of your vehicle, it also helps to have the specific trim level on hand for the service technician, as that often identifies the engine size and configuration, transmission and other included features that vary across the model line. Be aware of your exterior paint and interior color codes in case body or upholstery repair is necessary. Keep your vehicle identification number (VIN) available, as this code will likely be required when scheduling service.
2. Decide between the independent corner garage and the dealership service department.
Technicians at the dealer are specialists; they are manufacturer-trained and typically work exclusively 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. (See "Roles of the Dealership Service Staff...Who Does What".) But the dealer service department is usually the most expensive route.
And it doesn't mean that the dealers always have the best technicians. Many independent auto repair service facilities are started by previous dealer employees who want to operate their own repair store. For help deciding which is right for you, see "Corner Garage vs. Dealer Service Department."
3. Keep your records in order, and take them with you.
Have records available on everything you do to maintain your car — and keep them in the car if possible. Well-kept records can be instrumental in correctly diagnosing a vehicle problem the first time. Incomplete records can lead to redundant auto repairs that waste your time and money. A vehicle with a well-documented repair service history also tells your mechanic that you value first-rate work at the recommended intervals, and have done your part to keep your vehicle in tip-top shape.
4. Is the technician trained on your specific vehicle make?
Cars and trucks today are extremely complex machines, and their unique characteristics vary heavily from brand to brand. Making certain that your technician has obtained the proper training for your specific vehicle is crucial since special tools and procedures — many of which are not easily available to the "average" auto mechanic — are required to correctly service your auto.
5. Is the service technician A.S.E.-certified?
Twice annually, the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence offers auto service industry professionals the chance to become A.S.E.-certified. By passing a written test and having at least two years of work experience in auto repair service, auto mechanics earn A.S.E. certification, placing them among the top practitioners in the industry. Inquiring about A.S.E. credentials is important, as the designation better ensures the competence of your prospective car mechanic.
6. Inquire about pricing and labor rates.
Before you surrender your keys to the service department, be sure to determine the labor rate. Shops typically post the rate in a conspicuous place, so be observant and ask questions if you're confused. Make sure you understand the way in which you will be billed for an auto repair. Many shops bill according to estimated repair times established by the manufacturer. A repair that the service tech deems "minor" could indeed be an all-day job according to the manufacturer's specifications.
7. Ask questions. Lots of them.
Don't be intimidated. Ask questions about why something needs fixing or how a technology works. As the customer, you have a right to become more educated about your vehicle.
8. Request Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) parts
Whenever parts need to be replaced, be sure to request genuine OEM components rather than generic pieces. Maintaining exact manufacturer specifications is important in achieving optimum performance. The low-price allure of aftermarket parts often prompts customers to forgo OEM quality, but spending the extra dollars on factory-approved equipment now can make a big difference down the road, especially in terms of vehicle longevity.
9. Ignore the myth of the 100,000-mile tune-up.
"It doesn't exist," states Principe. "Each vehicle has a specific tune-up schedule recommended by the manufacturer. The more you keep the systems clean, the better the vehicle will run."
Variations in climate and driving style also dictate the necessity for maintenance. Commuting in dusty desert conditions will quickly clog air filters, while driving short distances repeatedly can wear out the exhaust system, as moisture is never completely evacuated. Extremely hot and cold conditions require more attention paid to radiator fluid and engine oil.
10. Look for warning signs.
Finally, taking a car in for service is always a case of caveat emptor — let the buyer beware. "If a car mechanic doesn't look you in the eye, speed talks or tries to brush you off — beware," noted Principe. "He's either trying to hide something or is just interested in the receipt at the end of the week."
For more information, see "How To Avoid Getting Ripped Off on Repairs and Maintenance." or the Maintenance and Repair Message Boards on CarSpace.