Don't Get Ripped Off at the Mechanic's

How To Stay on His Good Side and Save


  • Driver reading her Owner's Manual

    Driver reading her Owner's Manual

    Check your owner's manual for an engine compartment guide, which will show you the locations of basic parts under the hood. | March 18, 2010

4 Photos

The intimidation I felt as an 18-year-old going to the mechanic alone for the first time made my first year at college feel like a breeze. Sure, I'd been to Jiffy Lube by myself, but I had never been to a garage for real car trouble. You've probably heard the horror stories about teens, especially females, getting charged higher prices because of their ignorance. Some girls give up and go to a dealership. Others bring their boyfriend or father along.

A dealership service center can be a much less stressful choice, but you pay for it in higher service charges and parts prices. I had no choice in the matter. There aren't any dealerships in tiny Elon, North Carolina, and Daddy wasn't making the three-and-a-half-hour drive to escort me to the garage.

Most mechanics, including the two I visited, are professional and will not take advantage of even the most uninformed people. Still, it's important to be able to hold your own and feel confident when getting your car fixed. Here's how I did it.

Look the Part

You don't want to look like you're spending Daddy's money and really don't care how large the bill is. This isn't the time for a Chanel bag or Gucci sunglasses. The goal is to look middle-class regardless of your financial standing. My school is notorious for having some very wealthy students, so I chose not to wear my college hoodie to the shop, just in case they thought I, too, might have a sky-high credit card limit.

Don't try to text your best friend while you're at the shop. Give your full attention to the mechanic to show him you're interested and concerned about your car. You also will learn a lot more about cars by listening to an expert, which will help you be informed for the next time you bring it in.

Don't neglect your car's appearance either. You want it to be obvious that you care about your car. Neaten up the interior, making sure there's no trash or old food. Kyle Weiss, a technician at Crown Nissan in Greenville, South Carolina, said he hates it when dirty cars come into his service center: "We have customers who bring in cars that I'm afraid to get into."

If your mechanic needs to test-drive your car to help diagnose it, but has to hold his nose the whole time because of the week-old Burger King entrails in the backseat, he's probably not going to be able to focus as well. You brush your teeth to make your dentist's time more pleasant; do the equivalent for your mechanic. Run a hose over the exterior, or swing by a gas station car wash if you've been off-roading lately. Don't, however, clean under the hood, as that might wash away evidence of leaks and where they're coming from.

Another tip from Weiss: Fill up before you bring it in. If a technician has to put gas in your car just to test-drive it, you're not going to be his best friend. Keep up with your responsibilities and your mechanic will be more inclined to keep up with his.

Come in Swinging

Do your homework. Before you even set foot in the shop, know the names of basic parts and where they're located under the hood.

Don't worry about cramming for a test on every aspect of the inner workings of a car. All you need to do is use a few terms correctly so the mechanic wonders how much you know. Then, he's less likely to do unnecessary work to get more money out of you.

Check your owner's manual or the manufacturer's Web site for a quick reference guide. The one for my 2003 Toyota Camry showed me where some of the more important parts are under the hood. Knowing where things are will help keep your eyes from glazing over when the mechanic comes out to explain his diagnosis.

In my case, I was pretty certain my car was leaking antifreeze simply because I'd taken the trouble to type its chief symptom — "sweet smell from my car" — into a search engine. Even if you're puzzled by your car's condition, chances are someone else out there has had a similar problem and they've written about it on a discussion board or car care Web site.

It only took me about 5 minutes of reading to learn that dyes are used to look for leaks in a car's coolant system, and even less time to find an easy-to-remember name of a brand of tracer dye. When I suggested the use of a tracer dye to a repair shop owner, he said that wasn't in the game plan for my car, but was noticeably struck by the fact that I had some idea of what the mechanics might use to diagnose my problem.

As with anything, people are way more likely to take you seriously if you use proper terms. Insisting something is wrong with the "oil thingy" makes you look stupid and lazy. If you're too lazy to look something up on Google, you're too lazy to ask about a charge, or question a mechanic's decision.

Be Clear

One way to make friends with the mechanic is to make his job as easy as possible. Try to tell him as much information as he needs to know without giving him your car's life story. Think about the questions you might be asked before you step into the shop, so your answers to the mechanic will be clear and concise.

What sort of driving were you doing when you first noticed the problem? Were you on a freeway, a surface street or parked? Are you noticing any odd smells or sounds? When you describe a sound, don't try to re-create it. You'll just end up looking silly, and the mechanic still won't have a clue what you're talking about. Instead, try to use words like screeching (high- or low-pitched), grinding or thumping.

Weiss said it's a common practice for technicians to ride along with a customer when there is a complaint about strange noises. If you're worried about correctly describing the sound, ask if you can show the mechanic what you mean. It will ensure the mechanic understands what you're talking about, and if he balks at the idea, you'll know you should look for someone else to work on your car.

It's also helpful to know roughly where the sound is coming from. Grab some friends, and go driving with the windows rolled down and the radio off. It will be easy to determine whether it's coming from up front or in the back, and on the driver or passenger side.

Moral of the Story

If you do these things, and generally show interest in what the mechanic is doing, you'll feel confident, and know for sure you're getting the right work done for the right price.

And getting the right price is key when you're on a tight budget. If you're not happy with the repair cost estimate you get from the first mechanic, don't be afraid to try a second repair shop. They may not give you a lower estimate, but you'll feel confident you're not paying too much, simply because you took the trouble to do a little comparison shopping.

In my case, I was skeptical about the diagnosis from the first mechanic, so I decided to get a second opinion. The second mechanic determined that my water pump needed to be replaced, which cost me about $400 — less than I would have paid at the first shop. If you choose to shop around, be sure that you are comfortable both with the mechanics and the work they are going to do for you.

Good mechanics will appreciate your concern for your car, realizing that if they diagnose your car correctly and treat you fairly, you will be more likely to return for other work.

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