"What the heck is that squealing noise!?” you ask as you pull out of the driveway and wake up half the neighbourhood.
Uh oh, something is up with your car. It could just be a $15 belt that needs to be replaced, or for all you know it could be a massive engine catastrophe in the making. Either way, you're going to have to head to a garage and ask them to fix whatever the heck it is that needs fixing.
For an unscrupulous mechanic, that's like handing them a blank cheque!
As we know from a recent report from Aviva, there is no shortage of shifty garages and dishonest mechanics out there who won't think twice about padding your bill with unnecessary repairs and excessive fees. If you want to avoid getting ripped off, you need to do some homework and find yourself an honest mechanic.
Know your vehicle
Knowledge isn't just power, it's also the first step to not getting ripped off. If you want to find yourself an honest mechanic, you need to know enough about what is going on under the hood to recognize a scam, and that's going to take a little work. You're going to have to break out that dusty old owners’ manual and browse a few online articles.
Now that might sound like a tall order if you're not mechanically inclined, and we get it, not all of us are natural gearheads. Plenty of people out there just aren't interested in things like compression ratios or the virtues of a turbocharger and never will be, no matter how hard they try. If you count yourself among the mechanically disinterested, that's fine, you don't need to know everything there is to know about all cars, you just need to know a few of the details about yours.
Having even a basic level of understanding about your vehicle will help you avoid getting ripped off. Do you know what kind of engine you have under the hood? Could you point out where the most important components are located? What kind of fluids does your vehicle take (and what quality of fluids have been used before)? Most importantly, do you know the common mechanical issues for your particular ride? A little bit of knowledge can help you separate fact from fantasy when your mechanic presents you with a laundry list of dubious repairs to sign off on.
Not sure where to begin? Try punching the model and year of your vehicle and the word "repair” into a YouTube search and browse through the top few suggestions. YouTube tutorials have taken a lot of the mystery out of mechanical services, allowing anyone to study a step-by-step breakdown of the most common maintenance and repair jobs for most vehicles. If you have a problem, search it on YouTube, you might just find it is a simple repair you can do in your driveway. Even if it is something more serious that will require a professional, knowing the steps involved and an average time frame for the repairs can give you a baseline for the expected labour costs.
Ask your friends about their mechanic, preferably before you need one
This might seem like obvious advice, but asking your network of friends about their mechanics is a good start. Now you might wonder why, in this age of instant online reviews, you'd turn to friends when you could just search online. Well, it might seem a little old fashion, but hearing firsthand experiences from people you trust will help give you a better picture of the local competition than anonymous grousing online (as with most things on the internet, people rarely bother to leave a positive comment when things go well, but take every opportunity to register their displeasure when things go poorly).
Besides, a mechanic is a personal relationship. Think of them like a doctor for your car, you need to know this is the kind of person you can work with. The advice of a friend can be a much better barometer about this kind of thing, letting you know who to try and who to avoid. If a friend has a particularly good mechanic they vouch for, you could even ask for an introduction. A mechanic is less likely to rip you off if they know a favourite customer vouched for them.
Ideally, you'll want to ask your friends for their advice now, while your vehicle is running like a top and you can afford to be a little choosy. Having to pick a garage while your vehicle is on the back of a tow truck is not a situation you want to find yourself in. If you don't have an immediate and clear answer on where you want to go, you leave yourself that much more vulnerable to a tow truck driver pushing his "preferred” garage on you (where he perhaps gets a kickback).
Try out a few different places
Now that you have some recommendations, try them out for yourself! Next time you have a small bit of maintenance to perform (an oil change, swapping out your snow tires, changing the spark plugs, etc.) take it to one of the recommended garages and see how they do. Are they friendly? Is the bill in-line with expectations? Did the garage seem clean and organized? You want professionals who will treat your car with respect, if their own shop looks like a dump, that doesn't bode well for your ride. Get a feel for the place and people and consider if you'd trust them to handle a major repair.
Never be afraid to walk away
Legally, a repair shop has to provide you with a written estimate or an agreed upon maximum value for any repairs. While this is the law, there are always going to be some mechanics out there that will be happy to let you drop the car off for the day and tell you how much you owe later. If there is any kind of hesitation to provide an estimate or a reasonable maximum, just walk away. And of course, never sign a blank work order.
Trust your gut when something smells fishy. If you bring your vehicle in for a small repair and all of a sudden your mechanic is telling you about how the camshaft is going to fall right off and how the entire radiator needs to be stripped and replaced, ask for them to show you what's wrong with it. If it seems suspect, don't allow yourself to be pressured into a repair.
An honest mechanic can be worth their weight in gold when you really need one, so don't settle for less. If you do your homework, shop around, and learn to recognize foul play when you see it, eventually you'll find a mechanic that will treat you, and your vehicle, right.