How do I find a mechanic I can really trust?
February 2, 2004 11:12 AM   Subscribe

How do I find a mechanic I can really trust? [more inside...]

I'm in the process of trying to get a new inspection sticker (after driving around for a year with an expired sticker because of exactly this type of endless frustration in trying to find a mechanic that won't rip me off) -- so far three visits to three different places have given me three entirely different lists of (expensive and somewhat esoteric) things that need to be fixed. I know little about cars (and don't really want to) and am clearly an 'easy mark' for mechanics wanting to pad up the bill. Asking for recommendations from friends has not been helpful. Any ideas on how I can identify a mechanic that I can trust and build a relationship with?
posted by anastasiav to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Looking for one that's busy enough to not need to cheat you to make a good living is one tactic.

If it's just for an inspection, I'd take it to someplace that can't do repairs, like a jiffy-lube or similar, or a place like the "sticker stations" we have in Texas. If such places exist where you are, anyway.

Out of curiosity, what make and year is your car? Is it old and vaguely-busted enough that different mechanics might diagnose a problem differently, even if all are acting in good faith?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:22 AM on February 2, 2004

I haven't had this problem before, but what about taking it to one of those places that advertises that they'll fix it so it will pass the test or your money back?
posted by drezdn at 11:32 AM on February 2, 2004

This is gonna sound sexist, but...
Have a male friend take it in. Even the relatively "liberated" shops I know of assume that girls don't know what they're talking about.
posted by notsnot at 11:38 AM on February 2, 2004

The Ultimate Guide to Finding a Great Mechanic. Courtesy of dear ol' Tom and Ray. My roommate used it recently and seemed quite pleased with the results.
posted by clockwork at 11:41 AM on February 2, 2004

The Car Talk guys have a database of mechanics their listeners recommend. It's called the Mechan-X Files.
posted by jpoulos at 11:44 AM on February 2, 2004

d'oh! what clockwork said.
posted by jpoulos at 11:44 AM on February 2, 2004

Response by poster: Out of curiosity, what make and year is your car? Is it old and vaguely-busted enough that different mechanics might diagnose a problem differently, even if all are acting in good faith?

Its a '97 VW Golf. Its got 90,000 miles on it, but is, by no means 'old and busted' (my last Golf went for 240,000+ before it was smashed by a red-light runner). Its actually a well-cared for little car, just the place that cares for it -- the place I really trust -- doesn't do inspections and refuses to recommend to me someone who will.

One place wanted to fix part of the exhaust, another the CV joints/boots, a third claims I need new rear struts, and that the (two-month old) tires are dodgy.

In Maine, there aren't any 'sticker station' like places -- the only place to get your sticker is from a mechanic, who (obviously) has a stake in getting more of your money than the $18.50 they turn in to the state.
posted by anastasiav at 11:50 AM on February 2, 2004

Odd that your trusted mechanics won't give a referral. Will they double-check another shop's diagnosis?
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 11:56 AM on February 2, 2004

Is there anything like the Mechan-X Files for Canada?
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 11:59 AM on February 2, 2004

I found a good mechanic when I moved to Maine using cartalk's Mechan-X-Files. You can look up mechanics by location and make of car. On preview....

I'm now taking my car to Lou's Auto Repair in Gray (657-6776), found on the Cartalk site, who's closer to my home (northwest of Portland). I'm happy with the work he's done so far. I know he specializes on Subarus and Hondas, but I've had my Amurrican made car there as well and he seems like an honest guy.
posted by SteveInMaine at 12:01 PM on February 2, 2004

Generally most professions have some sort of a certification program instituted and automotive mechanics are no exception. ASE has a program and I'm sure AAA does too. There are probably bad mechanics that are certified but using this info in conjunction with the info above can add an extra layer of security for you. Plus if someone does try to fool you there is probably a form of recourse through the certification program that you can follow. I used the ASE service and found a mechanic whose been fantastic for me and friends I've pointed to them. Better than the dealerships actually.

Oh, and ask for the broken parts to be returned to you, unless their hazardous. Knowing that you want proof of the problem will probably set some folks straight.

BFT: ASE canada. Limited listing though. There must be a more popular program there.
posted by jwells at 12:22 PM on February 2, 2004

Have a male friend take it in
This is excellent advice - the situation is very very wrong but, unless you are prepared to pay (possibly dearly) for your principles, go with the flow on this. In my experience, a female is highly unlikely to get a fair quote for mechanical repairs. My partner and I have proved this many times, with wildly varying quotes for the same repair to the same car from the same mechanic.

ask for the broken parts to be returned to you
This is an excellent way to tell the mechanic that you think he/she is a crook and not to be trusted. The service you receive will reflect this perceived attitude.
posted by dg at 4:25 PM on February 2, 2004

DG - Have you had a bad experience asking for the parts? It's standard practice for AAA approved mechanics:

The Benefits of Approved Repair (from

Returned Parts -- As evidence of work performed, all replaced parts are returned to you upon request, with the exception of those that must be returned to the manufacturer under a warranty or exchange program.
posted by jwells at 5:18 PM on February 2, 2004

you know, i have a tangential question to this. I just got ripped off by a mechanic (by a AAA Car Care Plus center, actually). Sadly, it's nothing I can prove. Here's what happened:

woke up nicely hungover ten minutes before i was due in for a smog and an inspection (just bought a van). Drive like a maniac to get there, take the console off (they wanted to charge me $20 to remove two bolts and two latches). Have a silent little victory when I am able to do so in under five minutes, having saved myself twenty dollars.

My happiness was shortlived, however, because when I went to start my van, it wouldn't go. I thought I had broken something by pulling off the console too roughly and immediately felt like a massive idiot. Anyways, long story short, they call me and say "You need a new alternator". I'm a little suspicious, because I haven't had any real trouble starting it, but hey, what do i know -- and hey, this is AAA -- they wouldn't rip me off, and the price didn't sound that bad (he first quoted me 80 bucks and a half hour of labor, and then jacked it up to a whole hour of labor the next day when i gave him permission. I *did* ask for the part back, but there was a core price, which, thanks to my crazy double-think, i didn't buy because it was too cheap. See, i figured if it was expensive, he was trying to keep me from buying it so I couldn't prove he ripped me off, but it was only nine dollars, so I was like, oh, man, he's not trying to jack me. I do feel incredibly stupid now, thanks for asking).

anyways, the day i get the car back, the EXACT SAME STALL (engine doesn't even try to turn over, but radio, etc comes on) happens -- this is *with* the new alternator. I begin cursing the mechanic until I notice it's in drive. I put it into park. BAM. Starts right up. This is when I get that horrible sinking feeling that hey, there *was* some weird roll-forward when I stopped at AAA, and it was probably because the stupid thing was in drive when I pulled the keys out because I was in a hurry.

Anyways, obviously I can't prove anything. I just called the guy today (he wasn't in, I left a voice mail) and related the whole story, implying that I was going to call the AAA home office and the BBB. I'd be happy if he waived the labor (because the alternator *is* new -- I mean, at least he didn't just clean off my old one and sell it back to me.)

But anyways, there's a lesson for you there. Even AAA can't be trusted (again, this isn't even a AAA-licensed facility. this is a facility OWNED and OPERATED by AAA.)

i'm pretty ready to chalk it up to a $200 learning experience to never ever give a car mechanic the benefit of the doubt ever again, but hey, if there's a way i can get some money back, that'd be awesome.
posted by fishfucker at 5:21 PM on February 2, 2004

fishfucker, that's pretty shady. If they listened to you describing the problem, they should have known to count out the alternator almost immediately. Bad alternators don't keep the car from starting, but they fail to charge the battery and the car will die from loss of power. If your accessories were powered fully but the car wouldn't start, it's a good sign a drained battery (via the alternator) is not the problem.

Really, if they got the car towed in and the battery was still charged, that should have been a good indication not to worry about the alternator. They should probably have tested the old alternator as well... maybe they found it wasn't putting out what it should and blamed it? That may not be deliberate deception, but it seems pretty negligent/dumb to me.
posted by tirade at 7:26 PM on February 2, 2004

on the sheet i got back from the inspection they said it was "below spec" -- however, the guy led me to believe the car would not start without a new alternator (i didn't get the inspection sheet until i had already paid for the alternator, etc).

i think the car was probably driven in. they probably just put it into park and started it up. thanks for the info on the accessories, that gives me some ammo for proving that i didn't need an alternator. wish i knew that beforehand.

i think they were miffed because I decided to take the console off myself instead giving them the twenty bucks and so they decided to shaft me.
posted by fishfucker at 7:31 PM on February 2, 2004

I wouldn't even necessarily trust an ASE mechanic, either. One of my worst car experiences was with one who gave me a three page typed list of everything that was wrong with my car (over $1000 in repairs that had to be done "right away," and even more for later), charged me $250 for it after I told him I wanted to take the car elsewhere for a second opinion, then had the second mechanic (my usual place) tell me the list was highly exagerrated/flat out wrong.

Ask for recommendations from anyone you know: co-workers, clients, neighbors. Ask for a recommendation from a stranger if you spot one who is driving the same car as you.
posted by MegoSteve at 8:16 PM on February 2, 2004

Oh, boy, story hour!
Before I started working on cars/became a mechanical engineer (not that that means anything, I graduated with a bunch of people who couldn't change their own oil)/gained a mechanic brother-in-law, my whole family took our cars to a little place down the road. Six people in the family, six POS cars...One day, the owner showed me the extension they were putting on, and one of the mechanics referred to it as the "[my family name] wing" of the shop. We never went back.

If a shop ever has cleaner, shop towels, or general supply stuff as a line item on your bill, you should be very suspicious. (those things should be part of the shop rate, which is supposed to include such overhead items).
posted by notsnot at 9:13 PM on February 2, 2004

DG - Have you had a bad experience asking for the parts?

No, but I know a few mechanics and this is the #1 thing that will get you on their shit list. It is a simple act of bad faith on your part and any chance of getting along well with the mechanic from then on is gone. To be honest, I can't say I blame them, because it is nothing but an assumption that the mechanic is going to rip you off. If they were going to charge you for parts that they did not use, don't think for a minute that they could not find some suitable parts to present to you - how many people who ask for their old parts would have a clue whether the parts came from their car or not?

Maybe it is different in other countries, but a lot of people swear by the [insert your country/state's automobile association here] approved repairers - generally, as long as there are not too many complaints about a workshop, these approvals are not hard to come by.

Can you ask your tame mechanic to do a "pseudo sticker check" and make sure that it is up to standard? That way, you can take it to someone who can do the inspection knowing that nothing needs fixing.
posted by dg at 3:41 AM on February 3, 2004

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