For those of you who are schoolteachers, you will understand what I am about to relate. You lay out a lesson plan to teach a particular topic, for example, how to solve a basic algebraic equation. You proceed to follow the plan, working with your students until you feel they understand the necessary mathematical principles. A couple of weeks pass and, low and behold, you discover that there are several people who have somehow forgotten what they appeared to have learned! They look at you like you're speaking another language, and you realize you have to start over with the basics again. Frustrated, you repeat the same process until you think they have it, and low and behold, it happens again. Sound familiar? I understand your plight. I get the same question from my readers over and over: "HOW DO I FIND A GOOD AUTO REPAIR SHOP?! WHAT DO I LOOK FOR?!" I've written reams on this subject. As a matter of fact, I've even created a separate section within my website to make this information available, and still the question keeps coming up. So for those of you who have either never read my columns pertaining to this topic, or have "forgotten," allow me to refresh your memory with a few updates.

Before I start, I want to emphasize that the question "How do I find a good auto repair shop?" represents a universal concern. This question comes to me from virtually all over the world on a regular basis (Singapore, Scotland, England, Brazil, Calcutta India, just to name a few). An interesting story related to this concern: A man from Calcutta (his name is Moeeb) asked me if I would come to Calcutta and open an auto repair shop with him, because there was such a need. To quote Moeeb, "There is great opportunity for great profits to be made." He said he would front all the money we needed for a building and equipment. In jest, I pointed out to him that I was not proficient in camel repair and would have to decline. His response was serious. "Tom, people who can afford a car in Calcutta are wealthy, and they usually drive a Rolls Royce, Mercedes, Porsche, Lincoln, or a Cadillac, and NOT a camel! I.e. Sheiks and the like." I still found myself declining the offer, after watching the reaction on my wife's face to the possibility. Anyway, it just goes to show you, car care problems are the same everywhere!

So what is the answer to the universal perplexity pertaining to auto repair? First of all, start shopping for a repair facility BEFORE you need one. Why? Because a more sound decision is made when you're not facing an urgent need for transportation because your vehicle just broke down. We all make poorer choices when we are under the stress of the moment.

Call around to various repair shops and ask them if they are members of associations such as: "NAPA Autocare," "ASP," "Parts Plus," "AAA," or "TechNet." Membership is these associations means the shop has qualified in some way. For instance, to become a AAA Approved Auto Repair Facility, a shop must undergo a rigorous investigation. In addition to having state-of-the-art equipment, training, qualified technicians, and information systems in place, the shop must score high with its customers. AAA contacts about 100 of the shop's most recent customers and conducts a CSI (Consumer Satisfaction Index) study. They ask the customers such questions as:

  • Was the estimate accurate (or significantly less than the actual bill)?
  • Was the job done on time?
  • Did they fix it right the first time?
  • What kind of warranty did they give you?
  • Was the shop clean and presentable?
  • Did they offer a ride to work or wherever you needed to go?
  • Was there a comfortable, pleasant, and clean waiting area?

If the repair facility passes the test, it can hang the "AAA Approved" shingle. As you can see, membership in associations such as the ones mentioned above is a significant qualifier for a shop.

Visit the shop. Is it clean and orderly? Or does it look like it ought to be condemned by the health department? Ask customers in the shop, "Why do you do business with this shop?" Answers such as "They are the cheapest" or "They offer a lot of specials" or "Because the owner is a friend of my father's" don't have much credibility. Look for responses such as: "They fix my car right the first time." "I can trust them to do the job at a fair price." "They welcome my questions and concerns and take the time to answer them." "There are never any surprises when I come to pick up the car." "They patiently explain in plain English what the problem is and explain my options."

While at the facility, look for certifications displayed on the wall. If there aren't any, then ask to see their qualifications; this will tell you a lot about the facility. What shingles and certifications should you look for?

  • Do the technicians have certification from ASE, Delco, ASP, and/or manufacturers such as GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Nissan, etc.?
  • Do they have after market training from such leaders as NAPA/Echlin, Moog, TRW, or Bendix?
  • How about continued education from BOCES or a technical college such as an Alfred University or Erie County College Vehicle Training Center?

These shingles indicate that the technicians have taken the initiative to go beyond the requirements to keep up with the changes in their field. This indicates serious interest as well as pride in their work (not to mention the fact that they are trained in the latest technology). And this extra training not only takes time, but costs them a lot of money!

In addition, membership in such associations as the BBB (Better Business Bureau), ATEA (Automotive Technology and Energy Association), ASP (Automotive Service Professionals), ICAR (Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair), and ASE (The Institute for Automotive Service Excellence) tells you that the owner of the shop cares about the quality of the workmanship and, most likely, operates by a code of ethics required by the association. In addition, membership in these associations usually means that the shop is willing to subject itself to an arbitration process that is binding, should the need for arbitration between customer and shop arise.

Another factor to consider when choosing a repair facility is the equipment available. Is the shop equipped with state-of-the-art equipment, such as hand held computer scanners and diagnostic software, digital volt-ohm meters, logic probes, lab scopes, and on-line computer systems like CAS, Alldata, or Mitchell-On-Demand? Don't be afraid to ask the shop if they have this equipment. These systems and tools are necessary to diagnose and repair your hi-tech car accurately. Without them, fixing your automobile is a hit-and-miss proposition.

Sometimes it's best to take your car to a specialist. Specialists cost more money initially. But because they are specialists, they often know how to pinpoint and repair certain types of problems more efficiently and effectively. Why? Because they deal with these problems every day, plus they have the knowledge, equipment, and information systems necessary to get directly to the problem. While "Joe down the street" is floundering and replacing parts trying to correct the problem, the specialist diagnoses with laser-like accuracy. He can locate the problem and replace only the parts that are necessary. Less guesswork and fewer parts translates into money in your pocket, even though the labor rate is higher! Don't be short-sighted!

Common areas of automotive specialties:

  • Transmission and Drivetrain
  • Computer, Drivability, and Electrical
  • Collision Repair
  • Foreign Car Repair
  • HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning)
  • Radiator Repair & Cooling System Repair

Remember, consider the long-term cost. Don't sell yourself short for a few bucks. Quality repair is not expensive ... it's PRICELESS! Equipment, information systems, and technical training must be up to date!

A final note about shop size. Some people think that the cost of repair varies with the size of the shop (a large shop or dealership is probably more expensive). Not true! These days, with the high cost of equipment, training, and information systems, the cost of repair at dealerships, large repair facilities and small shops is balancing out. As a matter of fact, in a lot of cases, I see the larger entities, such as the dealers and larger repair facilities, offering competitive pricing to the little guys. If service facilities meet the criteria I discussed (and the quality of the parts and warranties are similar) you will find prices are about the same, regardless of size. So your decision at this point is a matter of whom you feel most comfortable dealing with. Some people prefer a larger shop or their dealership, others prefer a smaller shop.

Don't trust your $25,000 automobile, which carries your family through life's daily trips, to just anyone. Pick your repair facility like you would your family doctor. In the long run, this approach saves you not only money, but time and aggravation. Even more importantly, a well maintained vehicle is a safer one.

'Til next time ... Keep Rollin'