Often during my radio show I get the question, "Should I take my vehicle to a dealer, a local independent shop, or a specialist?" It's a good question, but the answer depends on various factors.

Time To Head To The Dealer

The dealership is obviously the place to go when the vehicle is under warranty. It's common sense to have repairs done that are under warranty. If you take your new car that's under warranty for repairs to shops other than the dealership, problems can arise when it comes time for a warranty claim. In this scenario, warranty coverage can be denied if the shop used non-OEM (original equipment) parts or if accessories were installed which compromise the vehicle in a way that could void the warranty.

If the vehicle is out of warranty then it's a matter of where you are comfortable taking your car. Philosophy of old suggests that car dealers always charge more, but that's not the case any more. Having experienced decreased profits from the sale of new and used cars in recent years, car dealers have stepped up their efforts on the service front. Thus, they are quite competitive in the retail repair business.

Comparison-shopping reveals that automotive repair and general maintenance pricing are about the same at dealerships and independent shops. In addition, dealers commonly offer nationwide warranty coverage for their services, which is a big plus in their column.

There are several reasons cited for why some people avoid the dealerships for repairs and maintenance: Perceived higher pricing, non-personal service and attention to customers, less recourse in the event of a problem, and technicians paid on a flat-rate basis.

However, there are other considerations. For example, when there is a recall on your particular year, make, and model vehicle you cannot get coverage from anyone other than the dealership. Finally, consider the fact that the techs at dealerships work on the same makes every day and, more often than not, this enables the tech to diagnose the problem more efficiently because they see the same problems over and over, and become more proficient doing those repairs.

Seeking Out An Independent

Independent repair facilities tend to be woven into the fabric of a community. Oftentimes the owner comes from the neighborhood he or she lives in and knows many people in the community. This gives independents a high grade for the personal touch, generating feelings of trust and comfort with their customers.

However, in the past there was a major problem with the independent shop. They didn't have access to the tools, information, and technical training compared to the car dealers (not to mention the dealers' access to "inside" information from the carmaker) and thus they weren't able to maintain and repair current model vehicles as well. But this disadvantage no longer exists, as independent shops now have access to a number of information services, scan tools and software programs capable of accessing vehicular data, as well as factory-like automotive repair training available to technicians of independent shops.

The caveat when selecting an independent repair facility? Making sure they actually have these tools, information, and trained technicians. Monikers and shingles to look for when selecting an independent shop are: AAA Approved Auto Repair Facility, ASA (Automotive Service Association), iATN (International Automotive Technicians Network), and ASE (National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence). Membership in these associations means that the business and technicians invest in up-to-date, state-of-the-art equipment and repair information. Ask to see the training certificates from the techs. If they have the credentials, they are most likely keeping abreast with updated training.

So when should you consider taking your vehicle to an independent repair shop? After the warranty on your new car has expired, if you feel more comfortable with the independent shop versus the dealer, go for it. Independent shops are often more convenient because they can turn a repair around faster than the dealer that might be backlogged a week or two. Maybe you want to experience the benefits of developing a personal relationship with your service provider, so that you feel like you are doing business with a friend. For many of us, that goes a long way. Shops that want to develop relationships with their customers will usually keep thorough records of your vehicle's repair history, so that a repeat problem or other patterns can be diagnosed quickly and accurately.

The Specialist

Specialty automotive repair shops come in lots of flavors: transmission and drivetrain specialists, HVAC (heating, ventilation, & air conditioning), electronics & drivability, radiator and cooling systems, under car (brakes, front end, tires, wheels, steering/suspension), and foreign car repair. But why would you go to a specialty shop? Simple: When no one else can fix your specific problem.

Specialists are recognized experts in their field and you want to take advantage of that expertise to get the best possible job done. Typically, specialists have the specialized tools, equipment, and knowledge to render an effective and accurate repair in the shortest time possible. Not only do they have the specific knowledge and training needed for the job, but they also deal with the same types of repairs over and over. They understand the idiosyncrasies of the vehicle and/or problem better than most other general repair professionals. Often these sorts of shops will actually work as subcontractors to general repair facilities, including dealers.

To illustrate the value of a specialist, consider this story. A while back, a friend of mine had a problem with a car that was overheating. He went nuts trying to figure out what was wrong and had a new radiator, thermostat, water pump, and hoses installed. There were no leaks and the head gasket was not leaking internally. The cooling system water jackets were clean of sludge, rust, and scale. Based on these facts, this vehicle should not have been overheating, so he took it to a cooling system shop to get an opinion.

The tech asked if he had changed the water pump to which he answered in the affirmative. He then asked my friend where he had purchased the pump. When he told him, the tech informed him that those water pumps had bad impellers (the vane that pumps the water through the system). When the tech removed the water pump that had been installed just one month earlier, they discovered that the impeller had come loose from the shaft. It was spinning freely and unable to pump any coolant through the system. If my friend had taken the vehicle to the specialist originally, he would have saved a lot of time and money.