Avoid Mechanic Rip-Offs With These 7 Expert Tips

The dread starts when you hear a scary knock come from your engine.

Your worries hit another level when that pencil-yellow “CHECK ENGINE” light illuminates its small corner of your dashboard display.

You hope the noise and the light will go away after a few days, but your optimism is crushed a week later when the same knock rings out.

It’s time. You need to go to a mechanic, but you’re scared to death of doing it because you don’t know where to go—and even if you find a place recommended to you by a friend, you still aren’t sure if the shop is going to take advantage of you.

That sense of fear is a common one among car owners. In fact, let’s just call it what it is: repairaphobia.

Like many areas of the consumer world, though, you can protect yourself by learning, so we’re glad you came to HighYa for tips about finding a good mechanic.

We’ve created a list of seven tips based on advice from experts and our own research. So, put your fears to rest for a few moments and get ready to arm yourself with everything you need to find an honest mechanic. 

Before we start, we want to remind you of the golden rule of auto mechanics: referrals are invaluable. Try and go with the recommendations of family and friends who are unaffiliated with a particular repair shop. That being said, the following expert tips will help you further refine your short list for reliable mechanics.

Tip #1: Beware of the Super-Cheap Oil Change

It’s hard to pass up on the “$18.99 Oil Change” banner you see every day as you drive to and from work, right? After all, a 5-quart jug of oil can cost you that much, and that’s not even including a filter or the time it takes you to do the job. 

But, as a September 2014 investigative story by ABC’s 20/20 points out, the oil change is a method of getting you to fork over cash for a “wallet flush”, the industry term for often-unneeded services like transmission and coolant flushes. Watch the full story … it’s about 8 minutes long: 

Here’s the typical scenario: You drop your car off for an oil change and when you come back to pick it up, the mechanic informs you that some of your fluids look like they’re old and dirtied up with grime and particles. The flush, he says, will cost you an additional amount of money (of course) but won’t take that long.

Why does this happen? According to a seasoned mechanic interviewed for the 20/20 story, oil-change shops and repair shops lose money on oil changes and have to find ways to make up for it. Hence, the push for unnecessary services at more cost to you.

We’re not saying that you should never get your fluids changed. Your vehicle’s owner’s manual details when you should change/check your coolant, transmission fluid, brake fluid and power steering fluid.

Sara Thompson, a blogger for The Happy Car (@GreaseMonkeyWA), agrees.

“Coolant and power steering flushes are very commonly suggested, yet often unneeded services,” she says. “Transmission flushes are also rarely necessary and manufacturers do not recommend them.” 

Her advice? Check your owner’s manual for suggested fluid flushes. Manuals usually give you a time frame (every 6 months, for example) or mileage (every 50,000 miles) that helps you know when the fluids need to be changed.

And here’s another thing to keep in mind: oil changes are one of the easiest jobs to do on your own. In most cases, you need about 30 minutes, the new filter and oil, a drain pan, a wrench or two and some gloves to keep your hands clean.

Auto stores like Autozone and Advance Auto Parts usually offer oil change specials (5 qt. of oil and a filter) for between $20 and $25, but you can just as easily get what you need at Walmart for the same price or cheaper.

Tip #2: Don’t Deify ASE Certifications

In the game of spades, the most powerful card in the deck is the ace of spades because other card can beat it. You lay that black bomb down on the table and you win the hand, no questions asked.

Many repair shops also have an ace of spades: certifications from the ASE, or Auto Service Excellence. The ASE is an organization based in Leesburg, Va., that offers mechanic certification tests in a variety of areas covering various vehicle and engine types. Most of these certifications must be renewed every five years.

We liken ASE certification to the ace of spades because consumers think they’re safe if they find an ASE-certified mechanic. But here’s the catch, says O.J. Lopez, owner of the Chicago-based repair shop Fluid MotorUnion (@FluidMotorUnion): ASE certifications are really varied.

For example, mechanics can get certified in auto maintenance and light repair (known as “G1”) by passing a 65-question test. This is a basic certification.

Mechanics can continue their learning by passing a series of nine (A1-A9) “Automobile and Light Truck” certifications that test the mechanic in specific areas like engine repair, transmission/transaxle, brakes and more. Each of the nine areas have tests with at least 40 questions.

Then there’s the E3 certification, in which you can get certified in three different areas pertaining to truck equipment.

Can you see how this can be a good and bad thing? You don’t want to take your truck to a repair shop just because they employ ASE-certified mechanics. What if their mechanics are certified in light automobiles but not trucks and truck parts?

“A large number of dealerships as well as most independent repair shops like to make a big deal about the certifications of their employees,” O.J. says. “Certifications don’t mean what the industry has led you to believe.”

O.J. goes on to say that this big push is happening because it adds credibility to the shop or dealership. So, when a consumer walks in a little wary about a shop’s reputation, the person working the front desk throws down the automotive ace of spades, ASE certification, as if it were the end-all validator.

“It lends credibility to the business that has certified mechanics over the shop that doesn’t,” he said, “The certifications aren’t classes that teach how to specifically fix cars. They are only a test.”

We snooped around on the ASE website and found 16 different categories of tests. Some are just one test, while some, like Automobile and Light Truck category, include multiple exams.

Our advice is to ask your mechanic which ASE certifications he or she has passed. Knowing that information will help you know their level of expertise for your type of vehicle.

Rob Drury, a former auto-industry employee and head of the San Antonio-based Association of Christian Financial Advisors, says, “ASE certifications are issued for specific competencies, so just because one’s mechanic is ASE-certified doesn’t mean he or she is certified in the specific task to be done.” 

Tip #3: Pay Attention to How Mechanics Speak to You

Never underestimate how you’re treated at a repair shop. While treatment alone isn’t the best way to judge the legitimacy of a shop – many a smooth-talker has coaxed a customer into unneeded repairs – it’s a great way to narrow down your choice when taken for the context of the other factors on this list.

The mark of a good mechanic, Rob Drury says, has a lot to do with how they explain the repairs that need to take place.

“A competent and ethical mechanic will answer all of a client’s questions and give a thorough explanation of needed procedures before, during and after the service takes place,” Rob says.

On the other hand, if your mechanic seems like he or she is avoiding your questions, it could be a sign you’ve found a less-than-reputable mechanic.

“A tendency to shy away from questions or to explain in unnecessarily complex terms is definitely a red flag,” Rob says.

Mechanic’s tendency to shy away from questions or to explain in unnecessarily complex terms is definitely a red flag.
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A great way to tackle this tip is to have a few questions in mind when you meet with the mechanic. Ask them, then observe their response.

Jordan Perch, an automotive blogger with Dmv.com, said the mechanic’s tone and attitude are huge.

“The mechanic’s attitude toward the customer is also a factor,” Jordan says. “If the mechanic allows you to ask questions about the repairs and is willing to explain and show what exactly needs to be repaired or possibly replaced, it’s a sign of an honest mechanic who is not looking to scam you.”

Tip #4: Ask for Your Old Parts Back

Before you give your mechanic the okay to work on your car, ask them to give you the old part when the job is done. This will weed out the shady mechanics.

Let’s say you take your car in because the check engine light is on. The mechanic says, “Sorry, but I’ve got some bad news. While I was looking at your engine I noticed your water pump is cracked. You better get that fixed today or it could cause huge problem.”

At this point, asking if you can have the old parts back forces the mechanic to show proof of his doomsday water-pump proclamation, and to show proof that the old part was really switched out. If he or she hesitates or tries to explain why it’s impossible to return the old part, go somewhere else. 

Both Sara Thompson and O.J. Lopez said this an important step in selection the right mechanic:

  • Sara: “With your original part in hand you’ll know, without a doubt, that it has actually been replaced and you can tell if it really did need to be changed.”
  • O.J.: “Always ask to see your old parts; this way, you can be certain they have been changed. This is also a good time to ask the mechanic to explain the failure of the worn or broken part. Who knows? You may learn something!”

We also found this bit of insight in a great article by Lifehacker Editor-In-Chief Alan Henry: “Once you find a mechanic willing to give you back old parts, walk you back to your car and show you what they’re doing, and talk to you like you’re intelligent, stick with them.”

Quick tip: Check local laws and regulations before you throw that old auto part in the trash. Different states have different regulations about what can be thrown in your trash and what can’t. As an example of what’s allowed and not allowed, check out the rules for California and New York.

Tip #5: Avoid Low-Price Brake Jobs

Just like bargain-priced oil changes, $100 brake jobs are meant to bring business to a brake shop. Maybe the most telling thing about these seemingly sweet deals is that, according to Auto Service Costs, brake replacement should cost, at the very least, $100 per axle.

So how can a company advertise a price for a brake job that is, by conventional wisdom, totally impossible?

In 2010, AOL reporter Jurgen Wouters wanted to know the same thing. So, he did a little digging into discount chain Just Brakes.

What he found was pretty astonishing. In fact, one unnamed employee told Wouters that, even though their shop advertised a $99.88 brake job, management expected mechanics to sell an average of $350 in services:

“Anytime I gave the customer a $99.88 brake job, I was called down, and if the … manager happened to be on site I was ordered to make the customer buy more or my job was in trouble.”

But let’s say your mechanic doesn’t push more services on you and does the brake job for $100. O.J. Lopez says even though you’ve escaped the upsell, you probably didn’t escape another issue: cheap parts.

“No good mechanic can make money on low-price brake jobs without using inferior parts or having it done by unskilled laborers,” he said.

And remember, brakes are a fundamental part of safe driving.

“At best, cheap brake parts will cause a noisy squeal every time you use them,” O.J. says. “At worst, it could put you or the public in danger.”

Quick tip: Switching out your front brake pads is a relatively easy fix for DIY mechanics. Doing the job yourself can save a lot of time and hassle. Car & Driver made a great video on changing brake pads…it’s a great starting point for beginners and a good reminder for home mechanics:

Tip #6: If the Shop is Dirty, the Work May Be Equally as Bad

Have you ever walked into a professional’s office – CPA, financial advisor, doctor – and seen piles of papers, a maelstrom of mail and a generally chaotic scene? Most likely not, but if you have, what was your reaction?

We generally tend to judge a person’s skill and trustworthiness by how clean their business property is.

BeenVerified (@BeenVerified) scam expert Justin Lavelle said an auto shop’s physical appearance is an indication of the quality of service you can expect.

“A closer look at the outside and the inside of the auto-repair shop can tell you about the reliability of the mechanics working there and the quality of the services provided,” Justin says.

The cleanliness of a shop and the car pick-up/drop-off area doesn’t speak only to the quality of the work you’ll receive, but also to the overall organizational prowess of the business.

“If the parking lot in front of the shop looks organized and if the cars waiting to be picked up are well-arranged, it’s a sign that the mechanics take their job seriously and perform repair jobs in an organized and efficient manner.”

Tip #7: Ask to See the Labor Guide

Every shop has a labor guide that tells them how long each job should take. Customers rarely see this guide without asking, but it will be a huge help to your decision of you ask the shop to show you their guide.

“There is a labor guide that states the correct labor to charge for each repair,” O.J. Lopez says. “It details the approximate number of labor hours to be charged for each repair. It is there to protect the consumer as well as the mechanic.”

Knowing this data will help you understand if the shop’s quote for the job is ridiculous or reasonable.

Once you get the quote, ask the shop to give you a breakdown of what type of labor will be done and how each one of those tasks is billed.

Doing so will help you avoid double charges on jobs where two different tasks can be completed together, like changing a timing belt and a water pump, O.J. says. Some shops may try and charge you for the two separate tasks when, in fact, they’re so closely related it’s not warranted to charge double.

If you still think your estimate is too high, employ the old-school tactic of getting multiple estimates. Different jobs will cost different amounts of money depending on where you go, Justin Lavelle says, so shop around and see who can give you the best price.

7 Ways You Can Avoid Mechanic Rip-Offs

Tightening Up the Last Few Bolts: An Overview

Finding the right mechanic (if you don’t already have one) is a stressful endeavor. Many times your car isn’t working right and needs to be fixed, but you’re worried about the cost of the repairs.

And as if that wasn’t enough, you probably fear that you’ll end up at a repair shop that’s going to jack up the price of the fix and drain your wallet.

One of the easiest ways to avoid hassles with trumped-up repairs or overcharging is to steer clear of bargain brake jobs or oil changes. Like we said earlier, you can do these jobs, in most cases, yourself or with the help of a friend.

When you drive up to an auto-repair shop, do a quick visual scan to see how clean or dirty the shop is. The cleaner, the better.

As you talk with the mechanic about what needs to be done, be sure to ask if you can see the old parts once the job is done. If they hesitate or make excuses, go somewhere else.

Also, ask to see the shop’s labor guide, as it shows how many hours a particular job should take. Once you know this, your armed with the information you need to determine if the estimate you were given is accurate.

If you think you’re being overcharged, get estimates from at least two other shops.

And, finally, if you feel belittled or talked down to in conversations with the mechanic, it’s a sign that you probably should look elsewhere. Good mechanics will take the time to talk you through what they’ll do, answer your questions politely and make sure you know exactly what’s going to happen.

While these tips aren’t ironclad, they’ll significantly reduce the chances that you’ll choose a less-than-reputable mechanic. And remember, trust your instinct. If your gut is telling you to run the other way, then hop in your car and drive home…or to the next shop.

Now Read: 8 Sales Tricks Car Dealerships Use & How You Can Beat Them

J.R. Duren

J.R. Duren is a personal finance reporter who examines credit cards, credit scores, and various bank products. J.R. is a three-time winner at the Florida Press Club’s Excellence in Journalism contest. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and his insight has been featured on Investopedia, GOBankingRates, H&R Block and Huffington Post.

Avoid Mechanic Rip-Offs With These 7 Expert Tips