A Modern Survival Guide Interlude
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook for navigating and interacting with the modern world. And this article is an interlude, an article that talks about a tip for modern living. This isn’t a philosophical insight, or a deep discussion of human impulses, or an explanation of some major phenomenon; it’s just something people might want to know. And one thing we all ought to know is how to deal with mechanics.
If you live in America, it is almost a requirement to own a car. Most of our cities and all of our countryside towns are simply not built for people to use mass transit as their preferred transportation option. We’re not Europe; we don’t have robust intercity train systems or comprehensive light rail. We don’t plan many walkable communities. We’re Americans, dammit, and we value our freedom to drive long distances. As a result we’ve built our entire infrastructure around the concept of the automobile as the primary transport option.
And as a consequence of that, sooner or later in life you’re going to deal with a mechanic. It is unavoidable, like death and taxes, unless you never want to leave New York City or some parts of Chicago and Washington, DC.
Mechanics consequently start in the negotiating position of having you over a barrel because they know they’re absolutely necessary. Most of us don’t know enough about cars, especially modern cars with their fly-by-wire electronics, to be able to perform major maintenance. For that matter, many of us live in apartment complexes or similar situations where doing basic maintenance in the garage simply isn’t an option. We need mechanics, and they know it. Why else do you think they can get away with charging you by the hour, rounded up?
With that in mind, here are eleven tips for ensuring that your next visit to the shop isn’t an exercise in wallet-extraction, and is a solution for keeping your car running.
Communication is a two-way street. You need to be able to tell your mechanic what your car is doing wrong, and your mechanic needs to be able to tell you what is wrong with your car. Those are often two very different things.
When you are describing what’s going wrong with your car, more detail is always better. You really do not want a mechanic to have to go on a field trip through your engine compartment to find out what’s going on; for one thing, that’s money out of your pocket (remember — labor charged by the hour rounded up), and also it’s best to avoid taking things apart that don’t need to be taken apart.
So — detail. Talk about what is going wrong in terms of performance, sound, and physical feedback. The phrase “The car isn’t steering right,” isn’t that helpful. On the other hand, “The car pulls to the left like a drunken fratboy, the steering wheel shakes like a scared chihuahua, and it makes a sound like ball bearing going through a grindstone,” is a much better descriptor. That gives the mechanic enough information to start looking for the problem.
On the flip side, beware any mechanic who won’t talk to you in plain language. Plain language avoids technobabble and jargon, and is in terms you can understand. If you don’t understand what the mechanic is saying, and they aren’t willing to put it in terms that you can figure out, leave. It’s that simple. It’s your car and your money, and you deserve to know what’s happening to both.
#2: Ask Questions!
I am all about asking questions every time I’m in the presence of a specialist, and a mechanic is one of those times. Any time you don’t understand something, ask questions. Ask questions about the problem, ask about the repairs, and especially ask questions about any new parts. Ask why things are necessary. Ask what things do. Ask how things break. Ask whether the new thing is as good as the old thing was. Ask what you’re paying for. The mechanic is on your dime — get your money’s worth of information!
#3: Get Estimates
Anytime you have something done to a car that isn’t on the mechanic’s sheet of flat prices, get estimates. The point of an estimate is to keep you out of trouble caused by not knowing what things cost. Remember that sometimes it isn’t worth it to repair a car.¹ For that matter, you may not want to do all the repairs the mechanic advises at the same time. Getting an estimate enables you to make cost/benefit decisions.
You can also use estimates to negotiate, particularly for larger repair jobs. Getting a few written estimates can allow you to shop around; if one shop can beat another’s pricing, and offers the same quality, why not save money?
#4: Get Assurances
Get assurances that the only work that will be done is what you’ve authorized. Slimy shops will often try to sneak in work that wasn’t on the estimate (and you didn’t approve) on the grounds of “Oh, well, we were in there anyway and we always do this.” Even if that’s true it’s still bullshit. Do you expect a restaurant to bring you food you didn’t order, just because other customers like it? Of course not. Same thing with cars. Only pay for work you’ve authorized. If a shop tries to get you to pay for work you didn’t authorize, it’s time to file a complaint and/or retain a lawyer… or at least ask to speak to the manager.
#5: Establish Your Expectations
The Iron Triangle is very much in effect when it comes to trips to the mechanic — you can generally get things either cheap, quick, or good. Getting all three at once is rare. If you want good quality parts, be prepared to pay for them.² If you want quality work, it’ll take awhile. If you want a quick repair, it probably won’t be cheap. And if you want a cheap repair, it probably won’t be good. That’s just the way things are.
#6: Read Your Bible
That is to say, read your car’s owner’s manual, which is your Bible for the purposes of maintaining your car. Know the basics about how your car works — how many cylinders the engine has, how much oil it can take, what kind of oil is recommended, what the recommended service intervals are, etc. This will help you schedule preventative appointments and will also keep you wise to attempts to get you to agree to services you don’t need.
#7: Keep Records
Keep a folder of records on your car’s service history, and look at them whenever you take your car for maintenance. I once had a case where a mechanic tried to talk me into a total fluids flush of my car, and the only reason I was able to say “no” was that I knew I’d just had one the prior year. The only reason I knew was that I checked my records.
More than just protecting yourself, keeping good records can help your mechanic diagnose certain problems with the car — knowing when you last changed your belts, brakes, transmission fluid, etc., can all be factors in establishing what might be going wrong.
#8: Check Certifications
Is your mechanic qualified to work on your vehicle? Is your mechanic A.S.E. certified? What is the record of the mechanic’s shop? These are all things that should help you determine whether to even visit a particular mechanic in the first place.
#9: Request Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) Parts
The blower motor for my car’s AC broke last year, and I went through two crappy replacements before I was able to figure out that my mechanic hadn’t been using Ford parts. A lot of after-market and replacement parts are low quality — but they’re cheap, which incentives your mechanic to use them. Request OEM parts whenever you can, but be aware that they may cost more.
#10: Decide Between Dealerships and Auto Shops
Dealership mechanics are expensive, but are guaranteed to be trained to service your vehicle. You may also be required to use the dealership service department for certain maintenance jobs in order to maintain your car’s warranty. Auto shops, on the other hand, are usually cheaper but it’ll take a little more effort on your part to find one that is quality.
#11: Clean Your Car
This is the simplest thing but it needs to be said: get your crap out of your car before you take it to the mechanic! Especially if said crap is in the front seats or in the way of whatever part the mechanic is supposed to be working on. A clean car means less clutter, which means less stuff the mechanic will have to go over, around, or through to get at what they’re supposed to be doing. That translates to less time worked, which means it just might be cheaper for you. Also, it’ll avoid getting greasy fingerprints on your stuff. Nobody likes that.
Summing Up: Caveat Emptor — Let the Buyer Beware
Perhaps unjustifiably, mechanics are not trusted people in our society. There’s a reason for that: they’re dealing with mechanisms most of us don’t understand, we have no easy way to verify what they’re telling us, and they’re expensive enough that most of us feel a little ripped off regardless of whether they’re honest or not.
But you still have to deal with them, and it’s always a case of caveat emptor — let the buyer beware. The good news is that we live in the information age, and finding out who’s good and who’s not isn’t that hard; a Google search will tell you just about everything you want to know about a mechanic, and Yelp or similar services can usually help with customer reviews. There are also online resources like RepairPal that can help price out potential fixes, which will help you come forewarned to any discussion of estimates.
You have to deal with mechanics. But you don’t have to deal with them in ignorance. Just remember that you’re the client, you set the terms of work, you hold a device in your hand that can educate you on any repair process, and there are multiple options for repair shops.
And don’t let them talk you into replacing the Johnson Rod or deframbulating the carburetor. Good hunting, my friends!
¹Specifically, if the cost of repair is more than the current value of the car! In that case it’s time to get a new car.
²Remember that quality generally pays for itself in the long term. Replacing a part once over the lifetime of the car is a much better option than replacing it multiple times.