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How Do I Know If My Favorite Mechanic Is Ripping Me Off?

Trust — but verify

If the modern automobile had a status on Facebook, it would undoubtedly be “It’s complicated.” With their computer-controlled fuel injection systems, continuously variable transmissions and three-phase four-pole AC induction motors, the days when every Tom, Dick or Harry could wrench on their ride seem long gone. So let us help — especially with the seemingly mundane stuff that if not done properly, your dad and/or his favorite mechanic vowed would ruin your car forever. Because when it comes to cars — and this column — no question is too dumb.

I know dick about cars, so I’ve been entrusting my ride’s well-being to the same mechanic for years. But even when the problem seems small, the cost always seems high. Is there any way to determine whether my mechanic is taking advantage of my loyalty?
Mechanics are like brain surgeons: You haven’t the faintest idea what they’re doing back there, but you’re forced to trust that they know what they’re doing and that, in the end, everything’s gonna come out all right. The only difference, of course, is that brain surgeons, like all doctors, are governed by the Hippocratic Oath: “Do no harm.” Mechanics, sadly, are not.

That said, a good mechanic is governed by a different oath: Make money. And in order to make money, they’d behoove themselves to earn your repeat business. Yet sadly, not all mechanics understand that earning your business by doing good work at a fair rate is the best way to make their money. Instead, they prey on your lack of knowledge of what a catalytic converter is, or whether your car really needs synthetic oil at twice the price of the regular stuff, and gouge you accordingly.

That’s why “gotcha” videos purporting to catch shady mechanics in the act of ripping off little old ladies are a dime a dozen on YouTube:

It’s also why you need to be on your tippy-toes when picking a trustworthy mechanic — like sharks, they smell blood in the water. Okay, in fairness, there are plenty of honest mechanics out there, but knowing what separates the good apples from the bad is the safest way to prevent losing your shirt when all you’re trying to lose is the engine rattle you keep hearing when you drive above 65 mph.

My first question for you, then, is how did you pick your mechanic? If you found them driving your oil-burning whip into the first place you saw, or by picking it out of the proverbial phone book, congrats, you may have set yourself up for failure. Not saying that’s definitely the case, but a good mechanic comes with good recommendations — from friends, family, or if all else fails, the internet. Is the shop well-reviewed on Google or Yelp, for instance? Did a friend tell you they’ve always been treated fairly there? If not, you might have a problem.

Second, a good mechanic will explain — and show you — what the problem is. I can’t stress this one enough. Fixing a car isn’t black magic — things break, corrode or wear out, and thus, there should be ample physical evidence of whatever’s wrong. A good mechanic will be happy to show you exactly what they’re fixing. So if they tell you to trust them that you need “blinker fluid” or that a “bucket of steam” isn’t something you can see with your noob eyes, you might have a grifter on your hands. 

Then again, they might show you a part and say something like, “Yep, this oil filter is just plain worn out,” hoping you don’t know the difference between “gently used” and “kaput.” Which is why you should research how long, generally speaking, common parts last before they need to be replaced, and keep notes regarding how long it’s been since you last replaced them. 

No, you don’t need a new wheel hub, battery or cabin air filter every time you roll it into the shop — especially if you got new ones six months ago. Some parts can last hundreds of thousands of miles, so if your car is only a couple of years old and they’re saying you need a new timing belt, you may want to pump the brakes on a replacement. Remember, a lot of your car’s parts replacement information can be found in your owners’ manual, so you can (and should) always ask for the specs your mechanic is using to justify a part’s replacement, and compare it to the manufacturer’s recommendation.

Which brings up another, related note: Find out how much parts cost. Again, the internet is your friend here; you can easily look up what a new part costs on Amazon, for example. Of course a mechanic is going to add on a standard mark-up. You’re probably getting ripped off, though, if a new fuel pump is $45 on Amazon and $400 at the shop. And so, have them explain the price discrepancy, and if they can’t reasonably justify it, tell them to pull your car off the lift and get out of there.

I know that sounds harsh. But loyalty to your mechanic doesn’t mean you need to be all buddy-buddy with them, either. In fact, know your own power. If something seems fishy, or you aren’t sure about a line item on the work order, don’t just sit there and eat it. Tell your shop you’re going to get a second (or even third) opinion. If they magically start removing services from your bill at the first sign you could take your car somewhere else, that’s a big red flag.

Shady mechanics rely on the hope that you don’t know what you’re doing — or that you’re too lazy to care — to take advantage of you. Don’t be that guy (or gal). Do your homework, don’t pay for anything without thoroughly reviewing what you’re paying for and don’t take any guff for asking.

Not even from your “trusted,” yet curiously expensive, mechanic.