Hamilton Choosing & Using Mechanics: Use Garage or dealership

Start by reading your owner's manual. This is your starting point for understanding your car, and what to do when things aren't working right. It is also a free education into how your car should work properly. No mechanic should advise work that is not mentioned in the manual, nor offer parts replacement at a higher frequency. Also, pay attention to your car, for signs that things may be working differently, before they break.

If your car requires service, your first decision is whether to go to a dealership's service centre or to an independent garage. While your vehicle is under warranty, a dealership is your best bet.

New vehicle warranties typically cover the vehicle's parts and systems for three years or 60,000-km. If you drive your vehicle under normal conditions, the manufacturer will pay for the cost of replacements & repairs (and labor) out during the warranty period.

Warranties should cover you whether you get your car fixed at a dealership or by an independent, though this gets more complex if you have an extended warranty (at extra cost, whether though the dealer or a 3rd party). Then you have to review which parts/systems are covered and by which warranty, and what conditions they place on who does the work, and how it gets paid (or reimbursed). You may end up bankrolling the repairs, or worse, getting them done at a shop that is not "approved" and not eligible for warranty reimbursement.

You can go back to the dealership that sold you the car, or another dealership for that make of cars. Shop around. It may be in your neighbourhood or across town.

When your vehicle's warranty is close to expiring, it's time to broaden your set of options. An independent mechanic can save you money, since their labor rate can be about $15 an hour less than a dealership's. They are also more flexible about using less expensive generic "after-market" parts or rebuilt parts, while dealers generally insist on using the more expensive parts, made by the vehicle's manufacturer.

Specialty franchises, like brake and exhaust specialty shops, are often cheaper than all-around service centres (ironically because brake and exhaust work bring in the biggest profits, so they are more efficient). The trade-of is that they won't notice, look at, or repair anything outside their specialization.

When searching for a generalist service centre, the best tool is word of mouth from friends and relatives who are satisfied with pricing and service. You can also see whom the Canadian Automobile Association, or its provincial affiliates, approves.

On a national level, the Canadian Automobile Association runs an Approved Auto Repair Service program whose more than 2,000 member garages must pass an annual inspection. If you have a CAA membership, you can call and ask for a list of approved facilities in your area:

you can also call your Better Business Bureau, to see if a customer has ever complained about a garage.

Ask how long the garage has been in business. A garage that's been running smoothly for five years is probably quite competent with a base of satisfied customers. The state of your mechanic's garage can also provide some important clues, if the shop and customer reception are clean or not.

When checking out service stations and mechanics, keep in mind that the shop with the lowest rate might not be the best deal. Higher rates often reflect a mechanic's training, experience and the amount of money spent on equipment (each mechanic owns their own tools). The first thing to look for is a provincial mechanic's licence, often they are displayed, framed, right in the reception area. If you don't see any, you should ask about employees' qualifications.

You should ensure they are certified to undertake the specific repairs your car needs. Many licensed technicians have certificates from the U.S.-based National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (www.asecert.org), which means they've passed a series of rigorous exams. Though ASE certification isn't required, completing the process indicates a mechanic interested in providing superior service. Conscientious technicians upgrade their skills regularly, to keep up with new technologies and car models.

Have the mechanic produce your old, damaged auto parts to prove the repairs were actually necessary (you should ask for this before repairs begin). Ask the mechanic to phone you if the work will cost more than 10% above the estimate (this is a law in Ontario). This step will save you from the 5 o'clock surprise: picking up your car at the end of the day only to discover that the repair bill has doubled. And once the job is finished, get an invoice that itemizes the work that was done and all the parts that were installed in your vehicle.

When you take your vehicle in for routine maintenance, you can observe a shop's service and the quality of its work. Always ask for a written estimate before you agree to have any work done. Read the estimate closely. Any parts to be replaced, should be listed by name and number, with prices. The estimated hours of labor should also appear clearly, along with a description of the recommended repairs.

If the repair list if long, have the mechanic recommend priorities: what needs to be done immediately and what can wait. Don't be afraid to ask questions, to ensure everything makes sense. If are not getting the right answers or feel unsure, then go elsewhere. At the estimate stage, you are fully within your rights to walk away.

When you pick up your car, drive it around the block BEFORE you pay the bill. If the problem persists, it's easier to "communicate" your concern at this point. There is the advantage that plastic has over real, live, paper money, and that is recourse. If you have a problem with a service facility, simply notify your credit card company that you are dissatisfied. Until the dispute is settled, you won't owe the repair shop a dime.

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