Auto Repair Shop (© Bruce Whitaker)Click to enlarge picture

A mechanic is a doctor for your car, and thus you must be choosy when searching for one to work on your four-wheeled baby.

What constitutes a good repair shop? For some, it's strictly the dealership when their 4-wheeled babies need pampering. Others find safety in numbers and go with an automotive repair chain like Sears. Local independent shops that are not confined by big corporate bureaucracies appeal more to community-conscious folks. And enthusiasts or collectors look for the added expertise of a tuner or restoration shop that can better the breed.

Each type of maintenance facility has its pros and cons. But the type of shop doesn't really matter. It is the people inside it who do. Like a doctor, an automotive technician or mechanic has to be a go-to player in your life. The mechanic or shop has to instill confidence — confidence that will soothe your psyche in a time of desperate need and not heighten an already anxious situation. Unfortunately not all are created equal. Some just want your money, and will do everything they can to separate you from it.

But how can you tell the good from the bad? To help, we've put together this simple guide to choosing an auto tech and shop that can get the job done right the first time and within budget.

Get referrals. In our world of instant messaging, where blogging could one day become an Olympic sport, word-of-mouth recommendations are still the best way to get unbiased opinions. Ask responsible people you trust for recommendations.

Do you have a mechanic who has earned your trust, or do you have a different experience you'd like to share?

Ask for references. Even if you never contact the individuals, you will learn much from how the mechanic or shop manager responds to your query.

Use card-carrying technicians. While a shop's waiting area should be clean and tidy, you'd be better served paying close attention to what's hanging on the walls than what dirt lies on the floor. Look for certifications from the likes of the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) and trade-school diplomas that testify to the qualifications of the technician who will work on your car. Furthermore, look for a AAA-Approved Shop.

"AAA approval and Automotive Service Association membership are both very good signs, as each requires strict adherence to professional standards and a specific code of ethics, as well as the shop owner's agreement to voluntary (and legally binding) mediation in the event of a customer dispute," says Allen Otto, owner and operator of Hansville Repair in Hansville, Wash. For instance, ASE voluntary testing for task-specific certification is the report card by which professional technicians, service advisers and parts personnel are judged within the industry itself. "These credentials are key to servicing the consumer properly," Otto adds. "And most top-tier shops make certification and ongoing training/recertification a prerequisite for initial and continued employment of their employees."

Demand an explanation of services. Communication is important. As a customer, you have every right to fully understand what is wrong with your car, what the shop will do to fix it, how much it will cost and why. The shop's willingness and ability to satisfy your curiosity may indicate how smoothly the shop/customer relationship will unfold. "A good shop will ask what your specific concerns are," Otto says. "Don't confuse this with what services you might like to order. The shop manager should ask you lots of questions and listen carefully to your answers, writing your own words down for communication with the technician(s) who actually will be servicing your car." A key question to watch for is the phone number at which you can be reached with the results of any initial diagnosis and estimate for the repair. "All reputable shops and mechanics will seek your approval prior to making any actual repairs," Otto says.