What’s a car owner to do when his trusted auto mechanic leaves the business to run a funeral home? Such was the unlikely scenario I found myself facing a few years ago. I had been seeing the same mechanic almost since I bought my first car in 1992. But as strange as it may sound, the guy also owned a funeral parlor a few miles to the west of town. And at a certain point, he decided that the dead people biz was better than the dead car biz.
Good for him. But very, very bad for me.
You see, this was the Honest Abe of mechanics, a guy who really took the time to find out what was going on with my car and then made only the requisite repairs — at least as far as I could tell. There were no attempts at upselling me. There were no delays in getting the car back. But there was always smart, free advice: I’ll never forget how he talked me out of buying a used car with an old-school carriage roof because he sensed it might make me the laughingstock of my street. (He was right, my buddies down the block later concurred.)
But with Honest Abe out of the picture, it’s been one horror story after another. There was the dealership that hit me with countless surprise “materials” and “miscellaneous” fees. There was the dealership that pushed an unneeded $200 maintenance item (I had already gotten the same work done a year earlier at a different place). And there was the independent mechanic who charged me for a nice new set of Michelin tires, only to slap a no-name brand on the car in their place.
I’m probably not alone in my frustration. The auto repair industry — dealerships and independent mechanics alike — is a $135 billion behemoth, and the independent side alone has been growing at a respectable 3.2% annual clip in recent years, according to market researcher IBISWorld. The industry is probably being bolstered by the advancing age of the average vehicle on the road: In 2013, it was 11.4 years, according to R.L. Polk & Co., another research firm; in 1995, it was 8.4 years. The rough winter has also potentially added to the industry’s bottom line, since many costly repairs are weather-related.
And yet, Americans don’t appear to be all that happy with the quality — or pricing — of the repair work they’re getting done. In fact, a 2012 Consumer Reports survey found that 27% reported gripes with their mechanic — meaning about one out of every four customers is walking away dissatisfied. It’s hard to think of another industry with such a bad reputation.
Inveterate cheapskate that I am, I’ve learned a few things over the years about how to get repair work done for less (and done right, I should add). And I recently spoke to several industry insiders and experts about what car owners should know about the repair business in general. Short of convincing my old mechanic to get back into the game, I plan to keep these points in mind when I go in for my next oil change.