“There are so many places to get your car serviced,” says Lisa Christensen, Master Certified licensed mechanic. “Rather than just dropping your car and keys off at the nearest shop, it’s important to do some research and leg work.” Christensen should know. Not only is she a master mechanic, she’s the author of Clueless About Cars and host of two auto-themed radio call-in shows on CJAD in Montreal and CFRB in Toronto.

The basics

Ms. Christensen’s advice starts with the basics. Generally, drivers have three options when it comes to getting their cars repaired or serviced:

  • Independents. “These can be mom-and-pop shops or part of a franchise,” Ms. Christensen says. “Mom-and-pop shops are known for providing really good prices because they want to keep your business.”
  • Specialists. These shops specialize in one service area such as mufflers, brakes or suspension.

    Expert tip: “Specialists often work with one particular line of parts,” cautions our expert. “You’ll want to make sure that the parts they use work well with your make and model.”
  • Dealerships. “Dealerships are good if your car is still under warranty,” she says. “They will use original parts for your make and model.”

Driving factors for choosing a shop

To find and choose the best shop for you and your car, Ms. Christensen advises drivers to do their research:

  • Get references. “Established places will provide references,” she says. If they don’t provide references, check with a consumer protection agency just to be sure.
  • Drive by. “Check to see what their operation looks like during and after hours,” advises Ms. Christensen. “Is it dirty? Are there places for cars to be parked securely? Is the location convenient for you?”
  • Test them. “Have them perform one service such as an oil change to see if their prices are fair, their service is courteous and their work is professional.”
  • Ask about road tests. Explaining a problem to a mechanic sometimes just isn’t enough.
  • “Your mechanic should be willing to perform a road test with you so that they can experience the problem while driving,” explains our expert. “If the shop is opposed to road tests, go someplace else.”
  • Ask about convenience services. Many places are now extending their services to include shuttle service, pager service and even a free car wash when the repair is done.
  • Make it a learning opportunity. “Always ask about how to do minor repairs on your own,” she says. “Good places will teach you how to check the oil if you ask them.”

Pricing pitfalls to avoid

Prices charged from one place to the next can be as different as a Ferrari and a Honda. Be diligent when asking about charges.

  • Hidden costs. Some shops charge labour cost by the hour, while others offer a flat rate for the job that needs to be done, and still others offer package deals and combine services into one price. Whatever the case, be prepared to ask about any unexplained or hidden costs.

    Expert tip:
    “Some places lump in an environment levy — charges to dispose of tires, fluids and parts. Ask them to price this out separately,” advises Ms. Christensen. “Shop supplies may be another hidden cost you want to know about.”
  • Estimates. “Always get an estimate in writing,” she says. “When getting comparison estimates, bring your car in to another shop to ensure that the shops are quoting on the same job.”

    Expert tip:
    “To check on the price of parts, don’t be afraid to call the distributor and other shops.”
  • Haggling. There’s a right time and wrong time to haggle about pricing. “You can haggle with independents, but not with dealerships,” explains Ms. Christensen. “Also, don’t haggle during a busy time of the year — like winter tire season.” She also advises that it’s best to haggle for big jobs, or jobs that combine multiple services, because it is usually cheaper to make a bunch of repairs at one time.
  • Warranty. You are not obliged to take your car into a dealership if it’s still under warranty. “If your independent shop will use original parts and do it for a cheaper price, make sure your invoice includes the kilometre reading, details of the labour involved and parts that were used,” she says.