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Your Car: Car Repair

Here's what you can do to make getting your car repaired easier—and maybe even cheaper.

1. Develop a relationship with the repair facility. It sounds so California. But, as a practical matter, it's easier to deal with people you know and trust, and who know you. Find a good repair facility before you need it. Then, use it for all your car work.

Dan Scanlan, CSAA's regional manager of automotive services, says, "Building a relationship is very important. It's more important than shopping for price. Have periodic maintenance, such as oil changes, done at the same shop you use for repairs. When you have all your work done at one shop, that shop is familiar with your car's history—and with you—and is better able to serve you."

These days, when customers take their car to a repair facility, they usually speak with a "service writer" rather than with the technician who actually performs the repairs. Ron Camba, who has been the manager and service writer at San Francisco's Pacific Heights Chevron for more than 20 years, says, "Service writers are chosen more for their ability to get along with the customers than for their mechanical knowledge. This can make it easier for customers to deal with a garage. It can also make diagnosis and repair easier because a service writer often is better at eliciting key information."

2. Describe symptoms, don't diagnose. Diagnosis can be complicated. Even with today's electronic diagnostic equipment, service bulletins on the Internet, and highly trained technicians, tracking down the real cause of a problem, especially an intermittent one, can prove a considerable challenge.

"Don't try to diagnose the problem yourself," Scanlan says. "Instead, describe symptoms as completely as you can. For example, rather than saying, 'It needs a brake job,' you might say, 'It pulls to the left when I step on the brakes and makes a scraping sound.' If you suspect a problem with your car, take a few notes you can use when you're talking with the people at the garage."

One old-fashioned diagnostic tool that still works is the test drive—with you along to point things out. "When possible, take the service writer or technician for a test drive, so he can experience the car's behavior for himself," Camba says. "It's always better to make an appointment to take a car in, to be sure there will be a technician available for a ride."

3. Ask questions. "Some people want to know all the details," Camba says. "Others just hand me the keys and say, 'Fix it.' On balance, there will be fewer misunderstandings and more satisfaction if you ask a few questions." For example:

  • How long will the repair take?
  • What parts may be replaced? What is their function? Why are they being replaced?
  • What caused this problem? How could it be avoided?
  • Is there any related work that might be cheaper if it were done at the same time?

This last question, a potential money saver, is often overlooked. "For example," Camba says, "when you change the timing belt on some cars, it can be cost-effective to change the water pump at the same time. If a water hose springs a leak, ask about the condition of the others. The failure of one may be fair warning that others are not far behind.

Always ask if there's anything else related to the specific problem that could be taken care of as preventive maintenance."

Repairers often are hesitant to bring up this last question. According to Camba, "Repairers are sometimes leery of recommending to the customer that other work related to the immediate repair be done at the same time. Customers could see us as overselling. So it doesn't hurt for the customer to ask. If there's a relationship, a degree of trust, the repairer feels more free to offer such suggestions, and the customer, freer to ask."

4. Two final suggestions. Camba speaks from long experience when he advises, "Don't go to the repairer when you're in a rush—miscommunication is much more likely." And, in a Dale Carnegie moment, he reminds us, "Customers whose cars have let them down sometimes come to a repairer angry and upset. This can make communication even more difficult. Treat people nicely."

This article was first published in July 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.