How to choose a mechanic

Eamon McGinn, a loyal MR reader, asks:

I was wondering if you were willing to share your ideas for picking a mechanic. I had a look through the archives and couldn’t find anything.

Considering a choice between a garage run by an individual mechanic and one run by a nationwide company:

The individual run garage stands to lose more if too many repairs are done (causing me not to return in the future) but he has a temptation to increase the amount of repairs as he gets most of the profits (as opposed to the mechanic working at a company run garage who, ipresume, gets a wage). I feel the latter effect will dominate as I can’t really tell if too many repairs are done.

This would indicate that the company run garage is the one to go for. However the lack of incentive to over-charge also implies a lack of incentive to do a good job.

This is a tough dilemma, though I am not sure if individual vs. company is the trade-off I am worried about.  I would expect individual mechanics in large repair companies to have plenty of incentives to overcharge you (does anyone know how these people are compensated?)

I am pleased that, at 46 years old, I’ve never had to use a mechanic in the traditional sense.  I’ve never needed anything other than standard maintenance.  So my first piece of advice is to always buy a Toyota or Honda.  My second piece of advice is to support free trade and, if I dare say so, to support a reasonable level of immigration.  I suspect that a mechanic who is an immigrant, indeed an illegal one, is less likely to rip you off.  No proof, that’s just my best educated guess, based on the idea that people who are afraid of losing a big surplus are less likely to invite scrutiny and the irritation of others. 

As for the question itself, lack of experience, in this case, also implies lack of expertise.  Readers, do you have good suggestions for Eamon?


Couple of thoughts:

1. Car Talk runs a pretty helpful file of mechanics ( Sort of a "wisdom of the crowds" tool. It is US-specific, though, so don't bother looking for an Alfa Romeo mechanic in Holland.

2. I would second the "Toyota or Honda" advice, with the caveat that not everyone will have the up-front money for the investment. I suspect owning one of these cars turns out to be more cost-effective over the long run.

As a college student who has owned a few beaters without a ton of money to fix them I learned early on "there are mechanics you go to when you want to find something, and mechanics you go to when you don't"
In my experience 'corporate' mechanics tend to only fix what you tell them is wrong, whereas smaller self-employed mechanics tend to build a relationship and take more effort ensure customer satisfaction (most of their business is likely based on word-of-mouth). They are the person I would go to for the 'What's that clicking noise?' problem. On the other hand, if I know I need a new muffler, for example, I'm more inclined to go to the 'corporate' place because they are usually able to replace it more efficiently and less expensively.

For stuff that is "normal" when driving a old car (starter needs replaced, etc.) I go to the company store.

But in my experience when something major comes up (transmission busted, blown head gasket, etc.) where the cost of the repair is making you think about buying a newer vehicle as the alternative, a good self-employed mechanic is the way to go. You need access to reliable word-of-mouth to find such a shop, though.

One more thought: for very minor repairs, there's always that guy hanging out in the parking lot of Auto Zone. The economics of that choice are beyond my feeble musings at the moment, but I recall having a good bit of success back in the day when I needed a belt changed or an alternator installed on my $750 Toyota.

I've owned at least a dozen cars in my 17 years of owning cars - both beaters that needed constant repairs and new cars. I presently own a german made car (an Audi) that I bought new 8 years ago and have never had a major issue behind the normal wear and tear so my first piece of advice is to always buy an Audi*. The two major dealerships that sell and service the cars do so on a mass basis. Everything is built around the factory line mentality for repairs. My local german car repair shop doesn't. For me it all comes down to dealing with a real person and knowing the mechanic that is servicing your car. As for cost basis - the dealership is more interesting is maximizing the amount of repairs or service going through their shop. The local repair shop isn't. At least in my case.

*(this is a completely idiotic bit of advice - some people had nothing but trouble with the things. I haven't. I've owned two Toyota's and had nothing but trouble so I am never going to follow the authors advice).

With mechanics, I worry much more about competency than dishonesty. My experience with dealers especially is that they tend to be 'parts replacers' -- they don't fix the thing (that would take real mechanical talent), they just unbolt the old one and bolt on a new one (priced, of course, at an absurd manufacturer list price).

I have a local guy with his own small garage, and he's great. Mostly he works on the old beater that the kids drive, but has had to do a little work on my newish Toyota (which has been good but not magically trouble-free). And Hondas and Toyotas have been prone to particular serious problems. Toyota has had the 'engine sludge' problem:

And Honda had all kinds of problems with transmission failures in the Odyssey (there was a class-action lawsuit that Honda lost). I have friends with one of those vans who had the transmission replaced 3 times in less than 100K miles. Honda did cover it each time, but after the last replacement the dealer mechanic told them not to expect that one to last either and advised them to sell the van.

I'll second the locally/family owned recommendation. Also, ask someone who's livelihood depends on their vehicle - delivery-man, taxi/shuttle driver, florist, etc. - good, relatively low cost maintenance will be essential for them and their own networks will point them towards mechanics you might not have access to. Look for signals that you've found a good one - hand written thank you notes on the wall, explanations of what is wrong with the car that include things they found but which they recommend you NOT have fixed now but that they will keep an eye on.

For me:

1. In-warranty service: the dealer. After all, it is free.
2. Out-of-warranty service:
a. Simple items (oil change, tires, alignment): My local service station. They have been in the same location in our neighborhood for 60+ years. You can't survive 60 years be delivering bad service.
b. More complex items (entire a/c system): My local, single location, independent shop with whom I have a 25-year relationship. Some of the mechanics have been there they entire time. All the mechanics attend training classes and have the certificates for them. I trust the owner not to sell me something I don't need.

Of course, there is always the buy a Honda approach. 60K miles and not one single repair. Too bad, we got T-boned by a truck and the car was totaled.

"So my first piece of advice is to always buy a Toyota or Honda."

I would have to say that if you want to specialize into some narrow field like professoring, then don't buy anything other than Toyota or Honda if you expect a Toyota or Honda result. ;)

However, even the quality thing is complicated. Some models are not of comparable quality to the ones that gave them the reputation. Also, competition is causing others to catch up in the quality arena. Toyota seems to be reverting to the mean lately. So, "Toyonda" is just a substitution for delving into the details of quality. Some Toyondas are made in the USA, so if all Toyondas are of superior quality, then Bubba is capable of high quality cars.

An analogy is that Volvo "owns" the safety segment. Are they the safest? Only on average. You can get safer models, and since you only need one car, it might be worth it. But if you just want something guaranteed to be pretty safe, you can be confident in a Volvo.

I think the question is, will the generally accepted assumption that Toyonda is highest quality create an insurmountable psychological hurdle to competitors who hope to compete on quality? Or will the assumption leak into the typical Toyonda worker's psyche, making him forget that quality doesn't just happen. It's hard work, but it's not rocket science. Competition can do it.

So, yeah, if you don't want to think about it, buy a Toyota or Honda. However, I own only Toyondas and because I buy used cars I still need good mechanics.

Beyond platitudes, all I have are anecdotes. I've found that the biggest variable is you get a lot more variability with independents. Some are much worse, but some are much better than the chains.

We knew we found a good mechanic when we couldn't get him to do any unneeded repairs. We took in our old car and told him to give it a look over and come up with a list of things to fix. Boy, what a carte blanche for the typical mechanic, right? Well, I have plenty of money, no time for the aggravation of being stranded, but can't bring myself to buy a new car and suffer the depreciation and loss of pride of being an economic patsy. Anyway, the mechanic came up with a couple piddly things, most of which he told me things like "I wouldn't worry about fixing that, just check the oil every couple thousand miles." My wife's theory was that because our car looks old the guy assumed we were on a really tight budget.

How we found this guy: My wife was on the way home and her car (the old looking one) started making an awful noise. She pulled into the nearest driveway which happened to be this shop. It was right after closing, but for free, they looked at the car and found a small pebble lodged between the brake pad and drum. They probably could have charged my wife to replace the engine because she was stranded, frazzled, and unaware.

Next, look at the yard. You want to see a few cars, but not an enormous lot full. This speaks to churn rate and turnaround time.

Recommendations from acquaintances is probably your best tool.

Finally, talking to the guy, if you are emotionally intuitive, will give you an idea if the guy is rational and honest or a sheister.

Lastly, if possible, give him a minor but not obvious repair that you've already researched and know the solution to. If they do anything funny, take your lumps on that one, then move on.

I have a lot of other stories, none helpful, but mostly interesting. If you want to miss out on these object lessons in human behavior and basic mechanics, then buy a 2008 Accord! If you want even less headache, take it to the dealership.

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All will tend to charge the price the market will bear.

Three groups for repairs: Dealers, national or regional shops, independent shops.

Dealers generally have the best access to parts and testing equipment. They have a big advantage in electronic system repairs as they often take a part out of inventory, see if it works or return it to inventory (they aren't supposed to do this, but they often do) The incentives for the dealer is to avoid tinkering with problems, just replace the parts until you replace the right part. Dealer also makes a profit on part sales. But dealers vary on the quality of their service people - some dealers higher fresh faces all the time others like stability. Some dealers will play games with repair bills, just as they do with sales pitches.

Some of the national chains are awful. Some of the brake shops are so dishonest with padded bills that it is really fraud. The fine print on some of the muffler shops makes the promises almost worthless. The profit margins at some of these national specialty shops are so narrow that they try all kinds of games to boost the bill. Look at tire shops that try to compete on the price of the tire but then boost the final price with expensive extras. I have used Pep Boys with some luck for simple repairs, but I would say that is more a function of the local manager then the national chain. An oil change shop even charged my 80 year old mother for extras that I considered shameful. Most managers must meet profit targets, if they are having difficulty they will try to squeeze vulnerable customers.

Independent shops have a hard time. They have more difficulty with new technologies, compared to dealers, and they don't have the volume advantages of muffler, brake, oil shops. In general, if they started their own shops, they are decent mechanics.

I had a mechanic who I liked, but he retired. I liked him because when I brought my car in for simple service he would also check other parts of the car. He would check, hoses, belts, brakes, and I trusted that he would only recommend a repair if it was truly needed. And he had a network of referrals for complex repairs. i.e. he didn't do transmission repairs but he had a transmission shop he would send me to. He also had a relationship with body shops that he trusted. Basically he was a GP doctor for my car with an extensive referral network of specialists. The downside was that he liked to tinker with some repairs, finding low cost alternatives to repairs, which when I was tight for money I liked, but as money became less of an issue I was more willing to pay extra to fix the part quickly (just replace the thing.) I probable paid a little extra to the independent mechanic but the transaction felt cleaner, less like a trip to a whore house, and I felt better when I left. If I had an older car I loved or a special car, I would certainly consider a mechanic who is a true expert in that type of car. But that isn't the case most of the time.

"My second piece of advice is to support free trade and, if I dare say so, to support a reasonable level of immigration. I suspect that a mechanic who is an immigrant, indeed an illegal one, is less likely to rip you off. No proof, that's just my best educated guess, based on the idea that people who are afraid of losing a big surplus are less likely to invite scrutiny and the irritation of others."

My gawd. I think I have heard it all now.

Yeah, lets support illegal immigration and a secret underclass that cowers every day in fear of being found out and tossed uncerimoniously out of the country. Like that is likely to happen.

I would suggest that "a reasonable level of immigration" would be no illegal immigration. Just as a reasonable level of drunk driving would be no drunk driving.

An irresponsible, self-serving thought and recommendation.

As always, YMMV.


I'm way ahead of Tyler. I've always gone to immigrant mechanics since '90, and never felt badly treated, a decided contrast with the complaints of my more conventional relatives and friends.

One of my choices later was Discovered and won a Best-Of-Austin award.

ISTR Ithaca didn't have immigrant mechanics, so probably Schneider wouldn't've been able to try it out. Ithaca also lacks enough choice to have a healthy auto repair industry. does wonders here.

Someone I know who worked at NTB said their mechanics are paid a 40-60% commission on repair work. This seems to be all the wrong motivation to me, but I also don't go there for repairs.

The historian Paul Johnson says:

"garages tend to cheat customers today over repairs [because] they had their
origin in horse mongering, thus preserving an unbroken tradition of fraud"

I would recommend that Tyler Cowen approach finding an auto mechanic the way he would approach finding a good restaurant.

First, stay off the interstate and away from the shopping malls.

Second, avoid national chains.

Third, rely on word of mouth to find the individual or family owned business that customers eagerly return to time after time.*

I don't think the markets are fundamentally different--except in terms of the relative gastronomic experience.

*(That is, for those of us who drive vehicles that need to be returned to the mechanic time after time--I've done the math, a $200 repair three times a year is about equal to 1 month's payment on a new car--so take a 48 month car loan, and figure you can drive the beater for 48 years before it costs as much as the new car--and that's ignoring the interest I can earn).

2004 and later model Hyundais are as reliable as Hondas or Toyotas.

"With mechanics, I worry much more about competency than dishonesty."

This is probably good advice. But, if an expert is more competent, are they not more likely to be able to snooker you? What Levitt called information asymmetry. This is one reason I think women get taken advantage of at shops. The mechanic knows "the spread" between his car knowledge and the female customer's is (on AVERAGE) going to be greater. She's also (on AVERAGE) less likely to be assertive or confrontational.

I think you also need to worry about the mechanic's perception of YOUR competency. Get a Haynes manual.

Wow, I am shocked, shocked to see Tyler loving all things non-American from Camrys to immigrant mechanics -- other work American will not do.

His endorsement of a reasonable level of protectionism is gratifying.
Since Toyota, Honda, and their brethren grew to (and maintain) their level of international competitiveness in a protected market, let’s give our manufacturers some similar breathing space.

We should however avoid a Japanese system of industrial policy: from what I read here, I expect a Yugo-like quality of reality-based thinking from the econ grads who will sit (slumber?) on the planning staff.


Don't go trying to confuse us with your facts. Your inner economist should tell you to bend the data to your preconceived notions.


There you are taking something to its logical conclusion. Industrial policy is bad and any results that go against libertarian orthodoxy should be ignored.

For a beater, neighborhood places are best. Someplace you can walk to, and if you are a grad student or equivalent, you probably live in an area that has them.

For newer cars, I prefer dealers for a couple of reasons. First, they tend to charge a fee for routine maintenance and will do it and get on with it. Compared to places who do a la carte and always seem to find a lot of minor things to get to the same place. Also, I think the make and model specific problems tend to be significant. That is, make/models tend to have design issues and the dealers can almost tell you what is wrong without even looking at it. These are border line product defects, but at least you aren't depending on competent diagnosis, and they have the parts. The dealer also has a computer record of all past maintenance. I have also gotten my dealer to knock off 10% and also they will do a competitive price on tires and batteries.

National chains seem to be the worst of all worlds. The exception being if you use them only for their specialty, they are efficient. That is, what it says on the sign - mufflers, tires, windshields and nothing more. Don't use muffler place for brakes, tire places for tuneups, etc.

Most AAA clubs have an Approved Auto Repair program -- the garages are inspected each year and AAA handles any disputes between the mechanic and the AAA member.

In LA I would always go to immigrant mechanics, I think they do a good job and are quite honest, although the price was typically the same, probably because they tend to have lots of excess people working there. A nice side effect though is that you can usually get serviced right away, they just put the beaters aside for a couple hours and tag-team it on your car.

I prefer the small, local mechanic. My thinking is that if you are a skilled mechanic you will only want to work in a stealership, I mean dealership for so long. Once you develop your skills and realize how much money they are making off your work, you then decide to open up your own business.

The local mechanic has a lot more to loose by treating a customer unfairly and lot more to gain by providing great service.

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