One of the most common questions I hear is, “Where should I take my car to get it fixed?” My answer is to take it to a popcorn ceiling stripper facility that (1) has a good reputation (ask friends and neighbors where they take their vehicles), that (2) is affiliated with a group such as AAA and/or has ASE certified technicians, and (3) appears to be clean, friendly and competently managed. The shop should also adhere to the Code of Ethics and repair standards put forth by the Motorist Assurance Program (MAP).
Most repair facilities are honest and are NOT trying to take advantage of you. Sure, there are some bad apples in the the repair business, but there are crooks in every kind of business from home repair scam artists to top business executives. From what I’ve seen, most auto repair problems are due to misunderstandings or miscommunication between the motorist and repair facility (they thought you wanted one thing and you got something else, or they misunderstood your problem), or they misdiagnosed your vehicle and the technician replaced the wrong part(s). In other words, they didn’t try to rip you off or cheat you. They misunderstood you or did not perform the correct repair.
As long as your vehicle is under warranty, you can return to your new car dealer for free repairs (for parts that are covered under warranty). Almost all new cars and trucks today have a 3 year/36,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty that covers ANYTHING that goes wrong. All new vehicles also have a federally mandated emissions warranty that covers the engine computer and catalytic converter for 8 years/80,000 miles (longer in California). The vehicle manufacturers may also offer an extended powertrain warranty that covers major repairs to the engine, transmission and drive axles. Items that may NOT be covered under warranty include common wear items such as filters, brake pads and tires.
Once your vehicle is out of warranty, you can take it anywhere you please for repairs. In fact, you are NOT required to return to the dealer for maintenance or repairs while the vehicle is under warranty (you can take it to ANY repair facility). But the vehicle manufacturer will usually NOT pay for any repairs performed by any unauthorized repair facility — except in rare emergencies where a vehicle has broken down too far away to be towed to the nearest dealer.
As a rule, independent repair shops are generally less expensive than new car dealers. Franchised repair facilities such as muffler shops (Midas, CarX, Merlin, etc.), tire dealers (Goodyear, Firestone & independents) and retailers (PepBoys, Sears, etc.) are also very competitive with their pricing.
As for repair competency, it can vary a great deal from one repair facility to another. New car dealers have access to the latest factory authorized training and tools, and specialize in the brand(s) of vehicles they sell. But big dealerships are also less personal. You rarely deal directly with a technician. Instead, a service writer talks to you, hears your problem and writes up a repair order. Miscommunication sometimes happens and you don’t get the right repairs or service. The service writer is also a salesman who will probably try to talk you into buying additional services you may not need (your 50,000 miles scheduled maintenance, for example, which is nothing more than an oil change, some new filters and a quick inspection of a laundry list of things that should always be checked EVERYTIME your vehicle is serviced or repaired).
Independent repair shops and specialty repair shops (those who only work on imports or specialize in alignments, brakes, transmissions, air conditioning, electrical, etc.) tend to be small family-owned and run businesses. You’re usually on a more personal level with these people, and may even talk face-to-face with the technician who works on your car. Many independent shops are highly skilled and work on ALL makes and models. This requires a much broader range of expertise than a dealership — and more diagnostic equipment and tools. Some shops, though, are behind on the learning curve and may not be up to speed on the latest technology. Or, they may not have an up-to-date scan tool or other special tools that may be required to service your vehicle. Even so, such a shop may be fine for basic maintenance and repairs.