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Automotive repairs: Taking the stress out of dealing with a mechanic

Dealing with an auto service repair facility doesn’t have to be a stressful experience. At its core, this is a customer service industry, you are the client, and the goal for the provider should be to address your needs while offering you as pleasant of an experience as possible. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, it doesn’t always play out like that.

Car repair — maintenance also falls under that heading — is a big business, estimated to be an industry of more than $10 billion in Canada last year alone, so there’s a very real risk of paying more than is absolutely necessary.

Add to that the fact that many folks don’t really understand how a vehicle works, and a simple service visit can become a daunting task laced with pitfalls, both real and imagined.

Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken to minimize that angst.

In a previous piece, I talked about finding a service provider that makes you comfortable, how once you’d made the primary decision as to the type of facility you’d prefer (dealership service department, chain store/franchise, or privately-owned independent), referrals from customers would be the number one way to increase your odds of picking a winner, with online reviews having some value as well.

Ideally, your first visit to a new service provider should be for a simple maintenance item such as an oil change, or a tire rotation and brake inspection — something relatively straightforward to allow you to get a feel for the place and its staff without the stress of having to sort out some kind of potentially expensive issue with your car.

Of course, reality may dictate otherwise. An unexpected warning light or the sudden squeal of worn brakes might be what gets you headed to that prospective shop. it happens.

Whichever way you’ve ended up there, some of the responsibility for keeping costs in check lies with you. Particularly when it comes to maintaining a newer car that’s still under warranty, there are two key tenets: understand the difference between “recommended” services and “required” services, and, as the internet so eloquently puts it “RTFM!” or read the (bleeping) manuals!

Your Owner’s Manual contains maintenance schedules and information that is important for keeping your warranty intact and extending the life of your vehicle, and it can offer you insight as to whether the adviser’s recommendation of a coolant flush at two years old is actually necessary, or simply a “wallet flush” in disguise. (Insider Tip: Most new vehicles use coolant whose initial replacement interval is between 6 and 10 years….)

If you’re there for a specific concern, it can be intimidating to try and describe the problem to the technician or service adviser, but it shouldn’t be. Just do your best.

Being able to describe the circumstances under which the issue occurred is helpful. Were you accelerating? Braking? Does it do it over bumps or turns, or at/above a certain speed? More likely right after start-up, or perhaps only when it rains? Is it a clunk, squeak, rattle, grind, or hum?

It often seems that customers are reluctant to share information, as even though we mechanics know more it will cost them more.

In reality, the opposite is true; to diagnose a complaint, the more I know, the faster I’m likely to zero-in on or at least replicate and experience it.

One thing I’d recommend against mentioning (especially before hand) is your budget. As my boss tells oversharing customers, feigning shock, “Arrrgh! Never tell the guy behind the counter that! Next thing you know whatever you need will cost that plus $100!”

After a test drive, inspection, or some initial diagnostics have been performed, we’ve reached the point that something has been found or is at least suspected, and repairs or invasive diagnostics (time-consuming processes or taking things apart to verify the concern ) are required.

Now is when you should be aware of Ontario’s Consumer Protection Act. Among its stipulations are the right to an estimate, that said estimate cannot be exceeded by more than 10 per cent, but also that the estimate does not have to be provided for free, should parts and/or labor be required to produce it, although you must be made aware of the cost before hand.

The CPA also spells out minimum warranty periods of 90 days and 5,000 kilometers for any labor and parts paid for, which most service providers will tend to exceed anyway.

If the reasonable folks behind the counter are doing their job correctly, you should have an understanding of what’s required and why. If you’re still not comfortable with what you’re being told, remember that you have the right to decline repairs, and to seek a second opinion.

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