Can you really trust your mechanic?

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The safety and reliability of your car is not something you should take for granted, but everyone dreads that phone call flowing from a routine service: “We’ve found a major problem with your [brakes/suspension/steering/engine/gearbox]…” together with an estimate for required repairs that are going to cost thousands. It can – and does – put a serious dent in one’s budget.

It’s always unexpected, and a significant concern is often whether the purported defects are honest, or merely an unscrupulous attempt to pump up the workshop’s profits. If you’re not mechanically minded, it’s very hard to know.

One such motorist named Julie contacted me recently in just such a predicament. She’d just been handed an estimate for more than $3,000 in mechanical repairs, and she didn’t know what to do. You can read more on Julie’s case here. If this happens to you, here’s what I suggest you do.

The first ‘red flag’ to watch out for is that the vehicle doesn’t seem defective in any way. If you drive it frequently, you know how it feels. If your car isn’t making any strange noises, if it’s steering straight ahead and feels like it always has over bumps, under acceleration, around corners and under brakes, then that’s something to watch out for – it warrants further inquiry – before okaying any repairs.

The second thing to look out for is warning lights. Modern cars are heavily computer controlled – a serious defect in the braking, engine, transmission or safety systems usually activates a warning light on the dashboard. No warning lights together with a mechanic telling you there is a problem warrants further investigation – before you go ahead with any repairs.

If the car doesn’t feel problematic, and if it is safe to drive, get a written estimate for the repairs and tell the repairer you will call to book it in soon. Then get a second opinion from a mechanic you trust, or from a mechanic trusted by someone you know well. In Julie’s case, above, the repairs were completely bogus, and merely an attempt to bolster the workshop’s bottom line that month. No repairs actually needed doing.

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My sense is that this happens far too frequently – often to people the unscrupulous mechanic presumes knows very little about vehicles or mechanical maintenance. Be extremely wary of any reluctance to show you the problem at the component level. If the mechanic won’t put your car up on the hoist and shine a light on a leaking shock absorber, or worn-out brakes, I’d be extremely concerned about that. Likewise, be wary of any reluctance to put the required repairs and a cost estimate in writing.

Most of all, when you find a good mechanic, stick with them. As in most service industries, the crooks tend to give off a certain vibe, and have difficulty retaining long-term customers. Honest mechanics tend to keep their customers a long time.

If you’re looking for an honest mechanic, ask friends and relatives – a recommendation from someone you respect really is the best reference. Lastly, if you suspect you are the subject of an unscrupulous call for repairs, contact Consumer Affairs in your state – they are tasked with investigating and prosecuting dodgy operators.

John Cadogan is at .

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