Keeping Your Car Safe For Less


Car engine repairs are tricky.

Know where to go before there’s trouble under the hood.


Safety, comfort and reliability are all critical components of car ownership.  Yet, too often our decisions are ruled by pocketbook concerns.  It’s a troubling sign when we delay needed repairs, knowing it poses a risk to our loved ones.  In truth, keeping the family vehicle running challenges us to cut out wasteful spending and learn a few car basics.


Here are five keys for car ownership—keys to keep your family safe, your auto running, and doing it all on a budget.


1) Make Smart Choices On Car Repair


The car repair business is plagued by shady operators and rip-off artists. Many people can’t tell a good mechanic from a bad one, so they pick one based on convenience or give up their search and go to anyone who throws up a sign. To a degree, we all contribute to this problem when we fail to make our choices count.


A lot of mechanics are honest, but are often in over their heads. Many others are unscrupulous, and charge for expensive repairs you don’t need. Most mechanics feel entitled to hourly wages that rival surgeons. If you ask them why, you are told their rates are “customary within the industry”.


There are other factors that inflate your bill. Shops come and go quickly. Cars get more and more complicated. Car makers charge exorbitant prices for replacement parts and repair shops have to pass that on. The cost of business insurance and employee benefits keep going up and up. For all of these reasons, it’s vital to work with mechanics you know and trust.



2) Know The 3 Kinds Of Auto Mechanics


Cars are complex beasts.


Your car contains dozens of interdependent systems packed into one moving vehicle. Some of the systems have additional systems inside them. Each was uniquely engineered and complicated to build. All were designed to fit together, work in tandem and deliver peak performance for a multitude of drivers, under a variety of driving conditions.


Your engine, transmission, brakes, and all the rest, must continue to function in extremes.  Whether it’s hot, cold, dirty, moist, dry or some combination of the above, your vehicle is subject to constant vibration, jarred by rough roads and stressed by sudden stops. When you consider cars must be designed to withstand years of abusive wear and tear, it’s a wonder they work at all. Thankfully, engineers continue to develop new technologies to extend the life of our cars and to make them safer.


Establish a maintenance regime.


Every vehicle requires a certain regime of maintenance and over time even the best cars may experience some kind of system failure.  Some systems are difficult to fix.  Others may be hard to access. For tricky repairs, it is imperative to find a good engine mechanic, or major mechanic. But to save money, maintenance items such as oil changes, or other minor repairs, can be done by a secondary mechanic. This could be you, a handy friend, the guy at your oil change shop, or someone else you know who loves cars. At times, you may also need a specialist mechanic, such as a transmission or electrical specialist. Your major mechanic can recommend one when needed.


It’s worth the effort to find a good mechanic.


To save on repairs, it’s critical to know the capabilities of these three different types, and know who should handle what. The best mechanics rarely come cheap–they’ve earned their reputation.   It’s worth the extra effort to find one that’s fair and gives you the straight scoop.   A true expert will SAVE you money in the long run even if he charges a little more. You’ll know he’s “your car guy” when he consistently completes the work right the first time.


3) Find A Good Major Mechanic


Consider the type of repair needed.


Use your major mechanic for big repairs and mysterious problems your secondary mechanic can’t diagnose. Since today’s cars are computerized, your secondary mechanic may not have all of the expensive tools needed, even for some repairs that ought to be simple. This is the result of poor design quality.  When you run into this problem, it’s frequently more productive to blame the manufacturer for wasting your money, and not the guy who ends up fixing all their problems.


If your car starts sputtering, your secondary mechanic can probably get it humming again in short order. If you hear loud clanking under the hood and the engine dies, your major mechanic should step in. The same is true if your car steers funny, or the brakes fail without warning. You should also use him for a full tune up every couple of years, and for an inspection before a long road trip.


What about a dealership?


Many people believe car dealerships offer the best option for servicing a car if you require a major repair.  While dealerships may be more familiar with your car brand and be aware of safety recall issues, the shops run by dealerships tend to be overpriced.  In fact, their rates can be exorbitant.  The unscrupulous dealerships may also try to push you into unnecessary repairs.  Of course, there are exceptions and sometimes a dealer may make a special offer when you buy a car.  For example, free oil changes for the first 100,000 miles.  It might be silly to pass that up.  If you need a major repair and you believe the dealership is your best choice, make sure you investigate typical repair costs first and then insist on a complete and written estimate.


Don’t let size fool you.


When you shop car repair, never let size or appearance fool you.  The best major mechanics tend to have small, established shops in older neighborhoods. The shop is neat, though it may be aging. The interior is clean, with a lift and modern diagnostic equipment. There may only be two or three mechanics, but they all look like pros. There are certificates on the wall showing that they are “ASE certified”, and probably in more than one area of expertise.


Know before you go.


One way to investigate repair costs before you visit a mechanic is go to a website like  You enter the make and model of your car, the item needing repair and your zip code.  Not only will they return an expected price range for your repair, but a list of companies who can perform the service.


Before going to a repair shop check them out on the Better Business Bureau website  See if the company has been in business for many years, with NO unresolved complaints. If the shop you are checking on isn’t listed by the BBB, it hasn’t been in business long enough to prove it can handle your work at reasonable cost. Avoid it.


4) Save Big With A Secondary Mechanic


Be smart.  Save Money.


If you are handy with tools, you can save big money by using your own labor for most minor car repairs. Buy the repair manual for your car to get a better sense of what’s involved. If you are intimidated by machinery, ask around to locate a person known for informally helping people with their cars. You can often get an amazing amount of information at the car parts store if you talk to one of the guys behind the counter.  They might even check your battery or hook up a “scope” to check engine timing.  There are also people who work out of their garage or van, but who have training.  Many have worked in repair shops before. Often they will service your car at a lower rate, because they have no overhead. The best ones also know where to get inexpensive quality replacement parts. For less critical parts, such as car door handles or body parts, they know how to use the local salvage yards.


Does he have any experience?


A good question to ask your secondary mechanic is if he has done this particular repair before. Make sure you agree on a price up front.  It is always best to get a signed estimate on paper. Don’t let him do major repairs, even if he insists he can. That can lead to costly disputes.  Finally, keep a close watch on your secondary mechanic. Ask questions as he does the work.  If it looks like something isn’t right, don’t assume he’ll catch it.  Also, watch to make sure he adheres to the basic rules of safety.  If he performs the work on your property and your car falls off the shaky jack stands he insisted on using, you could be sued.


Know when to say when.


If you’re lucky you may find the an informal mechanic who is so good and fearless that he will come to your home, jack up your car, drop the transmission, tweak it, and get you back up and running in a couple of hours.  Though these guys are rare, they can be a life saver in an emergency. They might save you days in the shop and thousands off your repair bill. But unless you are certain about his abilities or trust the people he has helped before, major mechanical work is seldom worth trying this way. Trust a major mechanic for major fixes and your secondary mechanic for minor ones, for regular oil changes, and so on. Below is a rough guide of typical repairs that a good secondary mechanic might handle. Remember:  Ask your mechanic if he has done these before he begins work on your car.



5) Evaluate Your Car: Too Expensive To Keep?


Reliability translates to money in your pocket.


Reliability is a critical factor to consider when owning an automobile.  If you are lucky enough to drive one of the most reliable car brands, you should experience fewer problems over the years. This can translate into enormous savings for your budget, but there is no strict guarantee.  How do you know if you should sell your car and run out to buy a new Honda? Before making such a major financial decision, it pays to do your research.  Find out exactly how reliable your particular make and model is first. You may discover the car you own is fine, but if the answer turns out otherwise, consider switching cars when you can afford it.


Check Consumer Reports.


An excellent source of information on car safety and reliability is Consumer Reports.   Consumer Reports carefully surveys large numbers of car owners every year, and does some of its own testing as well While they typically charge for the information they gather, your local library may offer it free.


Is it worth the fix?


Today, a reliable car can last for twenty years and hundreds of thousands of miles. Yet once major repairs become a frequent necessity, it may be better to invest in a new car. A transmission repair or a new engine can cost thousands of dollars.  If you’re worried whether or not you are putting too much money in an old car, check its resale value first.  If the fix costs more than the car’s resale value you may never get your money back.  A good source for car value is the Kelley Blue Book   Of course, the risk of serious car problems may mean family safety concerns trump monetary ones.   When there’s even a small risk a repair won’t bring your car up to a minimum standard of safety, it’s a good sign you should skip it altogether and find a new vehicle.


Bonus Tip:


On your next trip to the mechanic ask him which local towing company offers the best deal. Often a little-known company will charge half the going rate, which can be especially important if you break down in the middle of the night.


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