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Confessions of a car mechanic

July 13, 2011
By Larry DeHays

Do you dread having your car fixed? You are not alone. The following are some techniques developed through my 35 years in the business, which can ease the pain, and also a confession from the mechanics’ side of it, which may make me a spy, but I hope to help you understand their thinking. (Inside information.)

Suppose you’ve taken your car in for a simple oil change, and they tell you that you need multiple repairs, naturally totaling multiple bucks. Bummer. Can you believe that the repairs are necessary, and their estimates are competitive? How do you find out for sure? We have ways to make it happen.

First, since you have doubts about what you’ve been told, it means you don’t trust the people you’re dealing with. So you’re behind the eight ball now because you didn’t look for a trustworthy shop before you really needed one. The technique involved here is to move your routine preventive maintenance jobs (like oil changes) around to various shops, to find someone you like dealing with. Then when (not if, but when) something happens requiring repairs, you know who to go to. If you’ve been using the super-cheap/super-fast lube joints, you won’t know any good mechanics. They wouldn’t work in lube-only joints.

Now, since you’re in this jam, here are some techniques to get out of it. You need second, or even third opinions. If the other opinions are in agreement with the first, it’s a good sign that the repairs are necessary, and prices are competitive. If they differ, you have to keep going until two of them agree. To get these opinions, there are some more techniques involved. Don’t just call around to other shops for estimates.

You want to know if each of these repairs are necessary, and no mechanic can tell that without seeing the car for himself. Also, no good shop will offer an estimate on a repair “sight unseen.” The reason is that every repair comes with “snags.” Only a careful inspection can expose these problems, and the problem “snags” will affect the cost. If a shop estimates it low, and has to raise the price to cover the “snags,” it looks like they are ripping you off. If the shop estimates it high, to cover possible “snags,” but none are there, it looks (again) like they are ripping you off. If the shop resists giving a “sight unseen” estimate, they may be accused of being evasive. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. It’s one of the main reasons mechanics are not trusted, and it’s actually caused by consumers insisting on estimates over the phone, “sight unseen.” Let them all look at it for accurate estimates, and no “5 o’clock surprises” will happen.

Are all of these repairs really necessary right now? Probably not. If you drove it in, you can drive it out, unless something catastrophic just happened and disabled the car. All of the repairs may be needed, but they can be prioritized. Safety comes first. Brakes, tires, and steering should not be put off. They can kill you. A miss in the engine, a faulty air conditioner, balky power window, small oil leaks, squeaks and rattles can wait if necessary. This could give you more time to find the money, and/or a shop you’re comfortable with. It might even be the first shop that found the problems. Miracles do happen, (with luck).

Now for the confession. All mechanics try to find every problem they can find with your car, every time they see it. Naturally they hope you will allow them to fix all of these problems right away, for their estimated prices. They will, however, prioritize the jobs if you ask, and maybe reduce the bill a little if they can. For instance, if the job is large enough, they won’t mind doing a little extra, or charging a little less to make the sale. The advantage for them is to stay busy and make a living. The advantage for you is to know about all the things that are needed on your car, so that you can start preparing for the repair jobs. Remember to hunt for that friendly shop when you’re not stressed-out by a breakdown. Start now.

Larry DeHays is the owner of DeHays Automotive Inc. of Fort Myers Beach at 17617 Broadway Ave. near Beach Bowl on San Carlos Boulevard (go to or call 466-3373). He has been an ASE Certified Automotive Technician for 35 years, and is an Arbitrator with the Florida Lemon Law Program, under the Florida Attorney General. His mechanic column will appear as a blog on our online site,, in the near future. It will act as an advisory and provide opportunity for exchanges for those who read it.



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