Trade Secrets from an Auto Mechanic

Ian knows his way around under the hood of a car. He's been a mechanic since he was a teenager and became certified by the National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence 20 years ago. Here's what he has to say about those hefty bills you always get from your mechanic, and how to keep your car revving healthily so you don't need to go to a garage to begin with.

For starters, Alan suggests always asking a mechanic you don't know whether he has ASE credentials. The ASE requires testing every five years to maintain its certification. Moreover, good mechanics ought to attend classes regularly to keep up with the changes in the technology automakers put into their vehicles. Cars used to largely rely on mechanical parts such as the accelerator and a gear-shift system but now use all kinds of computers and electronics.

The ongoing training partly accounts for the high cost of car repair, but that's only a piece of the picture. As the engine compartment has becomes more crowded and complex, just getting to the problem can take more time. And mechanics need increasingly technical tools to both diagnose and repair these complex systems. Repair shops that offer service for foreign and domestic vehicles can have $200,000 to $300,000 worth of tools and equipment lying around. And of course, those shops have to upgrade and add to their equipment as technology changes.

This helps to explain labor costs that can range from $50 to $130 an hour. Alan explains that the labor costs on your bill are usually determined by computing a shop's hourly rate times the "book time" of the job being done. The book time is the average number of hours it takes to complete a particular job. And of course, there might be costs for new parts on top of that. (See auto mechanic average salary.]

Of course, hands-on skills are only part of what goes in to being a good mechanic; turns out you have to a knack for diplomacy and discretion, too. Occasionally cars come into the shop that are so grotty Alan needs to send them out to be cleaned before he gets to work on them (Yes, he forewarns the owners). Then there was the time he was under the car's dash taking things apart, when he found $10,000 in an envelope under the floor mat. Alan called the car owner and spoke with a very relieved man who admitted he'd hidden the money from his wife, who had brought the car in without his knowledge. And no, Alan didn't rat out the husband.

Alan says the best way to prolong the life of a vehicle and keep its passengers safe is to "follow a regular maintenance schedule with your vehicle, whether it's new or used."

Before buying a used car, Alan advises taking it to your mechanic for an inspection. This is important cost-wise -- no one wants to buy a car on the verge of a major breakdown -- but also to make sure the car is as safe as it should be.

One surprising piece of advice: "Use synthetic oil instead of natural oil," to prolong your engine's life. In addition to lubricating the moving parts of an engine, oil removes dirt and sludge from the system. Synthetic oil has a more powerful cleaning agent that won't break down under an engine's heat, so it helps keep the motor cool while doing its job. Synthetic oil costs more and can double the price of an oil change, but Alan argues, you'll be able to go longer between oil changes and will prolong the life of your engine, saving money in the long run.

It's important to keep an eye on your tire pressure and Alan advises checking it when the seasons change; outside air temperature can cause fluctuations.

Alan advises do-it-yourselfers to spend extra money for quality parts. Saving $10 or $20 on a repair job means little if you wind up having to do again, or worse, do an additional repair because mediocre parts led something else to wear improperly. [See Auto Repair -- Save a Few Bucks by Doing the Easy Stuff Yourself.]

Finally, he says, get to know your car. Becoming acquainted with its quirks can save you time and hassle. Find a mechanic who is knowledgeable, fair and trustworthy. Ask questions and learn about your car from him. It could be the beginning of a valuable relationship.

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