How to Talk to a Mechanic

Although often considered scary, car mechanics are just harmless, analog IT guys. They spend all day doing a thankless job and often get yelled at or accused of lying at the end of it. If you get tired of explaining how to convert a file to a PDF to your boomer boss, think about how a mechanic might feel. Mechanics are not spooky, they are more than likely just fed up.

Before knowing how to talk to a mechanic, it’s also important to know which mechanic to go to. If your vehicle is newer, you might want to take it to a dealership of the make of your car. Know that is not required. You may find a better technician and a lower price elsewhere, especially if your warranty has run out. Many times you can find a small shop that has a specialty. It can be the vehicle make, country of origin, decade, or even in specific repairs or parts. Shops can specialize in European or Asian-made cars or even have as narrow a focus as Japanese-made hybrid cars. I’m sure we are not far from having shops that specialize in all-electric vehicles as well. Usually a restoration shop will focus on rebuilding old cars with custom features. Those shops will likely not have the capacity to work on more modern cars. Specialty repair shops include tire, muffler, paint and body, transmission, and the five-minute oil change spots. All have their place in the galaxy of mechanical repairs that a vehicle may need. Usually your best bet will be a general repair shop to get a diagnosis on a problem.

Who Do You Trust?

When I’m looking for a new shop I start by asking friends where they take their cars. If there is a good mechanic in your circle, it will not be a secret. When people have a good experience with a car repair, they will be glad to share that information with you. If you don’t know anyone, a little research on the internet will reveal what you seek. Crowdsourcing these answers from social media is also a great idea, especially if you are out of town and need an emergency fix to get back on the road. If you love your car, and I hope you do, explore the various online groups and communities dedicated to your make and model. I hear there’s a pretty entertaining group of PT Cruiser enthusiasts on the ol’ book of faces.

After you’ve narrowed down a few options, you’ll want to visit the shops in person. Ask for a quick tour and to see any certifications they may have. You’ll be looking for certification from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence or ASE. They accredit technicians, assure shop owners, and protect customers. Make sure their certificate is up to date.

Mise en Place

You will want to see if the shop is efficiently organized and what the general working environment is like. If the shop is busy it might not be pristinely clean, but you’ll recognize instantly if there are piles upon piles of used or broken car parts, or boxes and tools that look like they need to be put away. Trust your gut with this, as it will tell you if these are folks you would want to leave your vehicle with. How they treat their space is how they will treat your car. If something isn’t sitting right with you there is no shame in walking away.

I’m always observing car shops to see what kind of cars they have in their holding areas and how quickly those cars are worked on and are back on the road. The older or more unique the vehicle, the more credit I’ll give to the shop for agreeing to work on it in the first place. That might be the sign of a good shop. However, the sure sign of a great shop is that the old or unique vehicle is there for only a day or two. This tells me the owner of this unique vehicle trusts this shop to do easy maintenance jobs which points to a loyal customer, or this shop is equally as comfortable working on one-of-a-kind cars as they are with common ones.

Start with Simple Services

In the best case scenario, you are not looking for a trustworthy mechanic when you need a major repair. You can test drive a new mechanic by bringing your car in for easy services like oil or filter changes. This will not only help you get a sense of what the work is like, but also how they interact with you before, during, and after the service. Some of the red flags I stay away from is anyone trying too hard to sell me something I didn’t originally come in for, any black holes of communication about the status of my vehicle, or major discrepancies between an estimate of work and the work which was done as measured by time or money.

More often than not, auto technicians are genuinely trying to help. They will explain the difference between work that is essential and work that is nice to have. Once you have something apart it might be convenient to offer a possible upgrade which could be more cost effective to install during a certain stage of repair. Although it might not be essential, your technician might offer additional work for your benefit. If you are on a budget, do not feel bad about asking the mechanic to clarify what is necessary, what can wait, and what would be an upgrade. A good mechanic would rather have you loyally come in for easy, basic services on a continuous basis than any other alternative. Ask your mechanic to point out what needs fixing rather than talk to you over a desk or over the phone. Not only will you learn more about your vehicle, you will also be able to quickly tell if there are any exaggerations or sales pitches based on fear tactics at play.

Major Repairs

What if you’re facing an undiagnosed problem like the much-dreaded, ominous glow of a check engine light? By this point I hope you would have already cultivated a meaningful, trustworthy relationship with your new bestie, the automotive tech. But even if you haven’t, you will likely have to leave your vehicle at the shop for a period of time to get diagnosed. When you get that call with the estimate of work, brace yourself not for the price but for more research. Make sure the shop sends you a copy of the written estimate, especially if this is a new shop to you. If they cannot provide one, do not provide your car to them to work on any further. Do not feel rushed to have them start any work—the bigger the price of the estimated repair the more time you should take to make sure you are spending your money at a place you trust. Good mechanics understand the long-term benefits of being honest and having you feel like you are making the right decision. If you feel any pressure to agree to work you are not 100% sure of, this might be a sign to look for another shop.

Once you have an estimate, call some other shops and see if their rates differ. The estimate should break down approximately what parts and labor will cost, even if it’s a range more than a fixed price. Use these differences when comparing estimates against each other. Always ask more questions if something is unclear or confusing. If it continues to be unclear or confusing, you probably shouldn’t leave your car in their hands. Don’t be afraid to let them know if something they are saying doesn’t make sense. If there’s anything I’ve learned by being a tiny girl in the automotive world, it’s that car people love talking about cars. You want a person who loves cars working on your car. If you are genuinely curious, mechanics will not mind explaining and showing you everything that you need to know. You are not a burden for trying to understand the vehicle you already own and any work it may need.

Keep the Spark Alive

Once you have found a great shop or mechanic you trust, don’t mess things up. Be courteous and treat them with the same respect that you expect from them. Communicate clearly and in a timely manner; this includes showing up to an appointment on time. Pay any outstanding bills on time. If you’re impressed with their work, bring them some treats! Whether it’s coffee and donuts, a bottle of an adult beverage they enjoy, or some extra cash, you can make sure they look forward to working on your car more than other cars. Cleaning your car up also helps the tech have a better experience working in the bowels, so consider finally throwing away all those fast food wrappers you’ve been collecting in the passenger seat floorboard. Finally, tell all your friends about them!

Mechanics are incredibly hard-working folks, and it’s a real shame they get such a bad rap from the general public. The issue is the gap of knowledge between people who spend all day looking at the insides of cars and the people who use them. Things that are easily apparent to a professional may not be easy for you to understand, and that’s OK. Every visit you will learn little by little without even trying. Hopefully you will come to realize that your mechanic is more like you, a member of the working class. It is more likely your boomer boss is screwing you over than your lovely, local neighborhood mechanic.

Got questions about your car, truck, SUV, or other engine-powered vehicle? Email

illustrations by Deanna Larmeu