Where to get great auto repair service in the Bay Area
New cars are hot items right now. A global shortage of microchips has dramatically slowed factory output and created a historic seller’s market. The shortage of vehicles means that many buyers are on waiting lists and there is little to no room for negotiation. While waiting for the market to stabilize, many drivers are keeping their old cars for longer. If your old vehicle needs professional maintenance or other repairs, it’s important to choose a store that will provide you with top-notch service and fair prices.
The nonprofit Bay Area Consumers’ Checkbook’s assessment of 478 local stores includes ratings for quality and price. Checkbook’s ratings are based on over 23,000 ratings collected by surveying consumers in the region; a review of consumer agency complaint files; over 1,900 price checks by its undercover buyers; and other sources. Until January 5, Checkbook is offering free access to its reviews of local auto repair shops to patch readers through this link: Checkbook.org/PatchSFB/auto-repair.
Fortunately, many stores were rated “superior” in overall quality by 90% or more of their customers surveyed. But there are also others you’ll want to avoid: Dozens of companies reviewed by Checkbook have received such favorable ratings from less than 60% of their customers surveyed.
Checkbook ratings for stores in the area include a separate rating for price, derived from quotes collected by its undercover buyers for several carefully constructed repair jobs. You want to be sure that a store is quoting fair prices before you bring your car in because, like with most repair jobs, it’s hard to buy the price until you know exactly what needs to be done.
Undercover Checkbook shoppers have seen dramatic price differences from store to store. For example, to replace the water pump on a 2014 Ford Escape, they found prices ranging from $ 320 to $ 1,244 at bay area stores. Hourly labor rates range from $ 90 to $ 265.
If you know what repairs you need, you can compare prices from store to store yourself by calling a handful of quotes. Checkbook buyers have found it surprisingly easy to get quotes from auto repair shops over the phone. If you are unsure what work is needed, call one or more stores and describe the symptoms: what the car does or does not do. Stores may be able to tell you over the phone what is wrong and offer you a price. If so, get quotes from multiple stores.
When stores cannot determine what is wrong with your car based on your description, you will need to pick it up for a diagnosis and estimate. Then, with an estimate in hand and assuming the diagnosis is correct, check with other stores to see if the store price is right. You don’t have to pay more for good service: in fact, low-cost stores were more likely to get high ratings from their surveyed customers than high-priced stores.
Many consumers believe that dealerships provide a better repair service because of access to proprietary knowledge, sophisticated diagnostic software, and high-tech tools not available at independent garages. This is not true. In fact, Checkbook found the opposite: On average, stores operated by non-dealers were much more likely to satisfy their customers than dealers and offered lower prices.
Dealers and non-dealers subscribe to the same databases that provide repair instructions, schematics, and manufacturer news. While many car dealerships have spacious and stylish workstations, freelancers have access to the same tools and equipment. Despite what the dealers would have you believe, local garages can access the same information, software and equipment. Checkbook tip: If the work you need is not covered by a new car warranty, call an independent store.
In any store, communication is essential. You should:
- Give the store a detailed written description of your car’s symptoms. But distinguish between what you know and what you think you know. If you know what needs to be fixed, tell the store, but don’t guess. If you mention a specific problem, say a bad alternator, the store can replace a perfectly good alternator (and charge you for it), before fixing what is wrong.
- If possible, speak with the repair technician who will be working on your car. Interview writing staff in department stores often know very little about auto repair, and those familiar with auto repair may not be able to describe your car’s symptoms to a repair technician as well as you.
- Get a written quote in advance or write on the repair ticket that no work should be done without your approval based on a written quote.
- Obtain a written and dated invoice that details the costs of parts and labor, as well as the mileage of the vehicle.
- Pay by credit card – you can dispute the charge if things go wrong and the store is unresponsive.
- If the car is still not in order when you collect it, notify the store immediately, preferably in writing.
Bay Area Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a non-profit organization whose mission is to help consumers get the best service and the lowest prices. We are consumer backed and don’t take any money from the service providers we review. Check out local auto repair shop reviews for quality and price for free until Jan. 5 at Checkbook.org/PatchSFB/auto-repair