How to find a good garage
Looking after your car properly is vital. Your wellbeing (and perhaps life) depends on it – as does the safety of your passengers, fellow road-users and even pedestrians. Yet all too often, our main concern is how we can get our car fixed as cheaply and conveniently as possible.
If you’ve got a new car, you’ll probably entrust its servicing and maintenance to a local main dealer, perhaps in the mistaken belief that you have to in order to maintain its manufacturer warranty (more on this below).
But if you’ve got an older car, you’re more likely to take your pick from the garages in your neighbourhood – and finding a good one isn’t always easy. These five tips will help.
1. Find a good garage
As with most buying decisions, it pays to do a little homework before taking your car to be repaired or serviced. First, search online to create a shortlist of garages near you – if you need to leave your car at the garage, which is highly likely, you’ll be glad it’s not too far away.
Then ask local social media groups, friends and family for recommendations and search online for reviews, bearing in mind reviews or testimonials on the garage’s own website are unlikely to give a balanced view.
We also recommend checking to see if there’s a local firm that’s part of the scheme. All the garages shown on Which? Trusted Trader have been subject to a credit and customer reference check, an examination of their business procedures and a visit from an assessor, to ensure it’s a reputable business.
Even if you’ve had your car serviced at a specific garage for years, you may like to ask around and check for reviews online – while you may feel you’ve had a good experience, it’s not always easy to verify workmanship and others may have had poor experiences that would be worth knowing about.
Unfortunately membership of a garage code of conduct – Bosch Car Service, The Good Garage Scheme, Motor Codes and Trust My Garage are the largest – isn’t a guarantee of good service. In the last Which? investigation into garage servicing, conducted using mystery shopping in 2014, we found that none of these four codes seemed to result in significantly better, or worse, service than garages that weren’t affiliated to a code.
2. Check prices in advance
Continuing the research theme, it’s now possible to get an idea of how much a service or repair is likely to cost before a mechanic even looks at your car.
As long as you know roughly what you need the garage to do – such as a ‘major’ or ‘minor’ service, or to fix something specific – websites such as ClickMechanic and RAC Approved Garage Network allow you to obtain quotes from garages in your area, and book online to have the work done. Increasingly, this will include mobile mechanic services that will fix your car at your home or place of work.
If you’re unsure what needs doing, it’s still possible to call round a few garages to ask about their hourly rates, although bear in mind not all garages will take the same time to complete a job. You’ll nearly always find that labour rates at local independent garages are significantly cheaper than a franchised ‘main’ dealer, however you may be able to take advantage of a fixed-price servicing deal at a main dealer that will offer better value in the long term.
Even if your car is still covered by its manufacturer warranty, you’re not obliged to service it at a franchised ‘main’ dealer – it’s a common fallacy that you do. Usually, the only conditions that need to be met in order to maintain the warranty is for the car to be serviced in accordance to the manufacturer’s recommended service schedule, and that any parts used (such as oil or air filters) are manufacturer-approved (not manufacturer-supplied) parts or ones that are of ‘equivalent quality’.
3. What to do at the garage
Before the mechanic gets started on your service or repair, ask for a written quote and make sure it includes parts, labour and VAT. Check that the garage will use approved or equivalent parts, so you don’t invalidate any remaining warranty on your car. You may like to enquire about a courtesy car for the duration of the work, but be wary of steep insurance excesses on such vehicles.
When you collect the car, ask for a clearly marked receipt or invoice that details the work done and parts used, and get a stamp in the service book. These will be useful to prove you’ve looked after the car when you come to sell it.
Also consider asking the mechanic to show you the work they’ve done – if they’re done the job properly, they’ll usually only be too pleased to show you and it’s a useful opportunity to learn about any issues you might need to have looked at again in the future. If you don’t feel confident to do this, try to take someone who is mechanically minded with you.
If the mechanic refuses to show you, or something looks amiss – especially with the brakes or another safety-critical part – consider getting the work checked by another mechanic at a different garage. In most cases this should be quick and reasonably cheap for them to do.
4. Stay on top of servicing
Prevention is better than cure, so stick to your car’s service schedule. This is normally outlined in the handbook (manual), along with any basic servicing tasks that you may be able to perform yourself. Newer cars often don't require servicing annually, but are 'condition' based, with the on-board computer warning the driver that maintenance is required, based on their mileage and driving.
You may also be surprised how easy it is to perform slightly more advanced tasks such as changing the air filter or battery. Searching online for ‘how to’ guides will often turn up a step-by-step guide on an owner’s forum, or you could refer to a Haynes manual (available from booksellers for most makes and models). Bear in mind you’ll need plenty of time, patience and a set of basic tools in order to carry out most work.
5. Be wary of aftermarket warranties
All new cars will come with a manufacturer warranty. These usually last three years, but some brands offer five- or seven-year warranties. Once it runs out, it’s usually possible to extend it with the manufacturer (although often on the condition a main dealer services the car), or you may be tempted to buy one from a third-party such as Warranty Direct or Go Car Warranty.
When we last investigated these third-party warranties, we found they often offer poor value and had confusing small print. General wear and tear items are not usually covered unless a servicing plan is also included (at extra cost), and the terms and conditions often mean the most common problems are deemed a result of wear and tear. As such, we believe you’re likely to be better off in the long-term by saving an equivalent sum of money each month for repairs.