When you need maintenance or repairs on your car, it might be tempting to just go to the nearest mechanic and drop it off. While this may seem simple and easy, it can actually cost you a lot of money and deprives you of learning to become more self-sufficient, even if you are wealthy.
If you are like me, you like to learn. You like to understand what you are spending your money on, and you are willing to spend some effort to save your hard-earned money. Learning to work on cars can range from very easy to exceedingly difficult but if you’re willing to start walking, you’ll eventually learn how to run.
Give it a try, get your hands dirty; a story of overcoming a corroded battery and bravery
I never really understood why people enjoy working on their cars before. I thought unless you had a lot of money to spend on a really cool classic car or something really fancy and modern, it just looked boring. The moment I think that really changed for me was something so simple its sort of silly, but it’s the truth.
I had a negative terminal connector that rusted through on my Mitsubishi Galant. I had cleaned off a ton of corrosion with some baking soda, water and a toothbrush, only to find the corrosion was the only thing really holding it together! It made enough of a connection to start the car for a little while, then died again. My girlfriend had to come get me. I felt a bit defeated and embarrassed.
After getting a better look at the battery I realized it was 2 years older than the seller thought and was due to get changed. While I was at Farm and Fleet getting the connector, I also bought a new battery.
Upon returning to my immobile automobile, it was quick work to pull the old battery out and seat the fresh one, but then as I was trying to get the nut off of the negative connection side to remove the old connector, it wouldn’t budge.
The bolt and nut were firmly rusted together and there was no way to get leverage on it, as it was a loose wire. My girlfriend wanted to leave but didn’t want to leave me stranded so as I stood there struggling, I felt very tense.
I remember buying a pair of pliers from a cheap tool store (a cautionary reminder to have certain tools on hand) in the same strip mall and basically held the little bit of the bolt coming through the other side of the nut with them and twisted in the opposite direction on the nut with the wrench. I was straining so hard, and it seemed like it would never budge. I thought I was as stuck as the bolt.
I kept losing grip on the end of the bolt because it was such a small surface to grab onto. I was googling for answers and found out I should have soaked it in penetrating oil and it should sit overnight, but I thought “no, she’s wasting her day waiting for me and my junk car, I gotta get this now.”
So with a never-quit vigor I twisted as hard as I could, my fingers were turning white and I was developing calluses I didn’t have before in real time right before my eyes. The world seemed to slow as I started to get the feeling in my gut I would succeed.
It seemed utterly surreal. I know this might sound crazy, but it felt so satisfying when I felt the nut turn in one big motion and I was able to get the old broken connector off. My heart raced, I felt alive and like I had a new authority over my fate.
The sky seemed bluer and the dirty and desolate parking lot in the strip mall with many vacant storefronts seemed bustling. It feels really good to figure something out. I was able to put the fresh connector on, turn on my car and everything was good!
Okay all jokes and hyperbole aside, it is rewarding to get your hands on something and figure it out. Maybe even especially if you’re not mechanically inclined. Even if you decide you will still go to a mechanic for most things, it’s worth the effort to go out of your comfort zone.
Don’t succumb to pressure, don’t get overwhelmed
Over the last year I have learned a lot about cars. Enough to say I now understand how little I actually knew before and how much more I have to learn. I was always very realistic about my low resolution view of the systems of an automobile but there were many systems I took for granted to some degree simply because I had no imperative need to know about them.
Often one will assume they know more than they do about a subject because they are not able to understand what it is they don’t understand.
We as humans often overestimate our knowledge of a thing because we are ignorant of our own limitations or the actual complexity of it. The irony here is, as you learn and move towards a better understanding of a subject, you realize more and more the details of the things you still don’t know and feel less confident than you did before.
This has been referred to as the “ valley of despair ”. I remember feeling this way when I was seeing all the rust on the body of my Mitsubishi Galant, unsure what was superficial and what was potentially the frame and thus structural. I remember hunting down strange noises and leaks, realizing there was more and more things that could be causing various issues.
There is another side to this if you are a little more self-aware. Sometimes we discredit our own ability to understand something because we ARE aware it is complex and write it off as something unattainable for ourselves. This is just a way we try to avoid failure because we know we are safe from it if we do not try, but we also stay right where we are.
Try to remember, acknowledging ignorance is a good thing. If you are able to recognize there is more to the story than 4 wheels and a motor, you are on your way to understanding better. You won’t learn about what you don’t know, until you recognize what you don’t know. Don’t let this discourage you! This is a step in the right direction.
If you work through it, face the unknown and figure it out, it leaves you with the confidence and satisfaction one gets from growing their understanding. There is a reason people make whole careers out of working on cars. It is not all simple and easy.
While anyone can read a book on it, the reality is it takes expertise and experience to gain proficiency and to expedite the process of car maintenance and repair. This brings me to my next point.
Know when to go to an expert
Despite our best efforts, cars are complex machines. Most of us will either lack the time, tools, or knowledge to complete many repairs or maintenance. The key takeaway from my experiences has been that if the work required does one of a few things, you should take it to a shop.
- If the problem has multiple possible causes and you do not know how to diagnose it, remember, don’t just throw parts at it!
- If it requires extensive dismantling and you don’t have a second car if you get stuck for a long time
- If you don’t have your own driveway or garage or share one
- If you lack the tools. Although buying tools can be a good step to more independence
- If trying to work on it yourself is costing you money by taking up time you could spend on your work
- If you don’t enjoy it. Dealing with a car with issues yourself takes up a lot of your free time, so if you decide to do it, make sure you don’t hate it
An easy rule of thumb is simply to go to an expert when you are losing more than you are gaining by trying to do it yourself.
Finding a good and honest mechanic
The truth is, while there are many good and honest mechanics out there, there are also those who either take advantage by recommending unnecessary services or genuinely get it wrong. Recently, I was told I needed a new timing chain on a car with issues accelerating.
This was for my 2004 Honda Element EX. I was a bit skeptical immediately, though I had gone to this garage before, because the previous owner had already replaced the timing chain and it wasn’t showing any of the symptoms.
I did some research because while they held onto my car for 3 days, they did not take anything apart. They wanted to charge me about 150 dollars of diagnostic fees, just to essentially drive it and take a cursory glance.
Without going into too many details, it got a bit awkward as my expectation after agreeing to pay the fee was that they would actually figure out what was wrong. They told me there was no way to check the timing without removing a bunch of parts and it would cost me around 500 dollars.
(goes a long way)
I knew getting to an internal part could be tedious and the labor really adds up, but no way to check it? My gut told me this couldn’t be right. I did some research, asked around on another good resource, a Facebook group for Honda Element enthusiasts, and was told there are indeed ways to check timing without physically seeing it.
Those methods, such as using an oscilloscope should be done first, then opened only to confirm and do the work. Later, I found out a part that had already been replaced had failed. The timing chain job would have been almost 2000 dollars, the parts and labor for the real issue was 300 dollars.
Often there is a disadvantageous power dynamic with mechanics. They will specify a diagnostic that entails almost the same amount of labor cost as doing the whole job, and if they were wrong, and the part they thought it needed is fine, you still foot the bill.
Just my personal opinion on business ethics here but I’m not sure it is right that the one without the tools and with less knowledge assumes such a risk unless it is really the only way. Of course, labor is labor and if it’s genuinely the best thing to check then there are times this would be justifiable. As with anything in life, the more knowledge you have, the less you need to rely on the trustworthiness of others.
Okay, my story aside, here are some easy to reference steps to finding a good mechanic.
- Do research before contacting a mechanic. You should have a pretty solid idea of what is wrong or what needs doing. This helps expedite the process. It will also protect you somewhat from getting taken advantage of.
- Read reviews. Don’t take good or bad reviews for granted. Look for reviews talking about big jobs, not just oil changes. Often a slew of good reviews is either because they asked for them, friends and family or workers left them, or it was for simple jobs hard to fail. Sometimes a bad review is not warranted but don’t write them off. Look to see if the mechanic responded to the review. See if they were professional or tried to remedy the situation.
- Try to find a shop that specializes in your type of car. Vehicles can vary greatly between brands, and they have many differing design and engineering choices.
- Don’t go to a shop that is too busy. While being busy can mean they are sought after, it can also mean they take on more work than they can handle. Make this decision based on how they handle their scheduling. If you decide to go with them and they allot you a time and they honor it, and get the work done in a timely manner, then it is the former. If they take a long time to get back to you, keep you waiting and take longer than they should to finish the job, they most likely take on more jobs than they can handle. You want a mechanic who isn’t milking the hours but is also not rushing through the job.
- Make sure they explain what their fees are up front. You should have a clear understanding of what they charge per hour, any diagnostic fees, if those are waived upon agreeing to the repair and the expected amount of time to finish it. Not only should the quote be clear, but the diagnostics beforehand should also be clear.
- Double check the quote for labor and parts. Even if they passed all the other tests, you should still check the quote. Make sure they are not charging you 6 hours of labor on a job that takes 1 hour. Also, some shops will let you bring your own parts, just know they typically offer no warranty if they use parts you bring with you.
- Even if it sounds reasonable, double check the diagnosis. Ask mechanically inclined friends, or friends who are mechanics. Use common sense as well, if they say you need new brakes and you just had them done, maybe you should question it. If they say you need a starter and your car starts just fine, might be an issue there.
- When they speak to you about the vehicle, notice their attitude. If they are condescending in any way, seem to be assuming things or generally make you feel not heard these are all signs of someone who is not giving you their honest and full attention. If they are arrogant or argumentative or defensive, take your business elsewhere.
- Talk to your mechanic about the symptoms your car is experiencing when you drop it off. Tell them anything out of the ordinary.
- Write up a full list of everything you need done and tape it to the dash. If there are multiple issues, they will likely appreciate this and not forget anything you requested.
- If they do a good job and you are fully satisfied, leave them a good review with extensive details to help the next person looking for a good mechanic!
Some closing thoughts
I hope this guide will inspire you to take matters into your own hands and become more self-sufficient. Often, we are the only ones holding ourselves back. On the other hand, you don’t need to feel disheartened to seek help from others. Hopefully this list will give you a conscientious approach to finding someone to trust with your vehicle. I know my experiences have at times frustrated me immensely but with struggle comes the chance to overcome it and ultimately become stronger and wiser. Whatever road you may take, enjoy the journey, and make the most of it!