When Is A Mechanic Not A Mechanic?

An interesting article in today's Irish Times suggests that more and more mechanics are leaving their current employers to set up shop on their own. With close to a hundred garages already closed this year could we expect an increase in the number of 'non-franchise' or 'independent' garages selling their services? If so, how do you separate the genuine fully trained mechanic from the 'chancer' that could do more damage than good?
Outlined below are some basic checks that you can make before booking your car in with a garage you haven't dealt with previously. If you feel I've missed anything please add it to the post with a comment below. All feedback is appreciated!
Online Research
It's amazing what a quick google search can turn up for a business name. Try searching using inverted commas around a garage name - e.g. "garage name" in google. Chances are if someone has had an experience worth sharing they'll have shared it online. With Twitter, Online Forums and Personal Blogs growing in popularity you should be able to find other opinions (good and bad) with a click of a mouse.

Shop Around
Make sure to call any prospective garage first for a quotation. Try to be as specific as possible about what you need done. You will need the current odometer reading as well as the odometer reading and the date of its last service. This should be enough for a mechanic who's familiar with your make of vehicle to give a quotation.
Be wary of anything that sounds too cheap. Ask for a detailed breakdown in the quote. What are the individual charges for Labour, Parts and Oil? An independent garage will charge anywhere between 45 and 65 Euro per hour. Allow 70 - 90 Euro for a main dealer. The parts used should be 'OE' or 'Original Equipment'. This means they will have been approved by the manufacturer of the car and should carry an 'OE Approved' stamp on the box (some will have an ISO approval also). The majority of modern vehicles today will operate a 'long life' service interval provided the oil used is fully synthetic. Be careful of servicing your car with semi-synthetic oil. Whilst it's not necessarily bad for the engine, using semi-synthetic oil means that the car should be serviced more regularly and will not follow the long-life intervals recommended by the manufacturer.
Visiting the Garage
If this is your first time using a particular garage be sure to drop the car off in person. When there make some visual checks. Does the garage look well appointed? How many service bays / ramps does it have? Are there many cars being worked on? Are they new / old cars?
Look for the appropriate certificates that demonstrate the garage has all the necessary insurances and qualified personnel. Every garage should be properly insured against faulty workmanship and carry professional indemnity & liability cover. This protects the garage and you should anything unforeseen occur whilst the car is in their possession.
Ask for the name of the resident Mechanic and confirm that he / she has a 'National Craft Certificate'. This is the statutory certificate that a mechanic must obtain under the apprenticeship rules that have been made by FÁS and demonstrates that the mechanic in question has served a 4 year apprenticeship and completed all 7 Phases in their training. 4 phases supervised in a garage and 3 phases duly examined in college. Be certain that this is the individual that will be responsible for the work carried out on your car.
There are a number of additional accreditation's that you can look out for. Some garages will be members of the 'Bosch Car Service Network' or have technicians that have achieved an 'ATA - Automotive Technician Accreditation'.
Does the garage have the correct equipment?
Servicing involves making routine checks according to a list, finding faults or problems, overhauling or replacing worn or faulty parts, and using special equipment to make sure the vehicle performs as it should. Diagnostic equipment for individual makes of car can be very expensive to purchase. Your garage should have the diagnostic equipment necessary to run the standard checks on your car's 'ECU' (Engine Control Unit). This is very important in uncovering hidden faults that if overlooked may prove costly further down the line.
Final Word

Remember it's not all about price! Servicing a car correctly costs money and taking shortcuts will not help you in the long run. If a quotation sounds too good to be true - it probably is!
Useful Links

andrew hennessy - December 02, 2009 at 10:45 pm
Shane, one of the main issues arising from the sudden “appearance" of all these new garages, is the unfounded promises that they are making in relation to what exactly is on offer. From our own very relevant experiences I can say that probably the most irritating or in fact worrying term used is “All makes and models serviced here”. This is just not possible, for example apart from the ability to communicate with the on board computer or ecu’s there is the knowledge of “familiar” or “typical” problems that occur on certain marks and models. In the event that a modern car develops a problem which is more physical, such as a noise or drop in performance, then unless the mechanic is familiar or has experience with the specific mark he is going to spend more of the customers hard earned cash diagnosing the problem than a mechanic who is familiar with the mark. Not all problems bring up a light on the dash or a fault on the computer. You can take this a step further and make the argument that the main dealer will in some cases, even with a slightly higher labour rate, be more efficient as they have the support of the manufacturer and all their years of troubleshooting regardless of the age of the vehicle. Also in relation to main dealers, they are now starting to support the “Older” cars, such as BMW with the 4+ and 6+ discount structure. This gives a sizable discount to the customer of cars which are 4 years and 6 years old in relation to service work. In some cases as much as 25-30%. On the other hand it has to be noted that in the case of more specialist type cars and performance vehicles that in most cases an independent specialist is the more economical and reliable route. The most important issue you have highlighted I believe is the "approved" parts issue, it generally doesn’t cost much more to use manufacturer or manufacturer approved parts however in the event that a car in warranty develops an issue the difference between them could save you thousands!! check out http://www.r2rc.eu/ very informative. Cheers!
Shane Teskey - December 02, 2009 at 11:04 pm
Thanks for your comment Andrew. It's true that main dealers are offering better value these days and I take your point about servicing 'all makes and models'. It's difficult to be an expert in everything - a diagnostic tool is certainly no substitute for experience.
Patty Conneen - May 07, 2010 at 4:39 pm
The title of your article left me with the question of what type of mechanics/garages charge more for a service? I had my car serviced by a dealership garage in the last 6 months. They had a great deal and were very quick and friendly with the service. I was very happy with the service. My NCT was due last month, and I went to the same garage for the service. I did say that I wanted an NCT check, which would cost a bit extra (normal service €99, plus extra €35 for NCT). When I went to collect my car, I was informed that I needed new rear brake pads, hand brake cables, among other items with the brakes. It was going to cost €500 + just for the brake work to be done! I was gobsmaked to say the least. So I said that I wanted to get another quote, and headed to a Self Employed Mechanic/garage. I asked if he could take a look at the repairs that the Dealership said I needed fixed, and whether it needs to be repaired. I mentioned nothing about the NCT. He very nicely checked and said that the only thing that could use repair is the rear brake pads! He then said that I could go to a nearby motor factor and buy them and he would put them on. In total it cost me €35! After he fitted the pads, I told him that the car had the NCT test, and asked if it would pass, and he said definetily! When I told him about the dealership charging 70% more, and for items that didn't need repair, he was not impressed. Is it common for dealership garages to charge more for parts/services? And do they state that items need repair when its not necessary just for the cash? Also, how often will any mechanic say something needs to be fixed just because you say 3 letters - NCT?! Unfortuntately this situation has left me with a bad taste in my mouth, and I will be more likely not only to shop around, but to also go the the Self-Employed mechanics in the future.
Shane Teskey - May 12, 2010 at 3:22 pm
Hi Patty, Unfortunately your complaint is all too common these days - justifying the increased price for parts and labour at the main dealer is something best left to the industry / a dealer representative. The debate around 'right to repair' and how non-franchise dealers should be able to service cars without voiding warranty is an ongoing one that's supported by European legislation (more info at /www.r2rc.co.uk/landing/index.htm). However, encouraging you to have work done that's not required is the oldest trick in the book and not a practice that any dealer interested in keeping your custom long-term would be engaged in. I can understand your frustration. Is there any chance that the second mechanic you visited just didn't pick up on the other brake issues? How did you get on with the NCT?