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Communicating car trouble to an auto shop

Even though it may sometimes seem like your mechanic speaks a different language than you, explaining your vehicle's mechanical problems doesn't have to be a challenge in translation. There are a number of things you can do to make the process of getting your car fixed easier and less expensive.

Clear communication
Let's start with an unlikely example that, sadly enough, actually happened. A customer came into an auto shop and stated that his car was unsafe to drive, as it could not be steered or stopped. After some quick car troubleshooting, the mechanic discovered that the real problem was that the engine had seized up due to lack of lubrication (apparently the oil level in the crankcase hadn't been checked for quite some time). For some reason, the car's owner didn't notice or acknowledge the wildly fluctuating readings from the oil pressure gauge or the illuminated pressure-loss-warning lamp next to it and the noises coming from that oil-starved engine. (The owner did admit, however, that the stereo was cranked up to about max volume.)

Fortunately – at least for the mechanic – little time was wasted in troubleshooting the source of the purported "steering and braking malfunction." Since the cause was determined so quickly, no diagnostic fee was charged, although, by all rights, the customer's misleading information could well have resulted in one.

Although this example borders on the absurd, it does make a point. With a little bit of trained observation on your part, plus some calm, clear communication with your mechanic, you can save time, money and aggravation. Here are the important things to remember – and practice – to accomplish this goal.

Just the facts
When identifying car problems, describe both the existing outside conditions (road and weather) and your vehicle's conditions. The latter would include speed driven and load (such as accelerating from a stop, decelerating to a stop, negotiating curves, open road passing, steady cruising, towing, etc.). You should also note what accessories (such as air conditioning) were in use, plus pertinent information from the instrument panel gauges and warning lamps. It's also helpful to know car maintenance records, how long the vehicle had been in operation since starting it and where the last tank of gas was purchased.

Note a pattern?
Note whether the car trouble is intermittent or constant. This can be as obvious as hearing a shrill squeal every time the brakes are applied while rolling or as nebulous as noticing a lack of power while accelerating up a particular hill with less than one-quarter of a tank of gas indicated on the panel gauge. A pattern exists with both of these symptoms, but the second one would require more observation and more time, obviously. Whether you want to pay for a professional to make this kind of observation or you prefer to do it yourself depends on your own resources. Suffice it to say that the senses of sight, smell, touch and hearing all come into play when gathering information on a problem. Once you feel you've gathered enough information, you're ready to pay a visit to the auto shop. But how do you go about giving this information to the automotive mechanic?

Don't assume
Instead of asking for a specific repair procedure, start by describing the basic symptoms as noted above. Let the pros ask any further questions, and let them suggest the solution. If diagnostic tests are suggested, it's all right to ask what those tests specifically accomplish. There are many set procedures generally recognized in the repair industry, and if you ask for them, you may just get them without further advice from the pro; that is, the engine is running roughly, so you ask for a tune-up. The problem is that it may not solve the malfunction. For instance, what may appear to be a fuel clog may be an electrical malfunction, or vice versa.

Written word
Get a written commitment on the work order that once a problem is diagnosed, the recommended repair will actually fix the problem. Also ask for a total "out-the-door" price, including the cost of any diagnostic tests performed. Keep in mind, however, that if the vehicle is experiencing symptoms that would indicate multiple problems, it may only be possible for the pro to properly estimate the repairs for the problems as they're identified.

That said, there is no doubt that routine car maintenance will noticeably cut down on the number of unscheduled emergency/problem visits to the auto shop. Having certain procedures, such as brake inspection, filter replacement, transmission service and the like, done at the recommended intervals will keep the vehicle in peak form, removing potential causes of problems between the service intervals and eliminating the need for the corresponding diagnostic procedures (which will also save you money).

A professional, competent and ethical auto repair shop has the ability to tackle and correct almost any problem with your vehicle, even if misleading customer information is supplied. However, if you provide accurate information in sufficient detail, costs will be lower, with less vehicle downtime.

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