This is a question we are asked by customers who move out of the area, people who own cars we won’t work on, and people who found our website but don’t live near Art’s Automotive. We usually answer it 3 times per day, so I thought we might save some time by putting our advice in print.
One of the best ways is to ask friends who own the same type of car. The most useful reviews will be the ones that are either very positive or negative. Obviously a garage that receives very positive review is a good place to try, whereas a garage that gets a negative review should be avoided. When a friend says something like, “they’re OK I guess”, it’s not very telling.
Another good trick is to call the dealer’s Wholesale Parts Department and ask which independent shops buy a lot of parts from them. The idea being that a shop using OE parts is choosing quality over profit. Be sure to ask for the Wholesale Parts Department, not just parts. The wholesale parts department sells parts to independent shops, so they won’t mind steering you towards one of their best customers. This usually works unless the dealer is small, and the wholesale parts department is also the “back counter”, which supplies the dealer mechanics with parts. If this is the case, they may have mixed loyalties. It never hurts to try; the worst they can do is say they don’t want to tell you.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago Area, Delaware Valley Area, Puget Sound Area, or the Twin Cities Area, there is a publication called Consumer Checkbook which is like Consumer Reports (no adds, etc.) except they rate local service providers: roofers, dentists, plumbers, and mechanics to name a few. You can get a copy of the most recent issue which rates mechanics at the library, or you can subscribe to the magazine (which I would recommend – it’s very handy), or you can download an article from their website for a $15 per article fee. http://www.checkbook.org
On the Car Talk website there is a section called the Mechan-X Files, where visitor to the website can search a new mechanic or tell the world about their favorite mechanic. You can search these ratings by zip code and attributes you consider important in a mechanic. It’s a great resource, and it’s free.
http://cartalk.cars.com/content/mechx/ (goes directly to the Mechan-X Files)
http://cartalk.cars.com (goes to the main Car Talk webpage)
I would also strongly advise going to yelp.com and the Berkeley parents network. Both of these sites are reviewer-oriented so you are guaranteed to get some stories from people who have had good (or bad) experiences with the businesses. Click here to see some customer testimonials, and some links to more review sites.
We get a lot of customers who have moved away, or who own one car we’ll work on and one that we don’t, phone to let us know about good mechanics they have found so we can pass it on. I’ll usually write the info down on a post-it and stick it on my monitor, then I’ll lose it by the time I have an occasion to use it. In an effort to stop losing this information I’m working on a webform where people can make their recommendations known to visitors to our site.
Below is a list of local mechanics we think are OK. We do not guarantee their work or your happiness with them. You’ll have to judge them for yourself before bringing your car in.
Baron Von Frier / Auto Body Repair / (510) 841-7290
We’ve had quite a few gushing reviews from customers pleased with their experience at Baron Von Frier. The folk at Baron admit they are expensive, but quality work costs. We once had a new 4Runner mistakenly towed to our shop for body repair. It was very damaged; the left front wheel was under the driver’s door. We figured that it was totaled even thought it was worth $26K. We referred the customer to Baron Von Frier. A week later the same customer was back with the truck. He was so happy with the job they had done he wanted to show it off. It was indeed impressive. The only clue the 4Runner had been wrecked was a part number sticker on one of the lower control arms. The paint match was perfect. All of the stickers were back in place. None of the little details that normally expose a formerly wrecked car were there.
Berkeley Minicar / General Repair on Honda Only / (510) 841-1221
I almost didn’t add Minicar to the list because they are our direct competition. They’re 2 blocks down the street and they work Hondas and they’re a good shop. I can count on many of our competitors to shoot themselves in the foot by price gouging, providing bad service, or doing incompetent work. No such luck with Minicar. The have reasonable prices, good service, and know how to fix Hondas. I’ll just have to cross my fingers and hope you like us better.
Berkeley Radiator / Cooling system and AC work / (510) 845-3151
They’ve helped a number of our customers who needed emergency repairs when we were too busy to fix their car quick enough. We have not had a complaint yet. The guys at Berkeley Radiator are friendly and they have been honest with us in situations where they’ve lost a sale by doing so.
Fred’s Wrench House / General Repair and Smog Checks on most makes / (510) 521-7215
Fred’s a very nice guy. We’ve had a mountain of positive feedback. Fred also has a favorable rating the Bay Area Consumer Checkbook. We send a lot of people with cars we don’t service his way.
La Loma 7 / Auto Body Repair / (510) 848-1088 / Just south of Ashby on San Pablo
These guys were our neighbors for years. They do good work at good prices. We often work with them on theft recoveries where there is body damage and mechanical damage. They’re not afraid of water leaks (a tricky problem that sends many body shops running) and they can customize your repair to make it work with your budget. They also do excellent scratch repair. La Loma 7 has many fleet accounts, so you’ll often see the shop filled with police cars, utility vehicles, and company vans, but they also repair cars for individuals.
Yen’s Auto / Smog checks / (510) 526-1601 / Corner of Gilman and San Pablo
Mark Yen himself can be a little, well, let’s say abrupt. Luckily for you he now has a very pleasant lady in the office now to sign you in and explain the results of your test. Why do we like him? Because he cares about giving you a fair test. He has customers drive their car around the block to warm the converter and the 02 sensor to give the car its best chance at passing. From what we’ve seen, he does everything he can to help the consumer without breaking any rules.
Berkeley Smog / Test Only Smog Station / (510) 549-2355 Corner of Carleton and 10th
One day Art came into the office and said, “We’ve got to start sending smog referrals to Berkeley Smog – they’re great”. For quite a while I didn’t send anyone there since I had no first hand knowledge about the business and we’ve had a good relationship with Yen’s for years. The other day I needed a smog test and I gave them a try myself. I must say, it was about as pleasant an experience as getting a smog check can be. They were busy at the time, but they had a “can do” attitude and accurately estimated how long it would take before they could get to the car. Since they are a Test Only station, they have no incentive to sell any un-needed repair work or try to make the car fail. If you need a regular smog, Yen’s or Berkeley Smog would be good choices. If you need a Test Only station, I would definitely recommend you go to Berkeley Smog.