Dealer, chain, or independent service shop: A decision guide

Any automotive service shop will fall into one of three categories: dealership, franchise...

Any automotive service shop will fall into one of three categories: dealership, franchise or independent. Each type of shop has its benefits, but which is best for the repairs your car needs? This guide will help you choose.

My car is newer or still under warranty: If your car is less than five years old or still under warranty, the dealership is your best choice. New cars sometimes require specialized tools or repair techniques, and dealership technicians are trained on the intricacies of the brand they service. Even if your car is out of warranty, certain problems are best dealt with by the dealer--especially those involving electronic systems like stereos, navigation or engine management computers. These systems differ greatly between brands, so a factory-trained technician is best suited to your car. But be warned: Many dealerships make a majority of their profit from the service department. Go in with a firm idea of what you want done, so you don't walk out with a mile-long bill.

My car is a few years old, but it just needs routine maintenance: Once a car is more than five years old (or out of warranty), it's no longer necessary to have it serviced exclusively at the dealership. A franchise service shop has access to the parts and tools needed to maintain most common cars, and many have coupons and specials that save you money compared to dealership prices. Franchise shops are a great choice for fixing things that commonly wear out, such as brakes, tires and exhaust components. The best part? Many franchises offer lifetime guarantees on certain parts (like brakes), so smart shoppers can save money in the long haul.

My car is pretty old, not very common or needs an unusual repair: Dealerships and franchise service shops tend to be most familiar with routine maintenance on newer, more common vehicles. If your car is over 10 years old, or if it needs an involved repair like replacing a timing belt, an independent shop may be your best choice. Independent shops often charge lower rates, and they tend to be more familiar with older cars than dealers and chains, which can mean faster, cheaper repairs! This is especially true if you drive an oddball car, such as a Saab or Alfa Romeo. The technicians at the franchise shop may have never seen a car like yours, but an independent shop specializing in your brand will know all of its quirks and foibles and have resources for hard-to-find parts. And independent shops are often more willing to spend time diagnosing weird symptoms, like that strange rattle you might only hear on left turns.

Naturally, these aren't hard and fast rules. If you find a great service shop with stellar customer service, it doesn't matter which category they occupy. But if you're searching for a shop, and your needs fit one of these profiles, use these guidelines to find your next Atlanta-area mechanic.

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