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Ask the Car Chasers: Don't get gouged at the garage

Most drivers have heard the horror stories involving a trip to the garage — which normally ends with a mechanic that rips them off, or a problem that grows worse.

For those who are not mechanically inclined, having an issue pop up with their car can be a daunting process. That can become downright miserable, as a car owner searches for the right mechanic to fix it.

To help ease those fears, Jeff Allen, owner of Flat 12 Gallery, and his father Tom Souter from Classic Motor Cars, have advice on how to be better prepared next time you go to the shop. The stars of CNBC Prime's "The Car Chasers" offer several tips to help make the process of taking your car to a mechanic less intimidating.

Research, Research, Research

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Before taking your car to a mechanic, Allen's number one tip is to do some research. With the Internet at their disposal nowadays, consumers can better prepare themselves with information: once they arrive at the shop, they can have a better grasp of what to expect.

Allen and Souter suggest to car owners that they research a car's symptoms to pinpoint what the problem might be before going to a mechanic. They can post questions on blogs to get advice, or read about similar situations from other car owners.

"I see blogs all the time about, 'Hey, my car's doing this. What does it mean?' And then there'll be 50 other people that chime in," Allen said.

"I wouldn't just listen to the first couple of people that chime in. But if there's a consistency there then you go, 'Okay, that's probably the problem,'" he added.

Find a Reputable Shop

Consumers may want to research the shops in their area to ensure they are taking their car to a place that's reputable. The car gurus suggest using the Internet to read reviews, and the shop's rating.

"Don't just go to some place that you don't know anything about," Allen said.

Another tip is to ask family and friends for recommendations. Not only can it help ensure the shop or mechanic will do good work on the car, but owners can also feel more comfortable if someone trustworthy provides a good reference for that particular place or mechanic.

"You want to make sure the person is qualified to work on your car," Souter said. "You want to know his knowledge on that particular car."

Drivers also want to make sure they're taking their car to the right shop that deals in fixes for their particular problem. "You don't want to take a car that is having an engine issue to a transmission shop," Allen said.

At the same time, consumers should strike the right balance between being well-informed and overbearing. Souter cautioned against the appearance of pushiness, or coming off as a know-it-all based solely on research found online.

"It's not a negotiation with a mechanic. Respect their skills and their trade," Souter said. "But you must deal with somebody that knows how to do more than change oil in a car."

Communication is Key

When it comes to conveying the problem with a car, owners must do their best to properly communicate with the repair person. It's important to "know your car," as Souter puts it.

"People will come in and say, 'This is doing this.' But the mechanic doesn't understand what it's doing sometimes," he said. "You've been driving that car; you know that car better than any mechanic or anybody else, so describe it right.

Even if a car owner doesn't know the properly terminology, they should try their best to thoroughly describe the problem and provide as much information as possible.

Check your warranty

One of the simplest recommendations the car gurus have is to check a car's warranty to see if it is still covered by the manufacturer. It's a general standard that all new cars are covered for up to three years, and many beyond that. If so, it's not recommended to use the services of a random garage if there is still time left on the warranty or drive train.

Souter recalls a story that's a perfect example of what can happen when a driver is not on top of the details of their car's warranty.

"I sold a Camaro to a gentleman years ago in California and he had a transmission go bad. He took it to his local buddy at the transmission shop and they put a new transmission in it," Souter said.

"I knew this car still had a factory warranty left. And I told him that at the time he purchased it. And the person that fixed the car also knew it. So, he was a rip off artist."

Get an Estimate

Always get an estimate from the shop before the mechanic begins any work, Souter says. It provides a good idea of the final cost, and helps guard against sticker shock once the bill arrives. Small issues could pop up that might add a little to the estimate, but the final tab should be pretty close to the quote.

If something unexpected does arise as the mechanic is fixing the car, another tip is to request that the shop contacts the owner to discuss the problem — and the cost to fix it — before doing the work. It gives the car's parent the opportunity to decide to move forward, or get a second opinion.

"I want to know ahead of time, 'Well, that needed that, but then I had to put this in to fix that,'" Souter said.

Finally, after an estimate is obtained, the driver can go online to check what others have paid in the past for similar work. That helps determine if they've gotten a fair deal.

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