Should you get your car serviced at an auto shop or a dealership?

By: Dominic Licorish on January 11, 2024
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This article has been updated from a previous version.  

As far as I’m concerned, cars are magic.  

I know they have transmissions, drivetrains, horsepower, and all those other things they say in commercials, but as to how they all fit together and work? Don’t know, don’t care, and I’m sure many people who own cars don’t either.  

But what should concern us is the rising cost of vehicle repairs. Canadians spent more than $9 billion on auto repairs and services last year.  

Sadly, the cost of repair (thanks to a parts shortage, ongoing supply chain issues, and lack of qualified technicians) is only going to get worse before it gets better. Whether you get your car repaired at either an independent auto repair shop or dealership should come down to two things: Cost and expertise.  

When should you bring your car to the dealership? 

If you ask someone from a different time and age – like your Baby Boomer parents – they would likely suggest going to an auto repair shop to save yourself from a hefty repair bill at a dealership.  

Mark Whinton is the creator of the Carquestions Youtube channel. He explains why an independent mechanic might be more financially viable. 

“Dealers have higher targets, so prices are usually higher,” he says. “That’s just how it is.” On top of that, those higher prices don’t necessarily come with higher quality service. 

“No matter where you go, you’re likely to get the same quality of service,” he said.  

But it’s not as straightforward as that. Whinton recommends drivers ask themselves the following questions when deciding where to take their cars for service. 

1. Is your issue covered under your vehicle’s warranty or a vehicle recall?  

Dealerships cover recall and warranty repairs at no cost to the owner. Therefore, they should be the first solution to consider if your vehicle has an issue.  

Whinton says he’s seen people spend thousands on repairs they could have had done for free if they’d known. If your vehicle has a problem, verify if it falls under your warranty and go to the Transport Canada webpage for a comprehensive guide on checking for vehicle recalls. 

2.  Does your car require specialized service? 

Some independent mechanics go out of their way to be able to service luxury and/or rare vehicles, but it’s not very common. Instead, Whinton says, dealerships can be a better solution for luxury models like Mercedes-Benz and BMW because they’re most likely to have training. 

Related: How to negotiate the best price for a new car? 

3. Does your vehicle require special parts or repair tools? 

For luxury cars like the ones mentioned above, dealerships also have access to parts and equipment that are specifically meant for your car.  Newer car models (and, for that matter, EVs) are also equipped with more advanced technology, making them difficult to repair or source parts for at traditional auto shops. 

When should you bring your car to the auto shop? 

If you answered “no” to all the above questions, chances are you’re better off going to an independent mechanic.  

Whether it’s for general maintenance (brake job, oil changes, tire changes, etc.) or a special issue (leaks, rattling noise in engine, dashboard warning lights), independent mechanics generally offer better prices than dealerships.  

But be aware: coming off the pandemic, we’re continuing to see a shortage of vehicle parts because of supply chain issues, as well as an ongoing labour shortage of qualified and trained technicians. As such, repair times may be long, taking as long as two months for a simple repair job.  

There has been a manufacturer recall for your vehicle 
Your vehicle is still under warranty 
Your vehicle needs hard-to-find/proprietary parts 
Your vehicle has a special issue (leaks, rattling noise in engine, dashboard warning lights) 
Your vehicle just needs general maintenance (brake job, oil changes, tire changes, etc.) 

The key to finding an excellent mechanic 

According to Zain Manji, co-founder and former chief operating officer of mobile auto service company Fiix, either a dealership or an auto shop can be a good option depending on the time, cost, and expertise required for the repair job. The right choice, he says, is to go the shop that can best meet all of those qualities while still fitting your budget. 

“Many shops and dealerships don't always have the most qualified individuals working on your car,” he says. “Many actually utilize apprentices to do the majority of the work, since apprentices need practice, hours, and are a lower cost option for them. At the same time, there are many shops who aren't transparent with their customers and who use fear tactics in order to upsell their customers.” 

Manji says the key to finding an excellent mechanic is to look for: 

  1. A great track record and glowing reviews. 

  1. Transparency from the company on who the mechanics are, what their qualifications and expertise are, and why they are great. 

  1. A customer base which they've formed great relationships with. Strong word of mouth and loyalty is a great sign. 

Related: How to save money on your car insurance costs with proper car maintenance 

Lastly, a word about insurance coverage 

Another thing you want to keep in mind is auto insurance coverage for repairs and vehicle part replacement. Your collision and comprehensive policies cover collision-related repairs, but they do not cover repairs needed due to wear-and-tear or mechanical failures. 

If you’re worried about temporarily not having access to your car, the Loss of Use endorsement can cover the cost of an alternative method of transport while your vehicle is in the repair shop or dealership, as long as the damage is a result of a covered peril. 

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