Should you go to an independent mechanic or the dealership?

An unavoidable and largely undesirable part of responsible car ownership is regular and professional service. This means getting your fluids changed on time, replacing broken parts promptly, and just generally keeping your vehicle healthy and in good working order.

This article gives a more detailed breakdown of maintenance practices and intervals, though that’s not what we’re here to discuss today. Instead, we’ll be addressing the age-old, hotly debated question of where you should take your car for service.

There are two common potential answers to this question (three if you count your own garage): the dealership or an independent mechanic. DIY is always my number one pick, but if you’re not a hands-on wrench turner, you’re going to find yourself at either a dealership service center or an independent shop. 

Why is there a debate between the two?

Before we get into the pros and cons of each of these options, it is important to first understand what the debate between the two is even about. As is true with mostly all things that we spend money on, the primary point of contention is the value per dollar that can be had at the dealer versus an independent shop.

In other words, is the price advantage that one typically finds at an independent shop the result of lower quality work? We ask the same question when we buy practically anything. For example, if you’re in the market for an espresso machine (which you should be if you don’t already have one, it will change your life!) you ask yourself whether the expensive one is worth it, or whether its higher price actually brings a tangible performance advantage over the lower priced one. In this instance, the lower priced espresso machine is analogous to an independent mechanic, and the higher price one represents the dealership. Now that we have the primary subject of debate properly outlined, let’s get into actually addressing it!

Pros and Cons of going to an Independent Mechanic for Service

(image credit: redlinespeedworx.com) 

As we mentioned earlier, the main advantage of going to an independent mechanic rather than the dealership is the price. In almost all cases, an independent mechanic or shop will be (often much) less expensive than the dealership. This is largely due to the lack of “name brand” prestige at independent mechanics. These shops don’t have an automotive manufacturer’s name attached to them, and are thus not able to charge the premium that a name brand like that commands. However, in many cases, this does not equate to lower quality work—as long as you’re going to a good independent shop. There are some fantastic independent mechanics, and there are some that I wouldn’t trust with a remote control car, let alone my actual car. So, just know that you need to research the quality of independent mechanics extensively, something that you don’t typically have to do when going to the dealer for service. 

Another thing to consider with independent shops is the actual service process. Many will not offer loaner cars, which can be an inconvenience. Additionally, they may not have as comfortable or well-appointed waiting areas as dealerships, either. Some will though—this again just comes down to doing your research. 

Finally, another con of independent mechanics is that you cannot have warranty work performed at one. If your car is still under warranty, your covered repairs can only be performed at dealerships.

So, to sum up our assessment of independent mechanics: 

  • Pros
    • Less expensive than dealerships
  • Cons
    • Need to research workmanship quality
    • No loaner cars, and no “dealership experience”
    • No warranty work coverage

In list form, we can see that the pros here are pretty heavily outnumbered by the cons. However, that one pro can be quite the game changer, and some of the cons can be nullified by research, or be considered worth it for the price advantage. 

Pros and Cons of Going to the Dealership for Service

 (image credit: valley-bmw.com)

Now that we’ve gone through the pros and cons of taking your car to an independent mechanic, it’s important to do the same for a dealership. As we touched on in the above section, one of the main benefits of going to the dealership for service is that you can be fairly certain that the workmanship quality will be high, as dealers typically only hire mechanics who have degrees and experience. Most independent shops share the same hiring requirements, but some don’t. This generally eliminates the need to research the quality of the work beforehand. 

Another advantage of going to the dealership is that you can often get a nice loaner car, or get a ride to work, or be given the option of waiting in a nice waiting area. This is a great convenience advantage that many independent shops can’t offer. 

Additionally, dealerships will of course be able to perform warranty repairs. So if your car is new and still under factory warranty, the dealership will perform those repairs under warranty, which usually equates to a free repair. 

However, all of these pros come at a premium. Dealerships are almost always going to be quite substantially more expensive than an independent mechanic, and this trend has given them the nickname of “Stealerships” among car enthusiasts. However, if you want that dealership experience and don’t want to have to do research, this premium might just be worth it.  (And if the work is for an actual repair under warranty, then you of course price won’t be a concern since the manufacturer is paying for it.)

To summarize our pros and cons of the dealership: 

  • Pros
    • Loaner cars and more “luxurious” service experience
    • Little need to worry about or research workmanship quality
    • Ability to have warranty work performed
  • Cons
    • Expensive (if the repair isn’t covered under warranty)

As with the pros and cons list of independent mechanics, this list is quite lopsided, though in the opposite direction. There are more pros than cons here, though that one con can be enough to outweigh all the pros, depending on what you prioritize.

Final Recommendation: Dealership or Independent Mechanic 

To round this topic up with a hard and fast final recommendation would be to minimize the above discussion and generalize the priorities of car-owners everywhere, but that’s exactly what I’m going to do—and it’s probably what you came here for in the first place!

I would encourage you to make your own decision using the information above, but I will give my own final recommendation nonetheless: I prefer to use independent mechanics over dealerships for repairs or service beyond my DIY abilities.

I say this for the following reasons: I’m comfortable doing my own research, have found an independent mechanic I trust (and who specializes in the type of car that I own), I like to save money, and my car is not under warranty.

Having said that, I do understand why some folks prefer the dealership. If you can’t be bothered to do independent research, have a car that’s under warranty, or need the dealership experience (and find these things worth the extra cost), then it is perfectly okay to go to the dealership for service. The choice between the two all comes down to personal preference and identifying what’s most important to you.

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