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Frugal Shopper: Long-Term Relationships, Long-Term Savings

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Despite the Cash-for-Clunkers frenzy, overall new-vehicle sales remain way down versus two or three years ago. So it wouldn't be at all a stretch to say that more people today are holding on to their cars longer than they'd intended to.

If the term 'late model' no longer applies to your car and you're going to keep it for another year or two, maybe even longer—after all, your car probably won’t depreciate as much from here on out—it's time to start thinking about a plan of action for when your vehicle needs a significant or costly repair.

Trying a mechanic is a bit like dating. Try a new shop out on routine maintenance, and gauge your satisfaction with the task as well as whether you felt properly informed and fairly treated. And once you find a good one who has your style of communication, your sense for frugality, or your level of attention to detail—all should apply, but two out of three ain't bad—you should consider committing yourself to the relationship.

But how do you get there? Ideally, you'll want to ask friends or family if they have a trusted mechanic, scan Web sites and forums for feedback, and consider shops that specialize in your type or model of vehicle.

You’d also be smart to go with a shop that employs ASE Certified mechanics who have kept up with any specialized factory training needed for the vehicles the shop works on.

But if you run out of leads, a good place to start is AAA. The auto club has its AAA Aproved Auto Repair program, which assures that auto repair will be done to a particular standard.

The AAA program requires that the shops provide a written estimate, offer to return used parts, provide free maintenance inspections for mechanical repair, and offer a minimum 12-month/12,000-mile warranty on repairs.

There are only about 8,000 facilities across the U.S. and Canada that get the AAA nod, and that includes recent expansions to include collision repair, auto glass, and specialty repair businesses.

John Nielsen, director of AAA's Auto Repair and Buying Network, says that in order to be approved by AAA they must have been in business for a year and be financially stable. And they must have at least a 90-percent customer-satisfaction score, as AAA checks annually. Shops are inspected quarterly as well.

“We really make it a point to interview the shop,” says Nielsen. "They have to have the tools and equipment to do the service that we've certified them to do, and they have to get retrained on that regularly."

Finally, AAA has something that might prove especially useful in its contract: an arbitration clause. “So for AAA members if something goes wrong we can arbitrate with the shop on behalf of our member,” says Nielsen.

But Nielsen says that forming that relationship with your mechanic in the first place will avoid most of these situations. “80 percent of all the complaints we get are just communication; sometimes it's the shop, sometimes it's the member, but it all just traces back to poor communication,” he says, adding that if a shop isn’t forthcoming about the repair, what it requires, and any choices, then maybe it’s not the right shop. "There are quality shops—whether it be a dealer or an independent shop—that want to have those conversations.”

“There are shops that want to get everything they can right now, but the smart ones know that a relationship with you lasts for this car and your next cars…they'll do everything they can do to help you, realizing that it's good business,” explains Nielsen. “That's who you want.”

So don’t wait until something breaks. Start a relationship that will actually save you money.

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