Communicating with a mechanic can be difficult – and intimidating. It can be hard to describe the problem, understand potential solutions, and make sure you're getting a fair deal. This MasterKit has you what you need to talk shop like a pro and stay in the driver's seat – literally and figuratively.
Have a smarter conversation with your mechanic by learning which last-minute car maintenance upsells you may or may not need.
Most car mechanics are good people who want what's best for their customers (and their cars). But car repair shops are also businesses. Like airlines that charge for snacks and checked luggage, a common way for mechanics to boost their bottom line is by upselling extra services beyond what was originally scheduled. You can pack light and bring snacks to save money on a plane, but when you're at the repair shop, it's easy to assume that because the mechanic recommends it, your car needs it — now.
That's not always the case. Here’s how to tell if the upgrade your mechanic is recommending is something you really need.
"Your air filter is filthy. Would you like me to replace it?"
Asking whether you want the engine air filter changed has become a common part of a routine oil change. The technician will probably tell you a clean filter will help you get better fuel economy (though there's no data to indicate that’s true) and acceleration (which is a little bit true).
How often you should have your air filter changed really depends on driving conditions, mileage and time. Your owner’s manual will list recommended mileage intervals for engine air filter changes — usually from every 15,000 miles if you routinely drive on dirt roads, to up to 45,000 miles if you stick to pavement.
Overall, you should be able to get two to three years out of one engine air filter. If it's only been a year or so, tell your mechanic that you're going to skip it this time.
"How long has it been since you changed your cabin air filter?"
Most drivers don't even know their car has a cabin air filter until they're asked if they want it changed. But is the mechanic just trying to pull some sort of scam?
Probably not. Just like you want your engine to have clean air, you want clean air inside the car for yourself and your passengers. Plus, a dirty cabin air filter makes your car's air conditioning and heating systems work harder, or not at all.
This is another case in which your owner's manual is your best friend. Every car manufacturer has recommended intervals for cabin air filter changes, so if your mechanic says you need a change, consult your owner's manual. Most cabin air filters need to be changed every 15,000 miles, or about once a year.
Pro Tip: Engine and cabin air filters' life expectancy varies based on your typical driving conditions. Both filters are also easy to visually inspect to see if you need to change them. If your mechanic says you need a new one and it's sooner than your manufacturer's recommendation, ask to see your old filter. Change it if it looks really dirty, but if it isn't, keep your wallet in your pocket.
"Can I interest you in a complete fuel system cleaning and filter change?"
Older, carbureted cars, which went out of production in the U.S. in the 1990s, generally needed frequent fuel system cleanings. But modern cars don't need the fuel system cleaned nearly as often. Unless you have a documented problem with your car, like a check engine light that's on or persistent poor performance, you shouldn't need a fuel system cleaning before 60,000 miles. After that, check your owner's manual.
"Have you thought about switching over to synthetic oil?"
During an oil change, your mechanic may ask if you want to upgrade from conventional oil to synthetic oil. And while some cars require synthetic oil, most do not. So why might you actually consider this idea? Synthetic oil has lots of pros — it lubricates moving engine parts more effectively, it performs better in extreme temperatures and it also lasts longer between oil changes (saving you money in the long run). What about the cons? There's just one: It costs more than conventional oil. But as long as you don't mind the extra charge up-front, this is one upgrade that you can feel good about making.
"How are those wiper blades treating you?"
Most people don't give their windshield wipers a lot of thought until they stop working. However, those blades are constantly exposed to the elements and are one of the most abused parts of your car. Most oil change and repair shops will offer to change your wiper blades every time you bring your car in. That's probably more often than you really need, though. The rule of thumb is twice a year, unless your wipers just aren't working well.
The best advice is to routinely swap out your wiper blades once in the spring and once in the fall, in preparation for summer rains and winter weather.
Pro Tip: Changing wiper blades is one of the easiest car maintenance tasks to do yourself. Some auto parts stores will also install your blades for free after you make your purchase.
"When was the last time you changed the coolant?"
If you don't know the answer to that one, then you probably need it. Your car's coolant system is one of the most important systems for you to maintain. Debris and old coolant can keep the system from working and lead to expensive repairs down the road.
Most manufacturers recommend getting a coolant flush and fill every 30,000 miles or so. For most people, that's about two years' worth of driving. If your car is running fine and it's been less than two years since your last flush, take a pass on this when your mechanic offers unless your owner's manual instructs otherwise.
"How long has it been since you've had a transmission fluid flush?"
Although owner's manuals offer recommended service intervals for transmission fluid flushes, your need for one varies based on how you use your car. Lots of hard driving, like in stop-and-go traffic, taxes your transmission and may cause the fluid to break down faster. As long as your car is driving fine and your owner's manual says it's not time for a change, go ahead and skip this. A car with less than 100,000 miles on it probably doesn't need one.
"We inspected your tire, and it can't be fixed - but we have a deal on a set of four new tires."
Many mechanics and tire shops recommend replacing all four tires at the same time, even when only one tire is damaged. Whether you need to replace all four depends on the condition of your tires and whether you have all-wheel drive.
On front-wheel or rear-wheel drive cars, tires that are in good shape and have adequate tread don't generally need to be replaced. When one tire is flat and the other three are fine, you only really need to replace the flat one, as long as you can match the size and model of your other tires.
If you have an all-wheel drive vehicle, you do need replace all four at the same time. Replacing only two will save you some money upfront, but the two older tires may not give you the grip you need to maintain control in wet weather or emergency situations.
Pro Tip: Check your tires before agreeing to have them replaced. Look for visible damage along the treads and sidewalls. Then, put a penny upside-down in the tread: If you can see the top of Lincoln's head, replace the tire.