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What you should know before going to a car mechanic

Marketplace Money producer Stephen Hoffman's '86 Volvo on a hydraulic lift.

Tess Vigeland: And we are still on the road, in my car. No wonder people complain about L.A. driving It takes forever to go anywhere.

My car is a little over five years old, which means it's gonna start having some issues. And that means I have to do something I absolutely dread: Get a good professional wrencher. And we actually found one, an honest-to-goodness honest mechanic. Trust us -- we asked around.

So we headed over to her shop in North Hollywood with a car that was very much in need of some honesty.


Stephen Hoffman: It's an '86 Volvo 240. And when I got it -- was it almost 11 years ago? Maybe 10 years ago -- it was $2,500 from a personal owner. It actually hasn't really given me too many problems.

Of course, this is our eternally optimistic producer Stephen Hoffman who sees a fly in his soup as extra protein. He's called more than once from the road to say he'll be late getting to the office.

Hoffman: We used to joke that we would just keep it until it died. And now that it's dying, we're like, "Oh no, what do we do?"

Karen Valenti: Exactly, you never want to let go of it. Let me put it on the rack and we'll check it out, and we'll tell you what we see.

Hoffman: OK.

Sound of car door closing and engine starting

That's Karen Valenti, owner of North Hollywood Discount Auto Repair. Twenty-five years fixing cars for L.A. drivers. You don't last that long without repeat customers who trust you.

So while her mechanics conducted a 30-point inspection of Stephen's car, we stood under the hydraulic lift and quizzed her the best way for mere mortals to deal with their mechanics.

Vigeland: Are there really basic things that you should know when you take your car to the mechanic, that'll make you not sound like an idiot?

Valenti: The five basic fluids of the car will teach you enough about your car to know how it operates.

Vigeland: OK.

Valenti: Oil, transmission, brake fluid, power steering and coolant. These are the things you need to know about your car and those are the things that'll save you from disasters.

Vigeland: Why is it so hard to find an honest car mechanic?

Valenti: Because it's work, OK? And nobody wants to put work into their car. If you have the basics, understanding of your car, they're going to understand your level of understanding and then they'll be able to match it. And yes, women will be taken advantage of when they show complete ignorance and that's hwy mechanics don't even bother to talk. They don't explain it, because they figure you don't know and don't understand.

But even with a little know-how, it's hard to escape that niggling feeling that just walking in the door of an auto body shop will set you back thousands of dollars in labor and therapy. You'd rather have a tooth pulled with no anesthetic. They start talking about the exhaust manifold or the differential and you just... nod your head.

Valenti says there's no easy way to avoid getting scammed; it's all about relationships.

Valenti: You find someone in your neighborhood that is owner-operated. The owner is own the premises; he's not out to lunch.

Vigeland: Or she.

Valenti: Or she. He's watching and knowing what's going on in his business.

Back under the 1986 Volvo, some bad news for Stephen.

Valenti: When a car has as many oil leaks as this one does, it starts to hurt the rubber parts that are considered the suspension of the car.

...Signs that it may be on its last legs. Stephen mentioned to Valenti that another mechanic had recently suggested a new fuel pump. A couple hundred bucks and a day later, the car broke down again and now it was the alternator.

Hoffman: And you know I love my mechanic. I've been going to him for years and he's always been a straight shooter. But...

Valenti: And he is.

Hoffman: But you can have the most trusted source, but the moment that they tell you have something to fix, it's expensive, something goes back in your mind, instinctively, and you think back on everything that's gone in the past and you start to doubt what they're saying.

Valenti: Exactly. And it's all because of your lack of knowledge, OK? Because you don't know that he can make mistakes and there's no way I can tell when a part is gonna stop working. I can't see into the future and so many people want you to.

Vigeland: I have to tell you my recent experience is that I had a four-year warranty on a new car and so everything was covered for those four years. And boy, whaddya know? Right after that was up, suddenly I had a bunch of stuff wrong with my car.

Valenti: Yeah.

Vigeland: Am I gettin' a story told to me?

Valenti: No, it makes sense.

Vigeland: It does?

Valenti: Yeah.

Vigeland: But the timing is just so fishy!

Valenti: People earn a salary to make the car last for that exact four years, and four years and one day, it starts to break down. It really does. But it's normal for every car after it's warranty to have the beginnings of the breakdown.

Of course, our poor Volvo passed its warranty a couple of decades ago. And now Valenti's found something called "blow-by," oil leaking into the air filter. A devastating diagnosis.

Valenti: It's time to move on in this car. It's just going to get worse and worse.

Vigeland: So the car's basically coming apart.

Valenti: We'd have to re-build the engine, OK?

Vigeland: Stephen, you'll be taking my car back to the studio.

Hoffman: I think I should just go home now.

Age took its toll on this car, not neglect. But now Stephen faces a universally tough decision: Pour money into the old car to keep it running or give up?

Valenti: You do need to fix old cars. And if you add up all the fixing that you do over a year, it's not gonna be more than $1,500. So if you compare that to a car payment, which is gonna be $3,000, you're sticking with the old car until there's something that is so expensive that it's more than the value of the car.

Vigeland: And we may have discovered that today.

Valenti: Yes, we may have. Definitely.

Hoffman: Waaa waaaa...

The verdict? Stephen will not be paying the $5,000 tab for a rebuilt engine. But being Stephen, he's sure he can hold out just a little longer. And we're always there to give him a ride.

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