Should you go to a dealer or a local repair shop for a broken car? When researching local auto-repair shops, Consumers’ Checkbook’s undercover shoppers found dramatic shop-to-shop price differences. The good news: There are many top-quality, low-price shops in the area.

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Consumers’ Checkbook 

In an age of self-piloting cars and computerized features, many things can still go wrong with your car. That means drivers still rely on human mechanics to keep their rides rolling. Unfortunately, the nonprofit Puget Sound Consumers’ Checkbook finds many repair shops disappoint their customers; they do lousy work, impose long delays, sell unnecessary repairs, give inaccurate estimates. But not all shops are lemons: Plenty almost always perform top-quality work quickly and for a fair price.

Checkbook’s evaluations of hundreds of shops in the Puget Sound area include its ratings for quality and price. Its ratings are based on more than 12,000 reviews by local consumers, consumer-agency complaint records, more than 1,500 price checks by its undercover shoppers, and other sources.

For the next month, Checkbook is offering free access to its ratings of area repair shops to Seattle Times readers via this link: Checkbook.org/SeattleTimes/AutoRepair

Fortunately, there are a lot of top-quality auto-repair shops in the area. Checkbook found that more than 100 of the shops were rated “superior” overall by 90 percent or more of their surveyed customers. But there are plenty of shops to steer clear of: Several got such favorable ratings from fewer than 60 percent of their surveyed customers.

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Checkbook’s ratings of area shops include a separate rating for price, derived from price quotes collected by its undercover shoppers for several carefully constructed repair jobs. You want to be sure a shop charges fair prices before you bring in your car because, like most repair work, it is difficult to shop for price before you know exactly what needs to be done.

Checkbook’s undercover shoppers also found dramatic shop-to-shop price differences. For example, to replace the water pump for a 2011 Ford Escape XLT, they were quoted prices by area shops ranging from $220 to $531. Hourly labor rates ranged from $78 to $175.

You don’t have to pay more for good service: Checkbook found no relationship between the prices shops charge and the quality of their work. There are many top-quality, low-price shops in the area.

Many consumers believe dealers offer better repair service due to access to proprietary knowledge, sophisticated diagnostic software, and high-tech tools, not available at independent garages. That’s not true. In fact, Checkbook found the opposite: On average, shops operated by non-dealers were far more likely to satisfy their customers than dealerships — and offered far lower prices. The non-dealers were rated “superior” overall by an average of 84 percent of their surveyed customers compared to only 66 percent for dealers. Prices at non-dealers averaged about 15 percent lower.

Both dealers and non-dealers subscribe to the same databases that provide repair instructions, diagrams and news from manufacturers. Although many car dealerships feature spacious, nifty-looking workstations, independents have access to the same tools and equipment. Despite what dealerships would have you believe, local garages can access the same information, software and equipment.

Checkbook’s advice: If the work you need is not covered by a new-car warranty, use an independent shop.

With any shop, communication is critical. Checkbook advises:

• Give the shop a detailed written description of your car’s symptoms. But distinguish between what you know and what you think you know. If you know what needs to be repaired, tell the shop, but don’t guess. If you mention a specific problem — say, a bad alternator — the shop may replace a perfectly good alternator (and charge you for it), before fixing what is actually wrong.

• If possible, speak with the repair technician who will be working on your car. Service write-up personnel at large shops often know very little about car repair, and those who do know car repair may not be able to describe your car’s symptoms to a repair technician as well as you can.

• Either get a written estimate in advance or write on the repair ticket that no work is to be done without your approval based on a written estimate.

• Get a written, dated invoice that details charges for parts and labor, and the vehicle’s odometer reading.

• Pay by credit card — you can dispute the charges if things go wrong and the shop isn’t responsive.

• If the car is still not right when you get it back, immediately inform the shop, preferably in writing.