Cowboys had their horses, pioneers had wagons. But in modern America, your car is probably your ride of choice, the transport option that takes you here, there, and everywhere. When your car breaks down or acts up, it’s a major inconvenience — and can be a major expense. That’s why finding a good repair shop is so important.

Unfortunately, nonprofit Delaware Valley Consumers’ Checkbook finds that many repair shops disappoint their customers; they do lousy work, impose long delays, sell unnecessary repairs, and 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 431 shops in the Philadelphia region include ratings for quality and price. Checkbook’s ratings are based on more than 17,000 ratings it collected by surveying area consumers; a review of consumer-agency complaint records; more than 1,700 price checks by its undercover shoppers; and other sources. Until Feb. 7, Checkbook is offering free access to its ratings of local auto repair shops to Inquirer readers at Checkbook.org/Inquirer/Auto-Repair.

Fortunately, the region has a lot of top-quality auto repair shops. Many were rated “superior” for overall quality by 90% or more of their surveyed customers. But you’ll want to steer clear of some shops: Dozens of the businesses Checkbook evaluated got favorable ratings from fewer than 60% of their surveyed customers.

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 take your car in because with most repair work, it is difficult to shop for price before you know exactly what needs to be done.

Checkbook’s undercover shoppers found dramatic shop-to-shop price differences. For example, to replace the water pump for a 2014 Ford Escape, they found prices ranging from $208 to $598 among area shops. Hourly labor rates range from $65 to $195.

If you know what repairs you need, you can compare prices from shop to shop on your own by calling a handful for quotes. Checkbook’s shoppers found it was surprisingly easy to get price quotes from auto repair shops over the phone. If you don’t know what work is needed, call one or more shops and describe the symptoms — what the car is doing or not doing. Shops might be able to tell you over the phone what’s likely to be wrong and quote a price. If so, get quotes from several shops.

When shops can’t determine what’s wrong with your car based on your description, you’ll have to take it in for a diagnosis and estimate. Then, with estimate in hand — and assuming that the diagnosis is correct — check with other shops to see whether the shop’s price is fair.

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. In fact, low-priced shops were more likely to receive high marks from their surveyed customers than high-priced shops.

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 lower prices. The non-dealers were rated “superior” overall by an average of 86% of their surveyed customers compared with only 71% for dealers. Prices at non-dealers averaged about 13% 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.

Delaware Valley Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates.