There's nothing like a check engine light to ruin a perfectly good day: Is my car going to blow up or did I just forget to tighten the gas cap?
It's a mystery. And that overwhelming sense of dread gets even worse when you realize you might need to go to a mechanic. Don't worry; you've got this.
Here's how to make the process easier, clearer and save yourself a few bucks in the process:
What does the check engine light even mean?
That little light doesn't tell you much, but there are lots of ways to find out what it means.
The easiest is buying an adapter that plugs into your car, connects to your phone and tells you – in plain English – what it means.
You should know the basics about your car. Nothing fancy, just the year, make and model – maybe the trim level. You also want to know how many miles it has and what service has been done.
Read the manual.
Wait, what service has been done? You should have a receipt from the last time your car was in the shop.
If it's been, ahem, a while since you've done any maintenance, grab that book in your glove box. That's the owner's manual. In the very back is a list of what should be replaced, serviced and inspected and when you should do it based on how many miles or months.
Follow what the manufacturer recommends. The company that engineered the car knows best.
You've heard that animals can smell fear? Mechanics are the same.
When you walk into the mechanic's shop with the confidence that comes with knowledge, you're less likely to be screwed over.
Know about the "Lady Tax."
We all know about the Lady Tax, and it's no different at the auto shop.
When a mechanic assumes someone doesn't know much, he or she will try to take advantage of that fact -- regardless of gender.
Get a written estimate.
After the mechanic has looked at your car, he or she will hand you an estimate.
A mechanic is required to do this and to let you know if the estimate changes while they're performing the work. Before you settle on a mechanic, get an estimate and then...
Remember to shop around.
If you don't have a trusted mechanic and are shopping around for some work, take your car to multiple mechanics and have each give you an estimate.
Let the power of the marketplace – and your intuition – be your guide.
Pick a good mechanic.
Ask family, friends, or even coworkers for recommendations.
Yelp is also a good place to start. Once you've found a few, call around and ask questions. The dealership is generally more expensive, but they're likely to have parts that are specific to your car in stock.
Know the laws.
In California, there's a law that gives you the right to ask for your old parts back. This is good because it'll ease some of your concerns about whether or not the mechanic actually did any work.
Taking the car in to have its window motor replaced? Ask for the old motor.
Do it yourself.
Trust us: You can do a lot of standard car repairs yourself.
Replacing wiper blades, installing new air filters, swapping a dead battery for a new one, even flat tires and oil changes – it's just a matter of getting the tools and the knowledge. Google is your friend.
That check engine light doesn't seem so scary now, does it?