How to Speak with a Mechanic

Knowing what to say when you call a mechanic can be daunting. Maybe your maintenance light is on but you're not sure what needs to be done. And how exactly are you supposed to describe that weird noise your vehicle is making? Is it "whickety-whickety-whickety" or "skree-skree-skree" or "pa-DUNK pa-DUNK?"

The good news is that whether you're calling to schedule regular maintenance or you need diagnostic work done, there's information you can gather beforehand to make that call a breeze. Let's break it down.

The Basics

No matter what you're calling about, your shop is going to need some information about your vehicle. You'll need to be ready to share the following:

  • Make (Ford, Toyota, Chevy)
  • Model (F150, Camry, Blazer)
  • Year
  • Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)

If you can't remember your vehicle's model year, don't worry—you're not alone. You can find it on the same label where your VIN is printed. And if you don't know what a VIN is, now you're really not alone.

Every vehicle has a unique VIN, and since 1981 they're all a 17-digit combination of letters and numbers. Your VIN is actually packed with information—even the model year. It can be found in several places in your vehicle, but the easiest place to check is in the driver's door jamb or on the inside edge of the door itself.

Source | Lisa Kowite

Some older vehicles may not have these labels anymore if a collision required body panel replacement. Others may technically have a label, but over time they've become illegible. In cases like these, you can move to the lower driver's side corner of the windshield. Standing outside the vehicle next to the driver's side mirror, you can look down and find the VIN in the bottom corner of the dash where it meets the windshield.

Source | Lisa Kowite

When There's a Problem

Things can get tricky when you have to describe a problem to a mechanic or service adviser. Think of it like describing symptoms to a doctor. You know you need to tell your doctor all of your symptoms so that he or she can decide which tests to run and ultimately get you feeling better. Technicians are no different. Your description of symptoms is their starting point, so it's important to have as much detail as possible. Here are some tips on what types of information are helpful.

Noises

Does your car make a sound like a duck getting stepped on by a cow that's being chased by a screaming donkey? It doesn't matter how crazy your description is—if it's accurate, it's helpful. Grinds, growls, hums, whines, clatters, clicks, knocks, and squeals are all noises that will point your mechanic in a specific direction. Read more about noises your vehicle can make and what they might mean.

A worn or loose serpentine belt can cause a loud squeal from under the hood, especially when the engine is cold. Source | Lisa Kowite

Feelings

No, we're not talking about emotions. Sometimes you can feel that something's just not right. Instead of saying you feel a vibration, for instance, specify whether it's in the brake pedal, the steering wheel, or maybe even in the seat. Do you only feel it at a certain speed, or only when you accelerate? Is there roughness that seems to be coming from the engine compartment at idle? Does your car wander or pull to one side? Those details are helpful, too.

Pro Tip

Pro Tip

Remembering your entire service history is probably not realistic, but keeping receipts and records in one place is. The glovebox is the easiest place, and it keeps your vehicle history easily accessible both to you and your mechanic.

Puddles

Fluid leaks are unnerving, with good reason. The good news is that sometimes drips are normal. Light drips of water from your exhaust is normal, as is dripping water from the air conditioning system. Your A/C can remove quite a bit of moisture from the cabin in certain climates and can lead to an impressive puddle under the vehicle, but that just means the system is doing its job, keeping you cool and your windows free of condensation. Other fluids warrant a call to a pro, though. Note the color and, if you can, the general area of the leak under the vehicle (front, rear, engine compartment, driver's side, etc.) Also note the amount—do you see a couple of drops, or does it look like someone dumped out their whole soda under your engine?

Caution

If you smell fuel, don't drive your vehicle. Driving with a fuel leak is a dangerous fire hazard.

Frequency

Whether you're experiencing something abnormal all the time or some of the time is also important. If it's only happening sometimes, try to narrow down when it happens. Do you hear a grinding sound only in the morning? Is something under the hood squealing only when it's really cold outside? Temperature, time of day, certain roads, and whether the vehicle has just been started or is fully warmed up can all be useful in helping your mechanic confirm a condition and make an accurate diagnosis the first time.

Brake squealing or grinding that only occurs in the morning and quickly goes away is usually due to a light accumulation of rust from overnight condensation. Source | Lisa Kowite

Murphy's Law, Automotive Edition

You've probably heard the old adage—if something can go wrong, it will. Applied to automotive diagnostic work, that means if you're experiencing something abnormal, it's going to happen right up until the minute you get to the shop, at which time your vehicle is magically perfect. Your mechanic isn't going to be able to make a diagnosis of a problem he or she can't confirm. That's frustrating, but it's to protect you. Confirming a problem exists is a critical first step in avoiding wasting time and money on guesses. Your doctor wouldn't prescribe you an antibiotic for strep throat if there weren't visible symptoms and a test to confirm, right? The same principle applies to your vehicle. If you have a condition that only happens sometimes and you can do it safely, get an audio or video recording of your problem, and that can help move things along.

Warning Lights

Be able to describe lights on the instrument cluster even if you don't know what they mean. Source | Lisa Kowite

Modern vehicles seem to have a light on the instrument cluster for everything. Your mechanic won't expect you to know what every light means, but if you have a manual, doing a quick check of what a light is called can help save some time. For instance, there's a big difference between a tire light indicating low pressure versus one that indicates a problem in the tire pressure monitoring system. If you don't have a manual, be able to describe what the light looks like. A low pressure tire light might look to you like a donut with a bite taken out of the bottom. Just say that—chances are your mechanic has heard it before.

The biggest takeaway here is this: be as specific as you can. And remember, calling your mechanic doesn't have to a cringeworthy experience. No one expects you to know everything about your vehicle—if you did, you wouldn't be calling a pro!

If you need a professional service technician, Advance Auto Parts has you covered. We partner with trusted repair shops that are ready to help you. Use our directory to find a qualified service technician near you.

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Last updated January 16, 2020

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