New York ( MainStreet) — It's the dilemma dreaded by every car owner: something cacophonous starts rumbling under the hood, and the noise can't be drowned out by turning up the radio. This is going to require a repair, and it's going to get expensive. 

When this happens the owner is confronted with the problem of finding a repair shop that will not only properly fix the issue, but do so without charging an arm and a leg.  This can be a huge headache and source of concern because most neighborhoods have dozens of repair shops from which to choose, and then there is the added option of taking the car to the dealership service center.

Luckily, there are a number of online tools available that help remove a great deal of the risk from this situation by leading car owners through the process of not only finding a reputable repair shop, but also helping them figure out what is wrong with the the car and what the price should be to fix the problem.

The first step is figuring out what is causing that odd sound or smell. One of the worst mistakes a person can make is simply bringing the car to the nearest garage without doing some homework first and fully understanding the cost of the job, said Brian Hafer, AutoMD's vice president of marketing.

Sometimes diagnosing the problem is simple; the car may have a flat tire, plain and simple. Other times, a consumer needs additional help. The simplest way is to use an online diagnostic tool or app that pinpoints the automotive issue so you can go to a mechanic with a good idea about what is wrong.  Most of these apps work similarly: the owner inputs the vehicle's year, make and model into the system, and the site leads the owner through a series of questions to figure out the problem.

Hafer said an online service like AutoMD, which is owned by U.S. Auto Parts, simply stops people from getting ripped off.

"What we do is enable consumers to compare shops, see reviews from other customers and show the type of work the shops do and don't do," said Hafer of AutoMD's capabilities.

Once the mechanical failure is identified, the software generates a price estimate or price range based on data supplied by the business and then independently verified for either doing the work yourself or for hiring professional. 

If fixing the car yourself is not an option, the next step is finding a garage.

Much like making any other major purchasing decision, it is a good idea to  check customer reviews and how the businesses are rated. Up until just a few years ago, Hafer said, this was not an option for repair shops as few were online. Now people can either go to Yelp or use the reviews supplied by apps like AutoMD or RepairPal.

"The site then asks if you want to find a shop and we will steer them to a RepairPal vetted shop," said Jill Trotta, certification manager for RepairPal. "We personally check their training, if they have the right tools and we get verified reviews."  


Thousand's of reviews are available on both sites with Hafer saying AutoMD has a listing for every repair facility in the country and thousands of reviews placed by customers ready for viewing.

RepairPal's customer reviews are acquired directly from customers. Trotta and others at the company obtain a garage's customer list and then contact these people to get their unvarnished opinion of the facility.

In addition to immediately helping a driver in need, this level of transparency helps keep businesses honest, Trotta said.  Repair shops that rip off customers will quickly find themselves on the receiving end of bad reviews from angry customers Hafer said.

Another general tip that can help a car owner figure out if a shop is sincere? The consumer is in good hands if the shop tells what brand of replacement part is being used and if it gives back the parts that were replaced, Hafer said. By having the old parts in hand, the consumer should ascertain that the work was actually done, and by asking the brand of the replacement parts, the customer knows the job was done correctly, he added.

For those cases when the car breaks down away from home and there is little choice where the repair will take place, Trotta recommended using RepairPal's mobile app to quickly check on the cost estimate to help keep the repair shop honest.

The final step in the process is to obtain a warranty for the work. Trotta and Hafer said a 12,000 mile or one-year warranty is the least that should be accepted with some shops offering guarantees of several years on their work and parts.

--Written by Doug Olenick for MainStreet

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.