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October 16, 2011

News & Features

Fixes by you: Self-serve car-repair shop lets you be the mechanic

Special to NWautos

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Self-Serve Garage customer Carl Johnson works on his engine at the Renton shop. (Courtesy of Self-Serve Garage)

Two years ago, George Patterson found himself faced with a routine car-maintenance problem that came with a big price tag. The high cost of labor in the repair shop's quote got him thinking that there must be a way to make the fix for less.

Patterson went online and found free step-by-step instructions for the exact repair his car required. He located and purchased the right tools and parts, and made the fix himself -- the first car repair he'd ever done. It cost him a third of the repair shop's quote, even after buying the tools.

"If I could follow step-by-step directions and save money in the process," Patterson says, "I figured I wasn't the only one."

That thought inspired Patterson, a former health-care worker with an MBA and a lot of drive, to open Self-Serve Garage in Kent in January. The DIY garage includes six bays, a lift, a compressor and the tools needed for all but the most specialized repairs.

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Self-Serve Garage owner George Patterson points out a computer that is available for customer use. (Roger Ward)

In the lobby, there's a computer to look up and diagnose problems, find and print repair instructions, and watch how-to videos. Patterson also provides a list of independent mechanics who will come to help or instruct customers.

One of those mechanics recently helped a woman in need of brake repairs, Patterson says. She had never worked on her car before, but was hoping to find an alternative to a $400 quote another garage had given her for the job.

"I told her that if she didn't mind getting her hands dirty she could do the job herself and save money," Patterson says of doing the work at Self-Serve Garage.

Self-Serve Garage

  • Address: 221 Washington Ave. N., Kent
  • Online: selfservegarage.com
  • Seminars: Patterson hosts free monthly auto-repair seminars. Check the website's calendar for details.

She hired a mechanic to coach her on the process, rented a bay and the tools, and completed the brake job herself for $130.

Patterson says his business is also perfect for people with auto-repair know-how who have no place to work on their cars, such as those who live in apartments or condos, and people who lack the tools needed for basic jobs. As the only garage of its kind in the Pacific Northwest, it draws customers from all over the Puget Sound region.

Allen Dermody, of Kent, has been taking his Volvo to Self-Service Garage since it opened. He has experience making his own auto repairs and brings in most of his own tools and parts. But, he says, the garage offers a few amenities he lacks.

"Self-Service Garage has the space, the hoist, a compressor and everything I need that I don't have at home," Dermody says. "It's a very well-equipped garage."

Patterson says the business has been successful. "I haven't had a single unhappy customer," he says. "And so far, I have a 60 percent repeat-customer rate."

He attributes much of that to the fact that he doesn't charge a mark-up on parts, and he keeps his rental costs for space and tools as low as he can. Current pricing specials include $20 an hour for a bay with a lift and $10 an hour for a tool set.

Mostly, though, Patterson feels good about giving people in his community the means to keep their vehicles in good running condition.

"I want to help people understand that using a self-service garage is a credible and less-expensive option for fixing their car," he says.

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