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How to Buy Car Parts

Dan Ferrell writes about do-it-yourself car maintenance and repair. He has certifications in automation and control technology.

Buying auto parts, especially for foreign cars, can turn a simple maintenance task or repair job into an expensive project.

Your choices for finding and buying car parts have broadened in the last few years:

  • local dealers
  • auto parts stores
  • department stores
  • car parts recyclers
  • online stores

But finding a quality part at a reasonable price still takes work.

Your search strategy needs to identify exactly the part you are looking for as well as consider your budget. Otherwise, you'll end up getting the wrong part, paying high prices, or buying a seeming bargain that will cost you more in repairs.

This guide will help you consider available options, buy the correct part, and save you money in the process with minimum hassle. It all begins with having the correct information about your vehicle on hand. So let's start there.

Identify Your Car

You are probably familiar with the basic information about your vehicle like make (Ford), model (Escort), and year (1999).

Sometimes, this is all the information you need when buying common service parts for your vehicle, like air filters, batteries, and spark plugs. But once you start doing service or repairs in areas like the fuel, ignition and cooling systems, or the engine, transmission and body assemblies, you will need more specific information to avoid getting the wrong component.

On a piece of paper or small notepad, write down the following information about your car—besides the make, model and year:

  • Engine size. You'll find it on the valve cover of your engine, your car owner's manual, or the Vehicle Emissions Control Information (VECI) label located in the engine compartment. It'll say something like 1.9L or 2.0L (meaning 2.0 liters). In addition, the VECI label contains other tune-up related information you need when servicing your car.
  • Fuel system type. You'll find this information in one of the sources mentioned above. Look for a designation like Throttle Body (TB), Multiport Injection System (MIS), Indirect Injection System (IIS), Direct Injection System (DIS), or something similar. It's not uncommon to find some vehicles within the same year and model using one type of fuel system, while the rest of the models come equipped with a different one. This information will make it clear which specific model you own. Check the valve cover, your car owner's manual or vehicle service manual for this information if necessary.
  • Vehicle identification number or VIN. You'll find the VIN on a small tag attached to the driver's side of the dashboard. It's easier to see the number from outside the vehicle, right at the lower edge of the windshield. Your vehicle registration form has the VIN as well.

The VIN includes:

  • manufacturer information (General Motors);
  • the series name of the vehicle (Monte Carlo LS),
  • the type of vehicle (sedan), the model year and manufacturing plant;
  • and the chassis number.

The chassis number, the last six digits of the VIN, represents the production sequence in which your vehicle was manufactured. Some manufacturers like Audi and Volvo are known for changing engine components within a production model year. So without the chassis number, you could be at a loss to find the right replacement for some of your car components.

  • The engine code number. Most engine models have the code on a label attached to the valve cover. Over time, though, heat, oil and water render the label unreadable. Instead, look for the build date code—a series of letters and numbers—stamped on the upper or lower, front side of the engine. This number differs from the one included in the VIN code and it helps you find internal components for your specific engine too.
  • Note the fluid capacities for the cooling system, transmission and engine. You'll find this information in your car owner's manual or vehicle service manual. To buy some components, you'll need this information. Also, having this information on hand makes it more convenient when removing or replacing a part that requires draining oil, coolant or some other fluid.

Depending on the specific part you need, your auto parts supplier might ask you for a little or a lot of this information. Having this information ready will speed up your car-part hunting process and help you get the correct part the first time, especially when ordering online.

Identify Your Part

Get the part number if you can. Knowing the part number guarantees that you get the correct part, even if you only have basic information about your car. However, this number won't be available all the time. Not all parts come with their number stamped on the case, or you might not be able to see the part's number without removing it.

New, Used, Remanufactured

Depending on the part, you may be presented with a choice of new, used, or remanufactured. Research the options for that particular part, just as you would research the brands. Remanufactured starters and alternators, for example, are the most common choice and perfectly acceptable.

Original Equipment Manufacturer or Alternative Brands?

The most expensive replacement parts come in a box with the car maker's name on it: "Toyota" brand parts, for example, for Toyota brand cars. A high-end mechanic for Toyotas, for example, may say he uses only Toyota brand parts in your car, and he will charge accordingly.

Just as good or sometimes better, and sometimes cheaper, are OEM parts: made by the manufacturer to whom the car maker assigns the task of making parts. For example, Akebono makes the brakes that go in a box of "Toyota" brakes, and Denso makes the radiators that go in the "Honda" radiator box. Koyo makes bearings that go into new Toyotas. Denso makes fine starters and other parts that go into new Hondas and Toyotas. OEM brands can give you worry-free parts for uses where reliability matters.

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Many nationwide auto parts offer remanufactured or new parts as alternatives to Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) parts, at lower prices. Some of these are just as good as or better than OEM parts, in part because manufacturers that supply parts to car factories may offer the same parts under a different brand to the aftermarket sector.

Does Low Price Mean Low Quality?

Different auto parts outlets offer the same item at a wide range of prices. In a broad sense, the higher the price, the higher the quality, but this is by no means always the case.

Many nationwide auto parts stores offer remanufactured or new parts as alternatives to Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) parts, at lower prices. Many of these parts match or surpass the original part in quality. The capacity of nationwide outlets to buy high-demand auto parts in large quantities allows them to compete at this level.

Having said that, look out for parts at bargain prices. Some of these parts have poor quality materials and manufacturing. They may look like their brand name counterpart in design and packaging. But the savings will disappear if you end up having to redo the repair and replace a bad part with a better quality part.

Where to Find Car Parts for Your Vehicle

Now let's see what outlet options you have when buying auto parts for your car.

1. Your Local Auto Dealer

If you are the type of car owner that likes to stick to original components, your local dealer is your best option. Here, you'll find common service parts as well as body accessories, cylinder heads, blocks, and pretty much any component you'll need. In fact, depending on your specific vehicle model and the part you need, this could be the only place you'll find your part. More often than not, though, here is where you'll pay the highest prices on the market too.

Still, if you want to save some money on OEM parts, ask your local dealer for remanufactured components. Some offer refurbished parts at lower prices.

2. Machine Shops

For most domestic—and popular import—vehicle models, it's possible to find engine and transmission parts through a local machine shop in your town at lower-than-dealer prices: anything from individual parts to blocks, cylinder heads, and overhaul repair kits. Check your local yellow pages for a list of machine shops in your area.

3. Auto Parts Jobbers

An important source for local auto repair shops and service stations, auto parts jobbers are an excellent supplier for the home mechanic as well. You'll find many OEM and third party, brand new components and parts at competitive prices. However, don't expect to buy your parts self-sevice as in chain auto parts stores. Most of the products here are stored behind the counter. Consult your local yellow pages for a list of auto parts jobbers.

4. Chain Auto Parts Stores

Probably you are already familiar with your local chain auto parts stores. They are popular for more than one reason:

  • Most chain outlets offer common parts used in vehicle maintenance and minor repairs at reasonable prices.
  • Many manufacturers that supply parts to car factories offer many of the same parts under a different brand to the aftermarket sector. So you'll find brand name and private label brands at affordable prices with the same or higher quality than OEM components.
  • Because nationwide outlets can buy high-demand auto parts in large quantities, they can charge competitive prices.
  • Chain stores offer quality remanufactured components at lower prices than brand new items.
  • Chain stores run weekly and seasonal promotions on tune-up kits, alternators, starter motors, water pumps, and other common system components. You'll find these promotions advertised in your local newspaper or by visiting the store.

But be careful. Although chain auto parts stores are one of your best options for quality and price on common car parts, you'll run into components offered at very low prices but with poor quality. For quality and fit, stick to recognized brands, especially when buying brake system parts and electronic components like sensors, actuators, modules, and relays.

5. Discount and Department Stores

If you are looking for low prices on some of the most common auto parts, visit your local discount and department stores. You'll find good prices on some name-brand store-brand items like car batteries, light bulbs, tires, brake pads, wiper blades, water pumps, headlamps, air filters, and oil filters.

Prices are usually the same or lower than in chain stores. However, you need to know exactly what you're looking for since not all department stores have staff with experience in vehicle repair and diagnostics.

6. Online Auto Parts Stores

Keep online stores in your list for difficult-to-find auto parts, specialty parts, accessories, and low prices.

The Internet is an excellent way to get an idea on prices, availability, and hard-to-find parts. Some stores on the Web provide you with a catalog that include photos to make sure you are getting the right part. Amazon's Part Finder will interrogate you about your car's characteristics to identify the number of the part that fits in a vehicle with your manufacturing history.

Check the review section of popular online stores, including Amazon and eBay. Some online outlets allow customers to post about their buying experience and their personal satisfaction or dissatisfaction with parts they've bought in the store. See what previous customers have to say about a particular part you're interested in and what brands they recommend.

7. Auto Junkyards

Visit a junkyard for hard-to-find or expensive auto parts. This is the place to search for that '67 Toyota Corolla voltage regulator or 2013 Chevy Cavalier passenger door. You'll find more than one junkyard around your area that will save the day even for more common items like alternators, valve covers, starters and steering pumps.

Still, if you aren't successful with your local salvage dealer, go online. Enlist the free service of auto parts finders specializing in locating used parts through large recyclers' databases nationwide. Search for "used auto parts locator service" to find them.

Operating under a low budget for car maintenance doesn't mean you have to sacrifice quality in car parts. Compare products and prices and read product reviews whenever possible. When in doubt, ask for recommendations in well-known automotive forums. When armed with the right options and knowledge, you'll hunt for the best replacement parts with more confidence and much better results.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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