Save money on car repairs at the junkyard

Visit junkyard for bargain car partsIf you can assemble IKEA furniture, you have the skills to save yourself a lot of money on car maintenance. One strategy to maximize your savings on car parts is to visit your local junkyard.

How much can you save? I talked with David Edison, president of Edison Automotive, a large yard in Columbus, Ohio. He told me that his customers pay $35 for an alternator that might cost $125-$175 new or rebuilt from a parts store. An air compressor that he sells for $15 might cost $200 elsewhere. During my visit, I found a replacement for the missing hubcap on my 1995 Dodge Caravan for $5. The same from eBay motors would have cost me $30 with shipping.

Who uses junkyards? Edison said his customers are typically people who fixed their own cars, rather than car repair shops. These people drive cars 8-15 years old, the approximate age of the cars in his yard. If you have a newer car, you won't find parts here. However, as Edison said, "A driver with a 2005 Jag can afford to pay to have it maintained." Demand is highest for Japanese cars and pickup trucks. What item sells the best? I was surprised to learn that tires are a huge seller, according to Edison. He buys his cars mostly from private individuals who realize their car is no longer worth anything as a vehicle, and these cars often have tires with life left on them. If you have a beater that you want to dress in new shoes, a junkyard might save you some dough.

Of course, the essence of the junkyard is do-it-yourself, so be prepared to crawl over, under and through the junked cars to remove the parts you want. Ron Starbuck, a longtime user of junkyards, recommends bringing
  • A saw blade
  • Screwdrivers
  • Pliers and Vise Grips
  • Wire cutters
  • Adjustable wrenches
  • A flashlight
  • A putty knife
  • Sacks
  • Zip-lock bags
  • Towels
  • A jack, if your yard allows it and if the cars aren't already up on some kind of support.
Starbuck also recommends dressing for the experience in heavy shoes, long pants, long sleeved-shirt, hat and gloves. I'd add safety goggles. And be prepared to get muddy and greasy.

I'd also recommend bringing a digital camera and photographing each step in the removal process so you'll remember how to put it back together at home.

What you shouldn't expect is to call a junkyard and ask over the phone if they have such and such a part in stock. If you're lucky, they might know if they usually have the model of car and year you're looking for. (There is a surprising amount of turnover in a junkyard, as older, more stripped models are crushed for scrap metal.) Beyond that, it's up to you to visit and look.

The biggest caveat here is that you often won't be able to tell what condition a part is in. While you can return parts that don't work, you'll still have to install the part to find out.

If you're interested in doing your own car repairs, start by buying a good manual. Check out videos about car repair on places like YouTube. Then find a good junkyard.

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