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How to Buy Car Parts

Updated on July 2, 2015
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When you need to buy auto parts, it's easy to turn a simple maintenance task or repair job into an expensive project, specially when it comes to foreign car parts.

The possibilities to find and buy car parts have broadened in the last few years. You have access to local dealers, auto parts stores, department stores, car parts recyclers and hundreds of stores online. But finding a quality part at a reasonable price is another matter.

The part you're looking for--and your budget--should influence your search strategy. Otherwise, you'll end up getting the wrong part, paying high prices, or taking a 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.

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What Type of Car You Own?

You are probably familiar with the basic information about your vehicle like make (Ford), model (Escort), year (1999), and, probably, engine size (2.0L). 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 even minor repairs--in areas like the fuel, ignition and cooling systems, or the engine, transmission and body assemblies, you 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 tun-up related information you need when servicing your car.

* Also, write down the type of fuel system on your vehicle. 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), or 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.

* Then, locate and write down the 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), type of vehicle (sedan), model year and manufacturing plant.

The chassis number covers the last six digits of the VIN and 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.

* After that, get the engine code number. Most engine models have the code on a label attached to the valve cover. Overtime, 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.

* To finish your vehicle information list, make a note of 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.

* Get the part number. 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 the part you want to replace is still mounted where it's hard to see the number.

Depending on the specific part you need, your auto parts supplier will ask you for little or much of this information. But 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.

Does Low Price Means Low Quality?

If you've ever bought parts for your car, you've probably got confused at times finding different auto parts outlets offering the same item at a wide range of prices. So you are left wondering whether quality has anything to do with this. In a broad sense, the answer is yes. The higher the price, the higher the quality. However, this is not always the case.

Many nationwide auto parts stores offer their customers remanufactured components, or even brand new 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 even look as their brand name counterpart in design and packaging. But the savings will disappear as soon as you have to redo the repair and look for 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 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 Shop

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 Jobber

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 the type of self service you find 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 of the 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.

* Another advantage is the availability of quality, remanufactured components at lower prices than brand new items.

* Even more, 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 marked at very low prices but with poor quality. Especially, for quality and fit, stick to recognized brands when buying brake system parts and electronic components like sensors, actuators, modules and relays.

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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- and store-brands for items like car batteries, light bulbs, tires, brake pads, wiper blades, water pumps, headlamps, air filters, and oil filters.

Prices are usually lower or similar to those you see in chain stores. However, you need to know exactly what you're looking for since not all department stores have staff with experience on 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.

And, when available, 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--on 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.

Common Car Parts Sources
Dealer
Machine Shop
Auto parts jobbers
Chain auto parts stores
Discount and department stores
Online auto parts stores
Auto junkyards

When you need to buy auto parts, keeping your car and wallet in good health is not easy. However, operating under a low car maintenance budget doesn't mean you have to sacrifice quality. To sum up, before you start hunting for your next part, decide whether you want to buy new, used or remanufactured. This will depend on the specific component you need. Compare products, prices and read product reviews whenever possible; and, 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.

Where Do You Buy Most of Your Car Parts?

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    • John Parcharidis profile image

      John Para 13 months ago from Toronto

      Thanks for sharing your blog. Yes it is very important to know how to buy car parts. Going with the genuine car parts wholesaler and distributor can save time and money. You have mentioned good tips to buy car parts. Keep sharing your blog with more updates.

    • John Albu profile image

      John Albu 2 years ago from Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87102

      I'd say that online is the way to go nowadays, for the most part. Junkyards have their moments as well, of course!