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Pluses and pointers: How to buy car parts

(ARA) - With the average age of vehicles on the road nudging 11 years, more car owners will be looking for the most cost-effective ways to maintain and repair their...

(ARA) - With the average age of vehicles on the road nudging 11 years, more car owners will be looking for the most cost-effective ways to maintain and repair their used vehicles.

In January, automotive market research firm R.L. Polk & Co., placed the average age of cars and light trucks on America's highways at 10.8 years, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. Parts suppliers were among the auto industry segments that Polk's global aftermarket practice leader, Mark Seng, predicted would see increased business, the Times reported.

Auto parts expert Joe Ferrer, star of the national cable television network, SPEED's new "Hard Parts: South Bronx" series, agrees. Hard Parts airs at 10 p.m. EST every Thursday.

"The parts industry has grown a lot in the last five years," Ferrer says. "Box stores have moved into urban areas and the Internet has driven a tremendous explosion in business within the automotive industry. My retail business is probably the fastest growing part of my business because people are buying their own parts."

Once, only do-it-yourselfers would have purchased their own parts. Today, many vehicle owners are finding value in buying parts themselves and bringing them to the mechanic along with the vehicle. Buying car parts can be tricky, however, especially given that car manufacturers seem to change part specifications every year these days.

"Many new parts come to market every day," Ferrer says. "Vehicle technology is changing so fast that the parts you used before are often not the same anymore. For instance, with hybrid or electric cars, a part that you would use five years ago for a combustion engine would not be the same part that you use today."

If you're interested in buying your own parts - whether you're an amateur mechanic or just want the best possible price and will have a professional do the work - Ferrer offers some advice for navigating the complex parts market:

* Be cautious when buying parts online. "If you buy parts online, you may not know where the product is coming from or if it's a name brand or not," Ferrer says. You will also have to wait to have the part shipped, so if you urgently need a part to complete a repair, online buying may be too slow. You'll also need to be very sure you know exactly what part you need, because if the seller ships the wrong one, you may not know it until the car is up on the lift and ready to be repaired.

* Check out resources like the parts manufacturer's website. Most will offer information and training about their products right on their website, often complete with video.

* Build a relationship with your local auto parts seller. While the number of traditional auto parts stores may be dwindling in your area, they still have value for consumers seeking knowledgeable service and vast inventory. "Sales people at a big box store may not have the level of expertise you would find at your local mom and pop parts store," Ferrer says. Consumers may find better prices, warranties, exchange policies and customer service at a traditional parts store.

* Be aware of car part warranties. Chain stores may charge you for a warranty on a part. Before you make a purchase - either in person or online - make sure you understand the warranty on the part, and what the seller's policy is on exchanges and returns.

* Buy new. Unless you are restoring a classic car or need a highly specialized, difficult-to-find part, it pays to spend a bit more and buy new, Ferrer advises. "With used parts, you never know what you're going to get," he says. "You never know how long a car has been sitting or in circulation. It's just never good to buy parts used."

Finally, Ferrer says, it's almost always a good investment to maintain and repair a quality used car than to replace it with a new vehicle. "As long as the car is safe and it's able to pass inspection, the investment is always better to keep the vehicle," he says. "There is no reason to buy a new car unless you are doing it as a social standard and you want to have a new car every year. Then, all the rules get thrown out the window."

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