Most consumers are aware that new-vehicle sales continue to limp along, as the overall economy keeps struggling to climb out of its months-long doldrums.
But, in the wake of plummeting new-vehicle sales, there is one segment of the auto-biz that is actually seeing an increase in business -- auto maintenance and repair.
Which figures, actually. With so many consumers worried about their jobs, or already laid off, most are still shy about handing over $25,000 or $30,000 for a new car or truck. That means they need to extend the life of their current vehicle. Which in turn means that more of them are now spending more dollars on repairs and maintenance, to make sure that their current six-, seven- or eight-year-old vehicle hangs on for another year or two.
Perhaps you are one of them.
Generally, independent auto repair shops are enjoying more of this bounty than service departments at dealerships, depending on the region of the country and the type of dealer.
But, Steve Szabados, service manager at Taylor Chevrolet, in Taylor, Michigan -- a mostly-blue-collar Detroit suburb that is home to many current and currently-laid-off auto workers -- said that the dealership's repair and maintenance business is up "by 35 to 40 percent, easily, over last year."
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Szabados said his customers taking advantage on these services.
"(They are) doing more maintenance, taking care of things before they break down, to avoid spending more money later," he said. "We're doing a lot of maintenance and repairs on stuff like bearings, oil leaks, transmission leaks, joint and strut issues. Price-wise, most of the repairs we're seeing are in the $500 to $1,500 range.
"If the price gets up higher than that, they're prioritizing, and getting the critical stuff done now, and putting off the less crucial repairs until later."
Szabados noted that most of the repairs are being done to vehicles that were sold to customers off of the dealer's used-car lot.
"We're not seeing much repair business from folks who didn't buy their vehicle here," Szabados said.
Meanwhile, the Automotive Service Association, the trade association representing independent repair shops, conducted a survey of its members last fall -- before new-vehicle sales began plummeting in November in the wake of the global economic meltdown. But even then, 60 percent of its repair-shop members reported an increase in business over the same period in 2007. The average increase was about 16 percent, according to the survey.
"I've reached out to many of our members in recent weeks and months, and they continue to report an increase in business," ASA's vice president of marketing and communications Angie Wilson said. 76 percent of those "indie" repair shops said they expect their business to increase throughout '09.
"Customers are telling the repair shops that they're planning to keep their cars longer, and they're spending to have repairs done, especially the kinds of repairs that involve safety," Wilson said. "But, with continued concerns about the economy, they're also more selective regarding minor or optional repairs. And many customers are doing a lot of price shopping before having the repairs done."
Some mega-car-dealers are also seeing a big boom in repair business. Last month, the Sacramento Bee quoted one such high-roller -- Rick Niello, who owns 13 dealerships in Northern California -- as saying that his dealerships serviced 100,000 vehicles in 2008 -- five times more than in 2001.
One auto-repair guru who has seen a similar boost in repair biz is Tom Torbjornsen, AOL Autos maintenance expert and host of "America's Car Show", which airs on Stars Two Sirius 108 and XM 139 at 10 p.m. on Sunday nights.
"Everything I'm hearing from auto techs and repair shops is that people are definitely opting to keep their old cars longer and repairing them," Torbjornsen said. "It's because the economy is so uncertain that they're hesitant to commit to buying a new vehicle."
"But, they're being selective," Torbjornsen said, echoing the sentiments expressed by ASA's Wilson and Taylor Chevrolet's Szabados.
"I'm hearing that customers will come into the shop, have the brakes looked at, and if there's less than about 30 percent of friction material left, they'll get the new brakes. But if there's 30 percent or more -- which means there might be about 5,000 miles left on them -- they'll wait and maybe do that when they get their next oil change or tire rotation.
"The shops I've spoken to also say that that they're seeing more general 'inquires' than they used to. These are people bringing their cars in and asking whether something really needs to be done right away, because even the cost of repairs might be more than some folks can afford in the current economy."
The economy is so brutal that even some repair shops are shy about coughing up a relatively low fee to advertise their services online, opined Torbjornsen.
"I decided I would put together a website, which would comprise a network of auto repair facilities, to make it easier for consumers to find a good repair shop in their area," Torbjornsen said. "It also would have provided Google (results), and coupon pages. But we made about 275 calls and only three shops signed up, because the fee was $100."
In keeping with his repair-guru credentials, Torbjornsen agreed to enumerate what types of maintenance and repairs should be done ASAP.
"To make sure you don't end up spending more money down the line than you need to, you definitely need to follow your vehicle's maintenance schedule," Torbjornsen said. "I know that sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people ignore that sort of thing and end up getting hit with bigger-ticket repairs in the long run."
"I'd also advise people to make sure they get their tires rotated every 5,000 miles," he said. "That's another common piece of advice that not everyone follows, but is really important."
"And when you're having them rotated, make sure to have the tech look at the brakes, and take care of any replacements early, like brake pads. Because if you let 'em go, they'll eventually cut into the rotors, which will end up costing you another $30 or $40 per wheel."
"I also stress 'drivability issues,'" Torbjornsen said. "If the engine light comes on, or if there is a hesitation in the acceleration, or if you detect the smell of gas at the tailpipe, you need to dive into those pretty heavily, because if there's something wrong under there, the domino theory goes into effect. That is, if you have, say, a bad O2 sensor, that creates a maladjustment of the fuel delivery, which causes the spark plugs to fail, which in turns causes the catalytic converter to clog."
"And, to be honest, there really aren't many types of repairs that you can just 'let go' any more, not like you could in the past," he said. "Cars are more complex now, with interconnecting systems."
Torbjornsen does cite one exception.
"You maybe don't have to be really aggressive about flushing and re-filling the cooling system -- typically you can go 20,000 miles or two years without doing that."
Ultimately, it all comes down to the conventional wisdom of routine maintenance, said Torbjornsen.
"You really need to be aggressive about staying on top of that stuff, because then you're making sure things don't go bad, or get worse. That's the smart thing to do, if want to extend your vehicle's life span until the economy gets better and you feel more comfortable about buying a new vehicle."
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