You probably wouldn't dream of having your worn coolant hoses replaced with 'reconditioned' rather than new ones, or your fraying timing belt--potentially crucial to avoid engine damage--replaced with a used one of suspect origin.
But within reason, rehabbed used parts can save you thousands of dollars in repairs and up to 60 percent of the original parts cost; and in some cases, they might last even longer than new parts. By simply going to a wise independent mechanic, you might have the option of parts costing just a fraction of what those OEM (original-equipment) ones cost.
It’s also the environmental choice.
“Why start from scratch and manufacture, again, something that’s perfectly serviceable?” asked David Sturtz, the CEO of RepairPal.com, a site that provides price estimates for vehicle repairs.
The terms rebuilt, remanufactured, and reconditioned can be used interchangeably, say experts. But you have to choose your parts wisely; any of the terms can apply to a very wide quality range. At the very minimum, the part has been tested and fixed to bring it back to proper specification, but it's not much better than used. Most rebuilt parts have also been disassembled and extensively cleaned, with any elements that show wear replaced, while the best ones have been completely restored to like-new operation, with any wearable parts like bearings replaced.
"They may just go in and replace what's failed but they might not do an overhaul of all the components, and that's what you get with the better rebuilt parts," emphasized Bret Bodas, chief technician for RepairPal.
There are certain types of parts that are just as good, if not better, when rebuilt. Sturtz recommends using rebuilt parts for starters, alternators, and “other parts with cores that don’t wear.” RepairPal soon plans to add to its Service Notes an indication of when remanufactured parts are worth considering.
John Nielsen, director of AAA's Auto Repair and Buying Network, said that rebuilt starters and alternators are typically good choices because “these are pretty much remanufactured,” and, provided the rebuilt parts are from a reputable source that your mechanic trusts, they should provide just as much peace of mind as a new part.
Otherwise, some of the most significant savings are for modules. Bodas said that there are a number of companies that now rebuild anti-lock braking control modules -- parts that are relatively common to fail on late-model vehicles, and easy to replace but especially expensive. Typically, he said, the rebuilt versions cost about half as much and are just as reliable as the originals.
Although you might initially only consider rebuilt parts as a way of cost-cutting your repair bill, using rebuilt parts might actually bring a longer service life, for a much lower price. For instance, if you have a transmission that fails relatively early in your vehicle's service life -- say before 100,000 miles, by modern standards -- you'll be better off opting for a rebuilt transmission instead as they often incorporate improvements or correct for weak points or obvious design flaws. Or, replacement disc rotors might be a long-lasting improvement over easily warped stock ones.
“In some cases the OEM parts are absolute garbage,” declared Robert Arnold, research and development manager at Volvo parts and accessories specialist IPD, pointing to the upper spring mount design on most front- or all-wheel drive Volvos. The originals would wear out in as little as 20,000 miles, if driven hard, but a replacement design from IPD -- merely substituting a different type of rubber -- will last at least four times as long, he says, saving money by avoiding repeat replacement even though the new parts are a bit more expensive.When Shouldn't You Use Rebuilt Components?
AAA's Nielsen tipped that emissions- or fuel-system-related repairs should involve new parts, not aftermarket equivalents, because of their labor-intensive nature. Fuel pump replacement, for example, usually requires dropping the fuel tank.
But if you're trying to be a miser for a simple repair like alternator replacement, don't however think that you can go order a cut-rate part online or at a discount parts store and expect your mechanic to install it. Most mechanics simply won't install the cheapest rebuilt parts such as those, experts agree, because it comes at the expense of their reputation and they can't afford to repeat the labor once (or sometimes twice) again.
"Quality can usually be judged by the warrantee, and quite often by cost," recommended Nielsen, adding that repair shops are "going to use the parts that they think are best, and they'll want to warrantee their work with the parts of their choice."From One Rebuilt Part To Another, You Get What You Pay For
Sturtz cautioned that "if you go to a chain that charges a fraction of what a high-quality independent or dealership charges, you generally get what you pay forthere's no way that they can use the same part."
Using pricier rebuilt parts like transmissions can seem a little risky, Nielsen said. But considering that a new transmission, installed, can cost $4,000 to $6,000, or even more, and a rebuilt one typically costs less than $2,000 installed, it’s probably worth the risk to most. “Are you willing to assume some risk for $2,000?”
What it really comes down to is that you’ll want to do a sort of cost-benefit analysis for repairs, asking questions like: If this part has a known service life, will I have to do this repair again while I still own the car?
"You have to shop around and look at all those variables, but in the end, rebuilt or remanufactured parts can definitely save lots of money," said Bodas.
“There’s no need to gamble at all,” insisted IPD's Arnold, who says that there’s a significant amount of information out there -- in forums, owner blogs, and review sites -- on how long they last. “Doing that homework can take the gambling out of it.”
Of course, if going through the possibilities yourself is a little daunting, finding a reputable independent mechanic who specializes in your type of vehicle and knows your needs is the best insurance policy. When trouble knocks, your mechanic will be able to run through the possibilities with you, hopefully sharing experiences on which rebuilt parts are worth the savings, and help you choose the best one.
“You need to establish a relationship with the repair shop, and if you can trust the shop you can ask what they would do in your situation," explained Nielsen. "There’s no one better equipped to tell you.”
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