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Economy wrecks car dealers, but car-repair shops cruise

WASHINGTON — What's bad news for new car dealers is good news for repair shops.

"If people are cutting back, they're spending it here," said Josh Rosson of Big O Tires in Merced, Calif.

During the ongoing "Great Recession," consumers are patronizing local garages to keep their wheels running longer rather heading to showrooms to replace them. The shift is most dramatic in hard-hit communities in Florida and California, but it also varies by type of repair. Shops that specialize in must-do work, such as brake jobs, are doing better than body shops.

Tighter money is also changing how owners regard their vehicles. In the days of short-term leases and regular trade-ins, cars were "damn near throw-away vehicles," said Stan Rodman, executive director of the Automotive Body Parts Association, a Houston-based alliance of 140 independent part-makers.

Now, Rodman said, owners are recognizing the value of long-term ownership and are ponying up for repair costs, at least required ones. The change isn't so clear on maintenance, but prudent owners are doing more of that, too, he said.

"We feel fortunate to be in this line of work," said Kay Wynter of Terry Wynter Auto in Fort Myers, Fla., hardest hit city in a state of cratering real estate values.

Car owners' new frugality doesn't help body shops, however, said Sal Chavez, owner of Sal's Auto Parts in Hayward, Calif. That's because more owners are cashing insurance company checks for body work and living with the dents, he said.

Other car owners aren't filing claims. Allstate, the nation's second-largest provider of auto insurance after State Farm, reported a 7.2 percent decrease in auto property damage claims in the fourth quarter of 2008 compared with the year-earlier period.

At the same time, sales of used vehicle parts are up, said Igor Zhurya of Carolina Auto Salvage in Rock Hill, S.C. Big-ticket items such as engines and transmissions, Zhurya said, are a big reason his January sales topped last year's by 16 percent.

Generally, car owners are spending only what they must, said George Navarro of GoodGuys Tires in Fresno, Calif. They're buying two tires instead of four, or replacing only front brake pads, Navarro said.

Car dealers are trying to offset sales declines with more service work, said Paul Taylor, the chief economist at the National Automobile Dealer's Association, a group that represents nearly 20,000 new car and truck dealers.

Repairs and service at dealerships rose only 1.8 percent in the fourth quarter, however, weighed down by slumps in routine maintenance. That can't continue forever, said Brad Lawson, a consultant to NADA, which is based in McLean, Va. "Cars and trucks are going to start to come unglued," he said.

Terry, Josh Rosson's father, of Big O Tires in Merced, often sees that happening among strapped owners who delay repairs until they can't.

"I have brake rotors on my wall of shame that literally fell apart in the parking lot," he said.


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