Sun Sentinel Article Cash-strapped car owners

Cash-strapped car owners delaying small repair jobs on their cars as economy sours, more drivers are putting off small fixes and maintenance jobs

By Jennifer Heit

Special Correspondent

February 7, 2009

These days, 35-year auto shop owner Charlie St. George is seeing more major repair jobs than small ones.

That’s because in tight times, drivers will wait until their cars are dead or dying before digging into their wallets. But putting off work means parting with more cash in the long run, like when a suggested $100 set of brake pads morphs into $500 worth of rotors and brake shoes.

“They wait until they hear brakes scraping, when it’s metal to metal, then they get it,” said St. George, who owns Charlie’s Auto Repair in Davie, a two-man shop that performs general repairs and maintenance on all models.

Currently he’s working on a 2002 Ford Explorer whose engine had gone bad from what appeared to be a lack of oil changes. Now he’s replacing that engine at a tune of $1,000 for labor alone.

Delaying repairs and maintenance appears to be on the rise, said George Ehrhard, executive director of the 24,000-member Florida Automotive Industry Association based in Lutz. Though the group has no statistics, members have reported the trend, he said.

“One of our mechanics said his bays are full, but every one was towed in,” Ehrhard said. “They wait until it breaks down, and then they get it fixed.”

Fewer drivers are replacing their cars. In January, new vehicles sold at an annual rate of 9.8 million nationally, the lowest in 27 years, according to Autodata Corp.

Alan “Ollie” Gelfand, owner of the independent V Depot in Hollywood, servicing Audi and Volkswagen, told a customer he needed a timing belt on his 2004 Beatle with all-leather interior.

“He said, ‘I’d rather have the engine blow up than spend $500 on a timing belt,'” Gelfand said.

Less than a year later, the car needed a $2,500 engine job. But it remains in Gelfand’s shop unserviced, the owner unseen.

“It has 100,000-plus miles, so his repair is equal to what it’s valued,” Gelfand said.

Drivers are also living with dinks and other minor body damage even on expensive cars, said Ian Transleau, owner of Econo Auto Painting & Body Work and Allied Auto Body, both in Boca Raton. Transleau reports a 20 percent drop in revenues over last year. In the past, car owners weren’t as tolerant of a marred paint finish or dented bumper.

“People have little incidents in parking lots,” Transleau said. “They might be keeping the insurance check and using the money elsewhere. A year ago, $450 was nothing to them; now it means something.”

With credit card companies slashing spending limits, Transleau sees fewer people using plastic to pay for repairs. And during the past year alone, his shops have received more bad checks than in any one of the previous 19 years he’s been in business. They’re also being written by once-dependable customers, including someone who had spent $50,000 with Transleau though the years.

In general, customers are also dickering more, calling several shops for quotes. In the past, drivers were more likely to pay with fewer questions asked. Today’s economic situation has led Transleau to work with customers on prices, sometimes dropping them by as much as 30 percent.

“I’ll ask, ‘What price you were thinking of spending?’ Just to let them know you’re there to work with them,” said Transleau, who recently began giving estimates online if drivers e-mail photos of their damaged cars.

To draw business, V Depot’s Gelfand sends out several e-mail blasts a year reminding customers of recommended oil changes and other maintenance work. He also offers a rewards program and discount coupons. Gelfand also has stepped up his marketing plan by hiring a consultant, taking classes in automotive shop management and advertising in major publications. As the recession deepens and car sales plummet, mechanics are hopeful that people will bring in their older models for repairs and maintenance. V Depot is already showing rising revenues. Gelfand expects to end this financial quarter with a 33 percent increase over the same period a year ago, he said.

“Now it’s retro to keep cars longer,” St. George said.

Jennifer Heit can be reached at [email protected]

Copyright © 2009, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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