Monday, August 14, 2017

Open Letter to Governor Rick Scott



A letter addressing the critical issues associated with the sale of used vehicles equipped with recalled Takata airbags was written just over one year ago, and I’ve received no reply; It was also published as a full page ad in Governor Scott’s hometown newspaper, the Tallahassee Democrat. In the last several weeks, TWO MORE FLORIDIANS were killed by exploding, defective Takata airbags, and it is inevitable that the toll of deaths and serious injuries will continue to rise as long as the sale of used cars equipped with defective Takata airbags continue. While I argued last year for laws specifically requiring dealers to disclose outstanding safety recalls, it is now clear that the only effective way to address this problem is to extend the ban that already applies to the sale of new cars subject to safety recalls to include used cars as well. Indeed, the nature of the Takata defect is such that the older the car is, the more likely it is that the airbag inflator will explode. So I am writing once again with a renewed sense of urgency, and I not only call for action by the Governor, but I also ask every car dealer in this State to consider the dire consequences of continuing to sell used cars with defects that can kill and maim their customers and every other passenger in the car they are putting on the road. Governor, please read my letter and call me at 561 358-1474. 



Dear Rick, 


Please excuse this public form of communication, but I chose it because my message is urgent and I believe it will get your attention faster than going through the normal, bureaucratic channels. 


Florida law not only fails to expressly ban the sale of used cars with unremediated safety recalls, there is no Florida law that even specifically requires a car dealer to disclose national safety recalls on used cars sold to their customers. This has always been bad, but considering the unprecedented Takata air-bag inflator recall (currently affecting 75 million vehicles in the U.S. and rising), this legal loophole presents a problem of critical magnitude. And efforts to address the problem with disclosure requirements, while certainly better than nothing, do not go nearly far enough in safeguarding consumers from the lethal timebombs  hidden in their steering wheels. 


I communicated my position directly to the Florida Automobile Dealers Association over a year ago, and they are aware of this serious omission in Florida’s laws. Unfortunately, legislative action, as you well know, is always a slow process if it ever happens at all. What is required in this case is an emergency executive action by you, the governor of the state of Florida. 


I can assure you that very few Florida automobile dealers are voluntarily disclosing safety recalls affecting the used cars they sell, and even when some form of disclosure is made, it is never adequate to properly alert purchasers to the danger posed by exploding airbags. As I write this letter, there are Floridians unknowingly buying cars with defective Takata airbag inflators that could possibly explode on impact, firing metal shrapnel into their bodies. There have already been several deaths across the country attributed to these faulty inflators. 


It is a certainty that nearly all car dealers in our state have vehicles in their current inventories with these defective airbags and other safety recalls. I have identified sixteen in my used vehicle inventory that are affected. It’s a simple matter to identify these vehicles by entering the VIN online at the NHTSA website, http://www.nhtsa.gov/Vehicle+Safety/Recalls+&+Defects


The sad fact is that most dealers don’t check these vehicles for recalls because it takes time to have the recalls performed and “time is money”. Recalls can only be performed by franchised new car dealers of the make that is recalled. Franchised car dealers prioritize recalls for their inventory cars and for their customers’ cars. They are also dealing with long waiting lists of these cars awaiting the requisite parts. With the Takata airbag inflator recall, the wait time is about about a year because of the lack of availability of parts. Letting  a used car sit on a dealer's lot for a year is a cost that few dealers will be willing to incur unless the law expressly requires it!


Sadly, another reason safety recalls are not being disclosed to customers is fear of loss of profit. As it should, telling a customer that they are buying a used car with a potentially deadly defective airbag reduces the value of that vehicle - especially when the customer learns he or she must drive that car for a year before a safe airbag can be installed. 


Because disclosure negatively impacts the affected vehicles' values, car dealers are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they attempt to retail the cars to fully informed customers, they have to slash the selling price and if they sell them at the wholesale auction they have the same problem. Florida consumers will also be adversely affected, as car dealers will not be able to offer as much money for trade-ins under this recall since the dealer knows he or she can’t resell it for as much as they could with a safe airbag. 


This presents an entirely new and different problem…an economic liability question. Everyone agrees that Takata is largely responsible for the reduction in value of the 75,000,000 vehicles with dangerous airbags. However, Takata is on the verge escaping responsibility through bankruptcy and/or selling out. This leaves the auto manufacturers with, potentially, all of the liability. The only parties that clearly have no responsibility in this are the owners of these affected cars and the dealers who  either do not sell Takata airbag equipped vehicles at all or who properly disclose the defective airbags, the full extent of the danger they present, and the difficulty involved in correcting the defect when replacement parts are unavailable. Unfortunately, honest dealers and uninformed purchasers are the only two parties that currently bear all of the economic loss.


Adding to the urgency of this crisis is the fact that the failure rate of Takata airbags is higher in Florida than most other states because of our high humidity which increases the risk of the airbag accelerant, ammonium nitrate, exploding. Furthermore, many of the cars recalled are older models, dating back to 2004 that have been on the highways for many years, and age is also a contributing factor to risk. 


Rick, if you have any questions or comments about this letter, please call me on my personal cell phone, 561-358-1474. If you would like to meet with me, I will fly to Tallahassee on a moment's notice. 


Best, 




Earl

Monday, August 07, 2017

Minimize the Pain and Inconvenience Having your Car Serviced and Repaired

Before I get into the pitfalls, it is important for you to understand how important it is to have your car serviced per the manufacturer’s recommendations. The pitfalls and consequences of not doing so can be equal to or greater than those you might experience at the hands of an incompetent or unethical service department.

I strongly recommend that you have your car serviced and repaired by a franchised dealer of the make of your vehicle. I know that this statement, coming from a franchised car dealer, may be met with some skepticism. Listen to my reasons before passing judgment. Modern vehicles are highly complex computerized machines requiring very sophisticated diagnostic equipment and highly trained technicians. The evolution of new, expensive diagnostic equipment requires constant updating. The evolution of car technology requires continuing education of dealers’ factory trained technicians who attend many weeks of schools every year. Forty years ago, it was possible for a good mechanic to fix anybody’s car. Those days are gone and your car needs a highly-trained specialist with the very latest diagnostic equipment. It is impossible for an independent service company to be competent in servicing and repairing all makes of automobiles.

Carefully choose the dealership that will service your car. You don’t have to take your car to the dealership that sold you the car for warranty repairs, as many believe. Every dealership of your make car will welcome your warranty and non-warranty work. Do your homework on which dealer has the best service department. Every dealer is graded in customer satisfaction by the manufacturer. Ask to see a copy of his CSI (customer satisfaction index) scores. Be forewarned that service satisfaction surveys can and are manipulated by car dealers (offering a free tank of gas to let the dealer fill out your survey). Many auto manufacturers have begun measuring their dealers’ service competence by the percentage of service customer that return for more service. It’s usually called SERVICE RETENTION. If a high percentage of service customers keep coming back, that dealer must be doing a good job. Check with the BBB and the County Office of Consumer Affairs.

When you take your car in for maintenance or repairs, always ask for an estimate. State law requires that a service department not exceed a written estimate by more than 10%. When paying your bill, scrutinize the detail to be sure that you know exactly what each charge means. Most service departments add a fee on top of everything else with various labels like “miscellaneous supplies”, “sundry supplies”, “environmental handling”, etc. This fee is simply a 5% or 10% charge tacked onto the total bill. If you object to this fee, which you certainly should, dealers will often waive it.

You will find that prices for maintenance like oil changes, alignments, tire rotation and balancing, etc. are usually priced competitively. On many new cars manufacturers are offering free maintenance for 2 or 3 years. Where you have to be careful is in the pricing of major repair items like transmission, engines, and air-conditioners. When quoted a price on a big repair, don’t be afraid to negotiate. If you let it be known that you are willing to take your car elsewhere (even if you’re bluffing), you can often negotiate the price down significantly.

You should always make an appointment before bringing your car in. Appointments should be scheduled at relative slow times and days. Avoid bringing your car in early on a Monday morning and other very busy times. You want the service advisor to spend as much time with you as is necessary. This will allow you to drive the car with the service advisor if necessary to identify a specific problem like a squeak, rattle or vibration. Pick your car up at a time when the service advisor or technician has time to road test the car with you again to be sure that the problem was fixed.

Don’t be shy about asking for a loaner car when you have to take your car back a 2nd or 3rd time for a repair that was not done properly. It’s the dealership’s fault and you should not be inconvenienced. On a comeback, always talk with the service manager directly. Be very careful that you really speak to the real service manager. Service salesmen are not managers. They are commissioned salesmen but they often identify themselves as service managers or assistant service managers. Also ask that they assign their best technician to the job. The technician that works on your car should have a few years’ experience and be ASE (American Association for Automotive Excellence) certified in the area of the car he’s working on…transmission, air conditioner, engine, etc.



Most car dealership and independent service departments will recommend “extra” maintenance not found in your car’s owner’s manual. You should be very skeptical of anything that your car’s manufacturer does not recommend. “Flushes” of the radiator and transmission are popular and expensive extras that are often recommended. A good rule of thumb is to “just say no”.

As I have said in earlier columns, there is nothing more important than choosing the right dealership to do business with. No service department is perfect and never makes a mistake. What you want to find is that service department that, in addition to being competent, will fess up to their occasional mistakes, sincerely apologize and make them right.

Monday, July 31, 2017

How Can I Learn the Dealer’s Cost on a Car?


It’s almost impossible for you to determine the true cost of a new car. This might sound crazy, but many dealers don’t know the true cost of their cars. The manufacturers and distributors invoice their dealers for an amount when they ship them a car that is almost always several thousands of dollars more than the true cost. It’s fair to say that in virtually every case the “invoice” for a new car is much higher than the true cost. By true cost, I am referring to cost as defined by GAAP, generally accepted accounting principals.

You probably have heard about “holdback”. That is an amount of money added into the invoice of a car ranging from 1% to 3% of the MSRP which is kicked back to the dealer after he has paid the invoice. In some cases there are two holdbacks…one from the manufacturer and one from a distributor. Some manufacturers include the cost of regional advertising in the invoice which offsets the dealer’s advertising costs. Another common charge included in invoices is “floor plan assistance”. This goes to offset the dealer’s cost of financing the new cars in his inventory. Another is “PDI” or pre-delivery inspection expense which reimburses the dealer for preparing the car for delivery to you. I could name several more, depending on the manufacturer or distributor. Some of these monies that are returned to the dealer are not shown as profit on dealers’ financial statement and some are. Technically a dealer could say that the cost he showed you reflected all the profit (by definition of his financial statement), but the fact would remain that more money would come to back to him after he sold you the car. To me (and the IRS) that’s called profit.

Besides holdbacks and reimbursements for expenses, you must contend with customer and dealer incentives (usually referred to as customer cash or dealer cash) when trying to figure out the cost of that new car. You will probably be aware of the customer incentives, but not the dealer incentives. Most dealers prefer and lobby the manufacturers for dealer rather than customer incentives just for that reason. Also, performance incentives are paid to dealers for selling a certain number of cars during a given time frame. These usually expire at the end of a month and are one reason why it really is smart to buy a new car on the last day of the month.

Last but not least, remember the “dealer fee”, “dealer prep fee”, “doc fee”, “dealer inspection fee”, electronic filing fee, tag agency fee, etc. which is added to the price you were quoted by the salesman.. It is printed on the buyer’s order and is lumped into the real fees such as Florida sales tax and tag and registration fees. Most dealers in Florida (it is illegal in many states) charge this fee which ranges from $500 to $3,000. If you are making your buying decision on your perceived cost of the car, even if you were right, here is up to $3,000 more in profit to the dealer.

Hopefully you can now understand why it is virtually impossible to precisely know the cost of the new car you are contemplating buying. Most often the salesman and sales manager is not completely versed on the cost either. Checking the cost on a good Internet site like www.kbb.com or www.edmunds.com is about the best you can do. Consumer Reports is another good source. One reason that Internet sites don’t always have the right invoice price is that different distributors for cars invoice their dealers at different prices.

Do not decide to buy a car because the dealer has agreed to sell it to you for “X dollars above his cost/invoice”. This statement is virtually meaningless. You are playing into the dealer’s hands when you offer to buy or he offers to sell his car at a certain amount above his cost. As I have advised you in an earlier column, you can only be assured of getting the best price by shopping several dealers for the exact same car and getting an “out the door” price plus tax and tag only.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Caveat Emptor (Buyer Beware)


Car Dealers Can Fool all the People Some of the Time

Almost everyone has read Abraham Lincoln’s popular saying, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” I think Abe meant this to be a positive assertion that government may get away with deceiving us for a while, but in the long run, truth justice and the American way will prevail…and I think he was right.

However, it doesn’t work that way with unethical car dealers and car buyers. It always has been “caveat emptor”, or “buyer beware when it comes to buying or servicing a car. Unfortunately for a buyer to “beware” he must be “aware” …that is to say educated, mature, sophisticated and experienced. This excludes a very large segment of our population including the very young, the very old, the uneducated, those with low I.Q.’s and those not proficient in the English language. Is this one reason why our regulators and elected politicians don’t seem to care or act with respect to the rampant unfair and deceptive sales practices of a large number of Florida car dealers? Most elected officials and regulators are lawyers and are highly educated and sophisticated. They don’t have a problem buying or servicing a car. In fact, the car dealer that tries to take advantage of a lawyer, regulator, or politician is asking for trouble.

I’ve been writing this column/blog and broadcasting my radio show, Earl Stewart on Cars, for over seven years. I sometimes feel that I’m “preaching to the choir” when it comes to advising people how to avoid getting ripped off by a car dealer. You, my readers and listeners, largely fall into the category of the educated and sophisticated, aware buyer. Most of you aren’t taken advantage of when you buy or service your car because you won’t allow it. Unfortunately, there are enough uneducated, naive, and otherwise vulnerable consumers to feed those unethical car dealers who prey on the defenseless among us. All you must do is read some of the online or TV car advertisements. To the educated, sophisticated buyer, these ads are actually funny if you can forget the fact that so many fall prey to them and are taken advantage of by the dealers. For example, it’s hard for you or me to believe that anybody would respond to an advertisement without reading the fine print. Many dealers today are advertising prices that, when you read the fine print, are understated by many thousands of dollars. When you or I see a dealer stating that the car price is plus “freight”, we are educated enough to understand that the law requires that the freight cost be already included in the price. A shrewd buyer knows that “dealer list” is not the same thing as MSRP and that a large discount from “dealer list” means absolutely nothing. We know that the “lowest price guarantee” is worthless if the dealer reserves the right to buy the car from the other dealer that offers a lower price.

There are those who argue that all buyers have the responsibility to guard against unethical sellers, to take care of themselves. In fact, that’s the literal translation of the Latin legal term “caveat emptor” …let the buyer beware. That’s sounds good, but what about the elderly widow whose husband recently died and who never had to make the decision on a major purchase in her entire life? What about the young person just out of school with no experience in the real world? How about the first generation immigrant who struggles with English? Should we be concerned about our underprivileged classes who often drop out of school because they must go to work to support themselves or their family? You and I know lots of good people who, for one reason or another, simply can’t cope with a slick car or service salesman.


My bottom line is this, since we can’t rely on our regulators and politicians to protect those who “can be fooled all the time”, maybe we owe it to society to protect these folks. If you know someone who is thinking about buying a car or has a service problem with her car and you feel she may not have the ability to fend for herself with the car dealer, offer your support. If you’re one of the people who needs support, ask someone who can go “toe to toe” with a car dealer to come with you when you are car shopping. By the way, nobody, sophisticated or not, should car shop alone. Two heads are always better than one and it’s always a good idea to have a witness to what was said during a negotiation. And, of course, if you don’t have the time to help a person or you’re that person, you can always call me…I’m always here for you.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Ten Tips on Buying the Right Used Car

I sell new and used cars, but if I was not a car dealer and I needed to buy a car, I would buy a used one instead of a new. This is because a used car is a better value. You get more for your money due to avoiding the initial rapid depreciation of a new car. I use the term “used car” in this article because I despise mumbo jumbo euphemisms like “pre-owned”. A used car is a used car is a used car.

(1) Never buy a used car without a CarFax report. The dealer should provide you with one at no charge because any dealer worth his salt runs a CarFax report on every used car he trades in or buys to protect him. Simply don’t buy a used car from anybody that does not give you this report. CarFax reports now have, not only the information about collision damage, floods damage, previous odometer reading, and title issues, (all obtained from insurance records) but also the mechanical repair history (obtained from dealer records). The CarFax report also shows outstanding safety recalls, but I also recommend that you double check this with the NHTSA, National Highway Traffic Safety Association at www.SaferCar.org. In my experience, CarFax misses safety recalls about 30% of the time. Unfortunately, there is no law requiring car dealers to even disclose an unfixed safety recall and most dealers are willingly selling their customers cars with dangerous safety recall like Takata airbags.

(2) Have your car inspected by an independent mechanic. Insist on having the used car you are thinking about buying inspected by your mechanic, not affiliated with the dealer. This should cost you no more than $150 and will be money well spent. The mechanic should look, not only for mechanical issues, but body and flood damage. If the mechanic finds some minor things that need fixing, insist that the dealer take care of these and include it in the price he already quoted you. If the dealer won’t allow this, don’t buy from him.

(3) Consult Consumer Reports, www.KBB.com, and www.Edmunds.com. These sources have complete information on the safety, reliability, maintenance cost, and even what a fair price is to pay for any used car. Consumer Reports lists the “Best and Worst Used Cars”. This is great guide and don’t ever buy a used car that’s on the “worst list”.

(4) A Certified Used Car is only as good as the dealer who sold it to you. Most manufacturers don’t even require that the dealer fix open safety recalls to call the car “Certified”. All manufacturers sponsor “certified” used cars of their make. The main reason for this is that they like to sell the dealer warranties that the dealer then marks up and sells to you. A secondary reason the manufacturers do this is to enhance the resale value of their make car. This helps them sell more new cars because of the higher trade in value and the higher residual values on cars they lease enhance their profits. You can buy a warranty for used car even if it’s not certified, but in a certified used car it’s usually included in the price (which makes the price higher). One good thing about manufacturers’ certified programs is that sometimes the manufacturer will offer you lower financing rates. Certified used cars require that the dealer inspect all critical parts of the car and fill out a checklist that is anywhere from 75 to 150 items. That’s all well and good but how carefully is this inspection being done and by whom? You should ask to see a copy of the check list and ask about the qualification of the mechanic who performed and signed the inspection. All too often, the dealer assigns the lowest priced mechanic he has to perform these checks. It’s questionable whether he even performs all of them. A red flag is if you notice a straight line drawn through all of the check boxes instead of them being checked off individually.

(5) Money Back Guarantee. A lot of dealers advertise that if you change your mind about the car you bought you can bring it back and exchange it for another. This is a worthless guarantee. You can be sure that they will pick the car and the price of the car they will exchange it for and will end up making an additional profit. CarMax has a reasonable guarantee which refunds all your money within five days with restriction that the car is returned in the same condition that it was sold. CarMax is a good place to buy a used car.

(6) Contact the previous owner of the car. The previous owner of the used car should be happy to talk to you. Insist that the seller provide you with his telephone number. If the dealer sold the car to that owner as a new or used car and serviced it, ask if you can see the service file.

(7) Test drive the car just as you will be driving it later. Simply taking the car for a spin around the block with the salesman is not enough. I recommend that you drive the car in the manner and places that you will be driving it when you own it. Take it out on the expressway if you do a lot of higher speed driving. You should drive the car for at least a few hours at all the same speeds, conditions, and on the same roads that you normally experience. Park the car, back it up, and take a friend for ride to get their opinion. You don’t want to have any surprises when you bring it home for keeps.

(8) The Internet is the best place to shop for your used car. Most dealers today display all their used car inventory right on their website along with the prices. These prices are close to the real price you will pay. The dealer knows that he won’t get many responses if he overprices his used cars. Shopping on the Internet give you ample opportunity to compare the same or similar used cars with lots of different dealers. As always, call the dealer before you come in to confirm the Internet price is an out-the-door price without a dealer fee, doc fee, dealer prep, etc. www.TrueCar.com and www.CostcoAuto.com are good choices to buy a used car.

(9) Commit all of the dealer’s promises to writing. Take notes of everything the salesman and sales manager promises you such as “we’ll fix that CD player if you’ll bring your car in next week” or “if you ever have a problem with the car we’ll give you a free loaner when you come in for service”. Make those notes part of the buyer’s order and be sure that a manager signs it. It’s also a good idea to always shop with a friend. In a “He said she said” situation, two people trump one.

(10) Get at least three bids on financing. Know what your lowest interest rate is for the year, make, and model car you’re buying. Get quotes from your bank or credit union and at least one other bank in addition to the rate your dealer offers you. If you do use your dealer’s financing, be sure you know and understand everything that’s included in your finance contract. You will be offered products like warranties, GAP insurance, maintenance, road hazard insurance, etc. It’s illegal for a dealer to tie your acceptance for financing or interest rate to your buying a warranty or any other product.

Monday, July 03, 2017

THE LOWEST PRICED CAR CAN END UP BEING THE MOST EXPENSIVE

Too often car buyers focus on buying the car that fulfills their preferences of styling, size, and accessories that they can buy for the lowest price. There are other important cost considerations you should look at before buying the cheapest alternative.

Resale value is the number one consideration that is most often overlooked by car buyers. All cars depreciate, but some hold their value a lot better than others. You might save a thousand dollars by choosing to buy one used or new car over another more expensive make and model. But if the make and model that cost $1,000 more, held its value by $2,000 more over the 3 years you owned the car before trading it back in, the “lowest priced car” was really $1,000 more expensive.

There are several ways you can check on how much cars will depreciate. A good one is to check the resale value of that same make of car that is 3 or 4 years old. You can also find this information on the Internet. Kelly Blue Book, for example is www.KBB.com. If you are thinking about buying a new 2017 car of a particular model and make, find out what a 2014 model sells for today. Compare other makes and models.

Maintenance and repair cost are the second biggest factors in measuring the true cost of a car. When a car has a relatively higher depreciation, one of the biggest reasons is probably because it is more prone to break down. Check Consumer Reports or surf the Web to find the projected repair histories of the cars you are comparing. Saving $1,000 on a make and model is not very significant when you are facing the cost of a blown transmission or engine. Does the manufacturer provide complimentary maintenance? This should be a factor to consider as well.

Big cash rebates and big discounts are not necessarily a good thing. First you must ask yourself, why is it necessary for this manufacturer to giving me such a big cash rebate (I have seen them advertised as high as $11,000) to sell his car? You will generally find that the manufacturers of higher quality, higher demand cars offer fewer rebates and discounts. These are also the manufacturers of cars that depreciate less and cost less in terms of repairs. Big rebates and discounts also negatively affect a cars resale value. It’s what you could call “vicious cycle”. A car is hard to sell because of its high repair costs and high depreciation so the manufacturer pays a big cash rebate to sell it. The rebate lowers the value of the used car of that make and model because the price of a used car directly tied to the cost of that same new car.

You will be surprised how much the color of the car you buy can affect the resale value. Think about it. The color was very important to you when you bought your last car. It is just as important to the person who will be buying the car you trade in. The most popular colors are white, silver, beige, and black. If you have a “thing” for green, blue, orange, or another unusual color, it can negatively affect the resale value of that car by over $2,000. I’m not suggesting that you always buy a white car, but if you like white, silver, beige, and black you are going to get more money for that trade-in than if you like blue and green. Bright colors can be good for certain models. Red is a popular convertible color for example.

Be sure to check your cost of insurance before you make a final decision. Cars with side air-bags, highly rated in collision and rollover tests, relatively low cost of repair especially for bumpers, and non-high-performance cars have much lower insurance rates.

Cars are no different than any product that you buy when it comes to the principal of “the cheapest product is usually not the best value”. You buy a quality pair of shoes, paying more than you would for a cheap, poorly made pair because they will look good and wear many times longer. Shopping for the lowest price is a very good idea, but only after you have chosen a car that has low depreciation, operating costs, and cost of repair.

Monday, June 26, 2017

EARL STEWART QUOTED IN CURRENT FORBES MAGAZINE



You can also access the article below by going to: www.ForbesOnDangerousAutoCrashParts.com


Widespread Use Of Uncertified "Grey Market" Parts For Car Repairs May Undermine Crash Safety

by Diana Hembree

Aftermath of a crash
After a car crash, car repair and body shops often install “aftermarket” or “knock-off” replacement parts that are cheaper than the original parts, saving consumers lots of money. The Insurance Information Institute reports that aftermarket parts have saved consumers more than $2.2 billion in repair costs since 2010. The bad news: The bulk of these parts are not certified for quality and safety.

Knock-off parts purchased on the so-called “grey market” aren’t really an issue when it comes to fenders, grills and other cosmetic features that don’t affect safety. But structural parts like hoods and bumpers are another matter, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. If those parts aren’t up to standard, the cheap car repair could come at a very high price.

“I refuse to use aftermarket parts,” says Florida car dealer Earl Stewart, a consumer advocate based in North Palm Beach who has worked in body shops for the last 47 years. A poorly made part, he says, “can make the difference between airbag deployment and someone’s head going through the windshield.”

Controversy over aftermarket parts safety
Unless you've been hanging around repair shops lately, you may not have heard of aftermarket parts and OEMS. Here's a quick review: Some replacement parts come from Original Equipment Manufacturers, or OEMS, which use carmaker specifications to create a blueprint so their copy will be identical to the "genuine" parts from the carmaker. Aftermarket auto parts are copies of an original part. Some are certified for quality by a non-profit organization, and others aren’t.

The safety of aftermarket parts became a hot issue in 2010, when Consumer Reports reported computer-simulated crash tests from Ford showing that knock-off bumpers and radiator parts could cause the airbag system to malfunction.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work: An impact on the bumper sends vibrations through the vehicle body to the airbag sensors, which then trigger the airbag to deploy if necessary. In one Ford Mustang test, the magazine noted, the original Ford bumper was one piece made from “ultra-high-strength steel.” The aftermarket copy, in contrast, was created from two pieces of weak steel that were spot-welded together. The weaker bumper sent a different signal to the sensors, a potentially dangerous scenario.

Amid growing concerns about the safety of aftermarket replacement parts, an independent non-profit called the Certified Automotive Parts Association (CAPA) stepped forward to certify the structural auto parts.

CAPA’s goal is to provide high-quality alternatives to both shoddy knockoffs and expensive car company brand parts. “What’s different about us is that we don’t have any vested interest in the sale of these parts,” says CAPA executive director Jack Gillis. “The heart of our program is the public interest.”

Proven parts
CAPA puts the parts through a rigorous testing process, including crash-testing for car bumpers. A video on CAPA’s website shows an uncertified bumper exploding in a crash while a CAPA-tested bumper survives unscathed:

Gillis says the exploding bumper underscores the need for certification. “Some of these replacement parts look really great, and even an industry professional can’t tell the difference by looking at them,” he says. “Only testing will reveal whether they’re as safe and durable as the original and perform the way they’re supposed to.”

CAPA, which also tests cosmetic auto parts, has certified about 20 percent – or 85 million certified parts -- of all the replacement parts on the market.

To receive the certification, a manufacturer first has to pass a detailed inspection of its factory and manufacturing process. If that happens, the manufacturer can submit replacement parts to CAPA for a battery of different tests, all of which are available to the public. The nonprofit's tests have found everything from corrosion problems and substandard metal to missing hood reinforcement plates.