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While dealers suffer, car repair shops thrive

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 almost "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.

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, reported a 7.2 percent decrease in auto property damage claims in the fourth quarter of 2008 compared with the year earlier.

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.