Are junkyard parts worth your time?

Image Gallery: Engines Is it really worth your time to rummage through a junkyard to find a replacement part for your car? See more pictures of engines.
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Junkyards conjure up all kinds of fixed-in-memory images. Movies depict creepy, remote labyrinths of wrecked metal heaps where people go to hide bodies, and they inevitably have to run for their lives from a pack of foaming-at-the-mouth junkyard dogs. Other impressions come from exploring a local salvage yard as kids and finding a lot of neat, well, junk. And what is it called anyway, a scrap, junk, salvage or wrecking yard?

Junkyards are a bit of all of the above and more. They can salvage parts and whole vehicles for reuse, crush stripped or intact autos into scrap metal, or serve as a final resting place for wrecked cars. What many purveyors of junk do -- and do very well -- is provide parts to cars that are still on the road. Car experts and garage hobbyists know how to work the yards and find what they need both online and on-site.

Knowing what you're doing before going the salvage route definitely makes a difference, but shopping for used parts can save you money, and even time, if you know a few tricks. Just as with buying most things second-hand, timing and availability can be everything. If you need a part right away and are short on funds, you may or may not be able to find what you need to get your car running again. If you can afford to buy a new replacement part -- especially if time is an issue -- it may be best to skip the trek through the yards.

So that leads up to the question: Are junkyard parts worth your time? Should you salvage the idea or scrap it? It depends a lot on why you're shopping and what you're hoping to find.

Practical vs. Project

If you don't know how to sort through all of the listings and Web sites for the mom and pop shops across town, it may be a heavy investment of time to find a part through a junkyard. Chances are professional mechanics know which yards to call depending on the part you need, but that is usually the kind of tribal knowledge they've built up over years of doing business.

Starting with blind calls to dozens of junkyards probably wouldn't be worth your time unless you live in a two-yard-town. One time-saver is to find businesses with inventory systems that track what they have at any given time. Most large salvage dealers will have data on incoming vehicles, but smaller dealers might need to physically check their stock or require you to come and check for the part yourself.

Shopping online can also save you time if you want to browse nationwide dealers because many of them network with other dealers to increase the collective junk pool of resources. And large and mid-size regions usually have the best of both options.

Even if you don't need to travel to an actual junkyard to pull the part you need from lot 172, row 345, for example, often it just takes longer to find what you need. Even with the costs savings of salvaged parts, you may still head to your big-box auto retailer out of sheer convenience. But if you need parts for a car restoration project, for instance, you might head to the junkyard for the pure enjoyment and money savings.

Diamond in the Junk

If you decide to excavate the miles of piles at a local junkyard, what can you expect? Experiences can vary a great deal from one place to the next, but some things are pretty standard. A lot of smaller yards will have a small staff or single proprietor, but more often than not, they will know what they have -- or can send you off in the right direction to look for yourself. Larger salvage businesses usually have a lot more land and stock and they have computer systems to handle more detailed inventory tracking and reporting. Some become the go-to shops of professionals because they can give a yes or no answer quickly.

Finding a part at a good price might involve just a phone call or a Web search. Visiting a junkyard site, however, can include getting your hands dirty. Many salvage businesses require you pay a small entry fee of several dollars or more, and you should bring your own tools for removing parts from cars on-site if it is a "pull-a-part" do-it-yourself yard.

Know exactly what you're looking for, how much of the part needs to come off in order to replace or repair what you have, and how to remove it. Then make sure you have the right tools for the job; many yards will not provide any tools or labor. Others, however, won't even have a walk-in operation and will take your request, find what you're looking for, and get it for you over the counter or ship it right to you or your mechanic.

Savings on junkyard parts are almost always significant, but the time involved can be, too. Weighing the distance to get to the yard, how much time it will take to research what you need, and where to get it versus how much the job would cost with new parts is one way to measure whether it's worth your time.

Related Articles


  • Automotive Recyclers Association (ARA). "The Role of the Automotive Recycling Industry."
  • Leech, Eric. "How to Effectively Use a Junkyard to Maintain Your Vehicle." June 15, 2009. (May 20, 2011)
  • National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS). "For Auto Recyclers, Salvage Yards, and Junk Yards." 2011. (May 20, 2011)