Motorists Ride Out Recession In Clunkers

Recession-squeezed car owners in Westchester County, New York, are spending more on car repairs. Mechanics say business is booming, but they report some car owners are making penny-wise but pound-foolish decisions in a misguided effort to save money.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

With so few people buying new cars these days many are going to great lengths to keep their old cars running. Car owners in Westchester County, New York - that's just outside New York City - are spending more on repairs and some are even offering bribes to get inspection stickers. Mechanics say business is booming, but they report some car owners are making penny-wise but pound- foolish decisions. William Marcus has this report.

WILLIAM MARCUS: Calvin Attar(ph) doesn't have to walk far to see evidence of the recession. It's parked right behind his service station in Dobbs Ferry, New York.

CALVIN ATTAR: The guy, he owns a business in Westchester, he cannot afford to fix the minivan. He said keep it. Give me $200 and keep the whole van, which is a van worth over $3,000.

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MARCUS: Three times since last June, Attar says, customers tried to bribe him to get their state inspection stickers. These days the middle class and near- rich in New York City suburbs are doing all they can to keep their old clunkers on the road. The average auto repair business grows three to five percent a year. But here in the land of six figure incomes and five figure property tax bills, Courtesy Mobile's business doubled last month.

Courtesy's service manager Anthony Berta says his volume started picking up just as the economy started winding down.

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ANTHONY BERTA: Two-thirds of my increase was since June.

MARCUS: He walks me through a computer screen tour of last month's work.

BERTA: This guy spent $1,518 on a '90 Corolla. I got this one here $2,200 on a '97 Chevy van.

MARCUS: Berta lists half a dozen vehicles more than ten years old with repair bills that average $2,000. In better times, he says, those vehicles would've been replaced instead of repaired.

BERTA: In the early '80s it was busy like this.

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MARCUS: That was another time when motorists were under the economic gun.

BERTA: If you get a brand-new car you're going to have to put full collision on it, you know, put all this extra insurance on it. Right now the insurance companies aren't giving that many breaks, right? They're all having problems.

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MARCUS: And problems are just what the customers are talking about nearly every Saturday morning at Courtesy Mobile. A hundred years ago these same men probably would've been complaining around a pickle barrel at the general store.

RON WILLIAMS: I wish I could get my wife to get out of Westchester. That's the whole freaking thing, with the taxes and the biz... and the shops.

MARCUS: Anthony Berta offers a moment of grief counseling to Ron Williams, whose eight-year-old minivan needs $2,400 worth of work.

BERTA: You have to do your oil changes more often. That's what happened. You were 3,000 miles over.

WILLIAMS: Wow. Wow. Well, no. I had one in between there, but, you know, I just didn't get a chance to get here. But...

MARCUS: But Williams is busted. Berta sees his old oil filter is still in the van. But with six kids, two jobs and a wife to support, Ron Williams can't afford a new engine. So he's going to get a friend to install a motor from a junkyard.

WILLIAMS: I know it's - I'm taking a gamble, but...

BERTA: You know, it's fine. It's fine.

WILLIAMS: You know, I...

BERTA: You know what?

WILLIAMS: What am I going to do?

BERTA: I - you know, I'm the same way. If I needed something done and it was $1,000 cheaper I'm going to have it done.

MARCUS: It's a tough decision for Williams, as it would be for anybody who hopes to ride out this recession in their old car.

For NPR News, I'm Bill Marcus in Westchester County, New York.

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WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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