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Finding the right what's-it

YOU say you're in the market for a new or rebuilt alternator for your five-year-old car? Or you want a good buy on a fuel pump or some other component? If you do some of your own maintenance work on your automobile, comparison shopping is the best way to save money.

When buying a basic replacement item, visit two or three retail outlets. Price differences for fan belts, headlights, and windshield wipers, among other items, can vary from pennies to a dollar or more.

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Prices of less-common items, such as brake parts, ball joints, exhaust pieces, and shock absorbers, can vary from a few dollars to more than $20.

Most auto-parts stores will gladly quote prices over the phone and answer your questions about parts warranties and the performance features of their merchandise.

If you visit these stores, you can usually get written price estimates. Most auto-parts stores sell parts at prices that are 25 to 40 percent below the manufacturers' suggested list prices and will write down both their price and the list price so you can see the discount that you're getting.

Another way to cut expenses, if you're facing car repairs, is to use a mechanic who will install the parts you buy. Mechanics buy their parts from jobbers who normally give them a 30 to 50 percent discount on the manufacturers' suggested ``dealer prices'' or ``general trade prices.'' In turn, mechanics mark up these parts about 30 percent when they're installed on your car.

If a mechanic agrees to install the parts you supply, make sure he doesn't increase his labor charge.

And don't expect a mechanic to install anything but top-quality parts bought at auto-parts stores and rebuilt carburetors or transmissions that carry guarantees.

Be sure ahead of time that the mechanic will not withhold any guarantees which he normally gives on his work.

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When buying auto parts, you can select many of them on sight. But for others, you or the dealer will have to refer to a catalog or parts list to choose the exact part that fits your car.

Checklist for your car IF you go to buy a replacement part for your car, take the old part with you, if possible, to help the salesperson locate the right part. Also take along some basic information about your car, most of which should be in the owner's manual: Car's make, model, and year. Piston displacement (cubic-inch designation). Number of cylinders. Carburetor type (1, 2, 4 barrel). Oil (crankcase) capacity. Transmission type (automatic or manual).

Some parts carry their own identification numbers, which will help you buy the correct replacements. The headlight number is located on the glass portion of the base; tires, on the outer sidewall; spark plugs, on the porcelain portion; fan belts and hose clamps, along the circumference; battery, on the top, next to the vent caps; and air filter, on top or underneath the ring.

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