Recession stalling out car repairs in Boulder

Rick Vagge says the tires on his Ford Explorer are bald, and he should have bought new ones about 1,000 miles ago.

“It’s either pay bills or get new tires,” said Vagge, a tattoo artist from Lafayette.

He estimates it will cost about $600 to trade out his tires — on top of the other car maintenance he needs to tend to, including an oil change and transmission flush.

Mechanics say they’re noticing a new trend: recession-induced procrastination, as motorists stall routine maintenance on their vehicles.

At Canyon Automotive in Boulder, co-owner Jeff Walbaum said people are putting off buying new tires, risking blow-outs, and they aren’t fixing their brake pads or changing fluids as recommended.

“We’re dead,” Walbaum said.

Business crashed toward the end of July, and Walbaum links the decline to the recession as well as the federal “Cash for Clunkers” program that prompted some of his regular customers to buy new cars.

Peter McGraw, an associate professor of business at the University of Colorado who specializes in consumer psychology, said during a recession, people tend to first eliminate decadent pieces of their budgets — such as weekly massages, fancy dinners or manicures.

“People initially wipe out all of the hedonic stuff,” he said. “Depending on their perception of their situation, they also start to hold back on the utilitarian services.”

McGraw said it’s not unreasonable for people to hold off on services like haircuts, stretching out the time period between trims. But it’s more bothersome when they hold out on maintenance because it could cause costlier problems.

“I don’t think people are being purposefully negligent,” he said. “They are taking more of a liberal view about when services ought to be done.”

Phill Higdon, shop manager at Bolder Auto, said the shop is helping customers prioritize maintenance, letting them know what needs to be done immediately and what services could wait a few months.

“People tend to break it into chunks and split it among a few paychecks so it’s not a big hit at once,” Higdon said. “They’re just tending to spread it all out a little bit longer.”

But some fixes can’t wait, Higdon said.

The shop warned one motorist that the suspension connecting the vehicle to its wheels was about to go out, but he ignored the diagnosis. The joints failed while he was driving on Interstate 25, and he broke both collarbones in a single-car crash, Higdon said.

“If people put off the maintenance, it can create catastrophic issues that will cost you more later,” he said.

It’s not just drivers of cars who are pushing the limits.

Lina Kuhn, a CU senior who relies on her bike to get around, just shelled out $150 to buy new wheels for the bike that she bought for $30 at a yard sale.

She put off the purchase until her wheels became too wobbly to ride.

“I’m living paycheck to paycheck,” Kuhn said.

Wave Dreher, a spokeswoman for Colorado AAA, said the mechanics sent out to roadside assistance calls have not seen many repairs because of poor maintenance.

“Maybe it’s too soon, but we aren’t seeing that kind of damage come through yet,” she said.

One car was towed last week because it was out of oil and the engine seized up, but that was “more stupidity than the economy,” she said.

Some of the mechanics at the auto repair shops that Colorado AAA works with say people are paying more attention to maintenance because they know they won’t be able to afford major repairs or new cars, Dreher said.

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