Shopping online for aftermarket automotive parts (shopping online for anything, really) is easier now than ever. We have abundant access to quality merchandise, detailed reviews, a limitless wealth of DIY and How-To information, and faster-than-ever shipping options that help us find, buy, and receive what we’re shopping for. But in the world of automotive replacement parts, there’s still the frustrating potential for getting a part that doesn’t fit. Here are our steps for how to find the right part and get a good deal when shopping for car parts online.
This might seem like a silly place to start, but it’s actually pretty crucial. We’re assuming you know what part you need - maybe it’s a front brake rotor or a lower radiator hose or an 02 sensor. The easiest way to start the process of finding a quality, affordable replacement part online is start with the OEM part number. Most major online OEM parts stores have a VIN look-up tool that will make finding the OEM part number for the part you’re looking for fairly quick and easy. Once you have the OEM number, you can then use that number as a crossreference to begin the process of finding a quality aftermarket replacement online.
By “major sites”, we’re talking about Amazon and eBay. A quick copy-and-paste of that OEM part number in the search box on either of these major sites will usually yield dozens of results of matching parts from any number of aftermarket manufacturers. Often times, Amazon and/or eBay will have exactly what you need for a good price, but you should still shop around. That brings us to step 3.
This is another step that’s probably common sense, but it’s easy to fall victim to the convenience of one-click-purchasing the first part you find on Amazon that fits what you need. Often times, you can find a better quality replacement at a better price if you shop around. Especially if you’re buying multiple parts in a larger order. Dedicated automotive parts suppliers, especially if they’re the manufacturer or the distributor of a part you’re looking for, will often have lower per-item costs for the parts, and affordable shipping costs if you’re buying several parts at once. Amazon might still be a great option if you’re getting a one-off seal or belt, but when loading up on a full set of parts to do a larger job, you may find that smaller specialty parts stores have the better deals.
There are a lot of ways you can accomplish this. You should start by trying to find the manufacturer's website and see if they have a fitment tool that will tell you exactly what years/makes/models the part number you're checking fits. If not, then my favorite way to verify is to find an online forum dedicated to your particular vehicle. Search the forum and see if you can find any posts from members who have replaced the part you’re looking to replace and read what their experiences are with various brands and manufacturers. If you don’t have any luck with forums, browsing through detailed Amazon or Google reviews can often accomplish the same thing. Take a few minutes to do your research and try to find a first-hand account from someone else who successfully put that exact part on the exact car you have. That’ll go far toward ensuring you order the correct item.
This goes along with the step above; just because a part fits doesn’t mean it’s high quality and will last. I can describe this one with a personal anecdote. I recently replaced the inner and outer tie rod ends on an old truck of mine. I ordered 2 inner and 2 outer ends all in the Mevotech brand from a well-known online seller. The order I received was boxed/shipped correctly, but one of Mevotech’s parts was mislabeled in the manufacturer’s packaging so I ended up with 3 outer and 1 inner. I did a return and replacement - and yep, got the same mislabeled outer end again. After getting the wrong part the second time, I did some Googling of other users' experiences with the Mevotech brand and learned that it's a relatively common problem. So, then I gave up on Mevotech and just bought a Moog set instead. The Moog ends were, of course, the right parts and a better quality. I could have saved myself a ton of time and headache by just spending few extra bucks and a few extra minutes reading reviews before I clicked “buy” on the “affordable” parts.
This isn’t always an option, but when it’s available I like to shop online and pick up my order locally. If you have the luxury of being able to remove the old/broken part and take it with you when you pick up your order, you can do a visual-check right there at the counter to make sure what you bought is what you need. On that same old truck I bought a replacement timing belt that I picked up locally. I took the old one with me to compare. The new belt had a completely different shape/pattern to the teeth; turns out it was for a model year a few years newer than my truck. Making that check at the counter saved me an extra trip back to the parts store.
Nothing’s foolproof, but if you follow these steps you should have a pretty good experience buying automotive parts online. There may be the occasional hiccup here or there, but so long as you spend your money with reputable online stores that have accurate parts-matching and vehicle look-up tools you can order with confidence.