I have flipped (bought, repaired, and then sold for profit) more than 30 vehicles. The cars I get are almost always basket cases with large problems like broken engines or ruined transmissions. So, I’ve learned a few things about frugally replacing major components.

Phrases like “does not run” and “mechanic’s special” in a Craigslist ad elicits a burst of serotonin in my frontal cortex. Or wherever brain-part controls happiness. Or obsession. Who knows, whatever, it feels good, leave me alone.

Sometimes it makes more sense to replace the whole engine (or transmission) rather than replacing smaller parts. Buying brand new is prohibitively expensive and getting used units can be intimidating, but we’ll lay out some tips on how to do efficiently here. I’m also gonna let you know how I screwed up (by not following my own steps.) Turns out, the scrapyard gave me a bunk engine for my ’08 Tiburon, and I should have known better.

So, do like I write, not as I did. Follow these steps and you’ll be a lot more likely to have good luck with your new-used engine or trans.

Research the price

Engines, transmissions, and other big-ticket items are expensive, but it’s hard to figure out exactly what these things should cost. Of course certain car engines are more expensive than others, but a simple Google search of “used engine for make/model” is often fruitless, since an engine’s not a thing you can usually buy from a Google verified seller or ad.

So what do you do?

I create a baseline of what these items should cost by researching and checking multiple sources. For used parts, is a great database valid in both the U.S. and Canada that shows availability for used parts. On that site you can see multiple yards, part condition, and mileage. In some listings, you can even see what physical car an engine came from.

Other sites like eBay Motors’ parts and accessories section, Craigslist auto parts, and Facebook Marketplace (where the Auto Parts section is actually hidden under Hobbies, not Vehicles) sometimes have engines and transmissions listed, too.

Image: Kevin Williams

LKQ is a top-tier space to buy parts, namely engines and transmissions. It’s a national chain with publicly accessible boneyards all over the place.

After I query multiple sources, that gives me a good general idea of what the part I’m looking for will cost.

Before I bought that Hyundai I mentioned, I learned from Car-Part that I could expect to pay around $300-600 for a decent-condition replacement engine. I found one for $400, at a local salvage yard I’ve used before.

Pick a scrapyard, verify availability

Alrighty, maybe you’ve decided on a particular scrap yard to purchase your part from. Do some more research – look at Google or Yelp reviews. Are they known for being trustworthy? Have people complained about the exchange or return policy (if it exists)? Have people complained about the quality of the parts? Yeah, people tend to write more about their negative experiences over their positive ones. But, there’s a difference between a handful of negative comments and a low rating with a history of complaints!

Secondly, you must make sure the part you need is actually in the scrap yard before you go. An online listing may say one thing, but sometimes online listings are inaccurate. Junk yards aren’t always the most connectivity-focused businesses in the neighborhood. It’s pretty annoying to drive all the way down only to get there and learn that the part you seek hasn’t been there for months. A quick phone call can save you some of the pain and heartache I’ve experienced!

What about pick ‘n pulls where you get your own parts?

Salvage yards set up like huge parking lots, which you can enter and yank your own parts from, are usually called “pick ‘n pulls” or “pull-a-parts.” Any self-service salvage yard can often save you a buck or two, provided if you’re willing to do the removal work yourself. A used engine at many of these places can cost as little as $150! That’s less than half of what I paid for my used Hyundai engine at a different yard.

There are a few caveats here, though.

Image: Kevin Williams

These places usually have a policy of “pull it in, drag it in” for their salvage vehicles. That means, they accept any ol’ vehicle off the street. Lots of people only scrap or sell their vehicles when they’re not running well. Was the vehicle tested running before it was taken out to the self-service yard? It isn’t always possible to know. For some items, like body panels or interior trim pieces, the vehicle’s mechanical state might not matter too much. For engines or transmissions, it’s a riskier gamble.

A little known fact about the kind of yards referred to as “scrapyards” or “salvage yards” – they generally only sell insurance-auction vehicles. They’re dismantling wrecked vehicles, not worn-out ones. Cars that got declared totaled because they were in a crash, not stuff that just died of “old age.” Scrapyards have employees that verify the working condition of large items, like engines and transmissions. Well, at least usually.

The aforementioned LKQ has some self-service junkyards, in addition to non-self-service ones. The quality of parts is likely higher than some of the other national chains, but also expect to pay a bit more too.

Ask questions!

It’s important to ask questions when you’re trying to get a replacement engine. The front desk clerk at your salvage yard of choice often has the information about the vehicle that you’re getting parts from. Here are some questions you could ask:

  • How many miles did the donor vehicle have? 
  • Was the item tested working? 
  • Is there a core charge? 
  • Is what is the return or exchange policy? (If there is any.)

At least in my state of Ohio, the vast majority of salvage yards have a 30-day return or exchange policy that applies to mechanical parts installed by an ASE-certified mechanic. The return policies don’t always apply to electrical parts, either. Some of the self-service yards don’t have any return or exchange policy at all – all parts are as-is.

Wait, what’s a core charge?

When I purchased my Hyundai engine, I paid $450. $400 for the engine, but an extra $50 for a “core charge.”

The core charge is a deposit. It’s kind of like a bottle deposit on a beer can, where you get a few cents back when you go to recycle it in certain states.

When the broken part you’re replacing is returned to the salvage yard or parts store, the core charge is removed. Broken parts, specifically engines, aren’t always wholly worthless when broken. That “core” can be dismantled, and usable parts could be taken and sold off. Your old engine could have a ruined engine block, but the engine cylinder head could be just fine. Either way, they’ll scavenge parts from your broken engine, and sell the still-good pieces from it.

Smaller parts like alternators and even batteries can have a core charge, too. The same principle applies. Bring back your old one and you get a few bucks back.

Check and verify your new-used engine before you leave the yard

Most of the time scrapyards are good about verifying that their parts are functioning properly. Still, though, we’re all human. Things can slip through the cracks. So verify that your part is in decent enough condition before you bring it home.

Some parts like transmissions, electronic sensors, or other engine pieces aren’t verifiable before you leave the scrap yard. You can still look it over, though. Some things to think about:

  • Are there cracks or tears on the outside of the item you’ve purchased?
  • Plenty of scrap yards store items outside, but is the item unusually dirty or rusty?
  • Is the item leaking any fluids?
  • Are the plugs or mounting brackets bent, chipped, cracked, or broken? 
  • Do any screw holes look stripped?

A thorough visual inspection goes a long way.

If you’re buying a whole engine, there are a couple of other steps you can do to get an idea of what shape that engine’s in:

  • Try turning the crankshaft by hand, using the crank pulley. This may involve some research, to figure out what size bolt the crank uses. Your goal is to check if the motor turns freely, to an extent. The crank should turn fairly freely, to a point, then get somewhat harder. You may also hear a sort of hissing sound – this means your engine has built some compression. If the crank pulley does not turn at all, the engine may be seized.
  • Try removing the valve cover, and check on the state of the cams, if applicable. Valve covers can be simple to remove on modern engines, usually only requiring the removal handful of bolts via a 10mm socket. With the engine out, it only took two minutes to pull the valve cover off my Hyundai.

So, how did I screw up?

Like the Jetta project that blew up in my face, I got too trusting of my gut. The replacement engine I got for my Tiburon was “tested working” according to the salvage yard. I had dealt with this yard in particular in the past – they had always sold me quality parts at a fair price. The engine even looked good. Clean, minimal surface rust (uh, this is Ohio, and these use cast iron engine blocks), no holes, all the accessories mated to the engine looked great.

I figured I was in the clear. I was wrong.

My mechanic attempted to do a timing belt service. When he tried to turn the crankshaft by hand, using a ratchet, except he could barely turn the crank. Not wanting to go any further, he tried to take out the spark plug, but could only get two out. The other two had fused to the cylinder head.

Image: Kevin Williams

He took the valve cover off, and the problem revealed itself.

Image: Kevin Williams

This engine had been stored outside improperly, and water had made its way inside, rusting critical engine components. The cams, spark plugs, and valves had seized in place with rust. The crank would hardly turn, so water and rust were likely in the cylinder walls and on the pistons.

Rust is more than annoying here, it’s damaging. The piston rings are likely ruined, the cylinder walls could be scored or pitted from rust eating away at the metal – in short, this engine was junk.

All of this could have been prevented if I had just verified that the engine could turn. A simple 22mm socket plus a long socket would have told me in 30 seconds if the engine was worth saving. Luckily, it had only been a week, and nothing was installed in the vehicle. All I had to do now, was take the engine back to the scrapyard, and get an exchange. That 30-day return and exchange policy came in clutch, here.

This advice should hopefully give you a bit more know-how when going to the scrap yard. I will say that it was hard as heck loading a greasy, iron-block engine in the back of a Scion xB. If I had listened to my advice, maybe I wouldn’t have had to do it twice.

That’s what I get for being lazy. Oh well.