What Does a Core Charge for an Auto Part Mean?

auto parts
Brake calipers usually require a core deposit. photo by Matt Wright, 2014

If you've ever purchased an auto part, like a new starter, you've probably heard of a core charge, sometimes called a core return or core deposit. But what does that mean? We're talking about car parts here, not produce, right? 

At Its Core

Certain types of automobile parts are considered recyclable, or rebuildable, for future sale. Which means they have a "core" price representing part of that value, which is used as a deposit to ensure you return your old part instead of junking it. When you do so, you get your deposit back and can apply the amount to another part.

For instance, you go to your neighborhood auto store to buy a new starter, which costs $400. Since a starter is a part that can be rebuilt, it has a core price, in this case, $20. You go home, remove your car's spent starter, replace it with the new one, and take the old starter back to the auto supply store. As long as your old starter is rebuildable, the auto supply store will take it off your hands and refund you your $20 core deposit.

Ideally, you should remove the old part before you go to the auto parts store to buy the new or rebuilt part. Then you just trade it in right over the counter, and the clerk waives the core fee. After all, it's easy to forget to go to the store and get your money back, and that $15 here or $20 there can add up to a lot of cash over the life of your car.

What Parts Are Core Parts

If you buy brake pads or spark plugs at the auto parts store, you won't hear any mention of a core. That's because these parts aren't rebuildable. But lots of components you replace on your car or truck have either already been rebuilt, or will be in the future.

Let's revisit the starter, which is a common core part. Starters are an electrical component, which means movement within the component, which means it will eventually wear out. No way around that. Those electrical contacts inside a starter, while pretty tough, are actually sensitive to heat. Engines are hot, and starters are hot, too, since they use a lot of electricity to get your car moving. The heat eventually wears out the electrical connections, and your car stops turning over. But the rest of the starter—the housing and the gears—will almost always be fine since they likely haven't seen enough abuse to destroy them. So this exchange of an old starter for a new ensures a steady and reliable supply of rebuildable parts to satisfy demand—and it keeps these components out of the junkyards and landfills. 

Some common core parts include:

How to Return a Core Part

Some auto supply stores only accept the return of parts for core credit if you purchased the original part from them. Others will accept parts that were purchased elsewhere, especially if you're replacing a part from a classic car. If you are replacing a manufacturer's part, the best thing to do is buy the new part from your dealership's store.

Before you return the part, make sure you have drained all fluids, if applicable. Place the part in a sturdy plastic bag to prevent possible leakage and to keep dirt and other debris from getting inside.