Insights & Advice


Pre-Owned Autos Selling at a Premium

If you have been thinking of trading up to a new car, this may be the time to do it. Used auto prices are selling at 16-year highs but your window of opportunity is closing fast.

New versus used cars?

My wife, Barbara, and I have been shopping for either a used or new car. We own matching 2004 Subaru’s that we purchased used back in 2005-2006. We would much prefer a vehicle with even better gas mileage, but we live in the Northeast where snow and ice demand a four, or all-wheel drive vehicle and that limits our choice of fuel efficient transportation.

The good news for us is that although all used cars are priced higher these days, smaller, fuel efficient models and hybrids are commanding especially good prices. As a rule of thumb, every $1 increase in the price per gallon of gas, the value of used compact cars rises 8% to 12%. So if the trade-in value of your car was worth $10,000 last year, it could bring $11,000 this year.

However, this shortfall in supply won’t last long. Dealers estimate by late fall or winter the pipeline will begin to fill once again.

Much of this used car price windfall is a by-product of the 2008 recession. The consumer was hit by the double blow– less income and, thanks to the financial crisis, increased difficulty in qualifying for either a lease or auto loan.  As a result, today, three years later, there are a lot less used autos for sale. The average car on the highway today is 10.6 years old, according to Polk, the auto research firm.  That’s up from 9.8 years in 2007.

 Another large source of used cars for dealerships has traditionally been the leased cars market. Companies sell leased cars as used when leases expire. But a lot less leases were written during the financial crisis, leaving a large hole in supply at the wholesale level.

“Wholesale prices are quite high,” says Mike Coggins, General Manager of Haddad Dealerships in Berkshire County, MA. “We haven’t passed those prices on to the consumer so our margins are smaller.”

Still, Coggins isn’t complaining since his used car sales are up 25% this year, leading all of his other divisions.

The effect of Japan’s earthquake has also contributed to an overall shortage of new autos this year. The disaster in Japan disrupted the world’s supply chain of auto parts as well as the export of many Japanese made vehicles to the United States. This is a far cry from three years ago when all three U.S. automakers were on the ropes and dealerships around the country were closing every day.

It may actually make more sense for us to look at replacing our autos with a new car this time around. I am going to do my research, something you should do as well, if you are planning to buy a car.  Figure out the price differences between a used model and a brand new vehicle before making a decision. I tend to drive my auto for many years (as opposed to trading it in every three years) so the new car avenue may make economic sense for me.  Find out a ballpark asking price for your vehicles from “Kelly Blue Book” on the internet and find out what similar cars are selling for in your area.

I know that we would probably get a higher price for our vehicles by selling them to a private party. Something I suggest you try if you really want to get the best price for your car. We will probably take a 10% haircut on the price by trading it in to a dealer.

Yet, neither of us is willing to put the effort into listing it on the internet and haggling with potential buyers. I would much rather devote that time to writing columns for you, my readers.

Posted in Financial Planning, Macroeconomics, Portfolio Advice, The Retired Advisor