I ALMOST NEVER MAKE fast decisions. But I bought a used car in August immediately after seeing it. If I hadn’t, I might still be looking.
Inventories for new cars are at record lows. Prices for used vehicles are at record highs. This was not the year to buy another car, but I wanted to replace my 14-year-old Mazda sedan with a more reliable vehicle for long trips to see my children. I was tired of months isolated at home, missing my family. But I never anticipated the frustration ahead.
By now, most people have heard about the chip shortage that has hampered production of new vehicles. Fewer sales of new cars resulted in fewer trade-ins. That left me, an early retiree with a modest income, looking at used vehicles that cost 30% more than last year—assuming I could even find one I liked.
I’ve been buying used vehicles, instead of new, for decades. I let the original owners lose the value that comes with the initial quick depreciation. But today, people are selling their newer used cars at a profit or getting historically high trade-in prices.
I spent three months researching and looking. The offerings were paltry. I also don’t like buying from traditional dealers. I don’t want to deal with their hard-sell tactics and add-on extras. I tried to limit my shopping to Carmax, Carvana and two local dealers that offer no-haggle pricing and no dealer fees. Unfortunately, in this sellers’ market, I occasionally had to look at the usual used-car dealers, where I found even more arrogance than usual because they’re in the driver’s seat, so to speak.
I had thought about sinking the $1,500 in needed repairs into my old Mazda, but I’d already spent $850 on the car at the start of the year. I considered going without a car. I live in a walkable neighborhood and in a city with good mass transit. I thought I could use Uber and get groceries delivered. I could rent a car for trips to see my children in Atlanta and Orlando. I’ve had my own vehicle since I was 18, however. It was hard to imagine life without that sense of freedom, especially in retirement.
Each day, I scoured online lists with dwindling inventories. It didn’t help that I have a strong preference for Japanese cars, though I did consider other brands in desperation. The Hondas, Mazdas and Toyotas would often sell before I even had a chance to test drive them.
I also prefer to keep my financing separate from the purchase, so I obtained a draft check from my credit union. To get the credit union’s best interest rate, I needed to buy a fairly new model within mileage limits. I was boxed in further.
Finally, I have been a longtime believer in Consumer Reports. I always consider what other subscribers say about their vehicles.
One Friday morning, I checked the inventory of a local no-haggle dealer and saw a new listing for a 2020 Honda Fit LX with just 8,900 miles. A photo had yet to be posted, but the color was listed as “orange fury.” I decided to check it out.
It didn’t have the bells and whistles of higher trim levels. No Apple CarPlay. No lane-assist warnings or newer safety features. And, as someone who almost always has had gray, white or black vehicles, the orange would be a big departure from my normally staid tastes, plus the list price was more than the manufacturer’s original suggested retail price.
I knew, however, that as soon as more people saw the online ad, they’d be there on the weekend checking it out. I bought it that day in the fastest big-money decision of my life. I paid $19,985 and now have a car payment for the first time in eight years.
Two months later, I see the same model and year with similar mileage selling for $20,990, $21,990 and $22,000 at traditional dealers. That’s not including the add-on fees they’ll try to force on buyers.
Used cars appreciating in value right after you buy them? We’re truly living in an upside-down world.
Ron Wayne spent 26 years working for newspapers in Pennsylvania and Georgia before becoming the editor in the University of Florida’s main news office. During his 10 years working there, he earned his master’s degree in mass communication and taught as an adjunct in the College of Journalism and Communications. Since retiring last fall, he’s enjoyed a simple life, including reflecting on his experiences on Medium.com. His previous articles were Medicare and Me and Losing at Cards.