As a car dealer, auto auctioneer, and former owner of an auto auction, I have seen thousands of deals come and go through the auction block.
Near-new Ferarris. Old beater trucks and economy cars that were as rough as a wore out mop. Even tractors, fire trucks, and zambonis.
I always try to get the popular loaded cars and trucks since most folks these days tend to "Buy with their eyes.". They usually fall in love with the aesthetics and fantasy of ownership. Instead of the reality behind all that sheetmetal and shine.
That's when it comes to my buying cars for close friends and family, those that are worth buying cheap and keeping for the long haul, I almost always buy em' near naked.
Mind you, I'm not talking about the cars with roll down windows, no a/c (in Georgia? Oh the humanity?!), dashboard knobs that could pass as a dog's rubber chew toy, or door handles that cost all of thirteen cents to produce in China.
I'm talking about the next step up. What we call in our business a "1990s loaded ride".
One that used to be promoted over the airwaves as a car with...
A/C!!! Power windows!!!! Power Door Locks!!! Cruise!!! Premium Sound System!!! And Alloy Wheels!!! All For The Low Low Price Of $13,595!!!
You know. The car with enough options to make it contemporary, but not enough to make it priced to the hilt.
These are the ones that routinely become the cars that consumers may shop for after they get their insulin induced sticker shock of seeing an MSRP priced somewhere in between Neptune and Pluto.
What's different these days versus the pre-Y2K era? The money side of buying cars. Today we have seven year loans and easy credit. Even a loaded car that cost $7000 more new than it's lower spec twin can be financed for only $100 more a month if the rate is low enough.
Thanks to this era of automotive quantitative easing, two things have happened. First, automakers are pushing up the options and MSRPs to record levels these days. And second, those souls with truly bad credit are still trying to scarf up used cars that are loaded to the hilt because the payment is still low on a per month basis. Never mind those extra two to three years of payments.
The other cars — the lower spec cars no one wants — get stuck in a world we dealers call "wholesale heaven," a God forsaken purgatory where millions of cars that are in low demand get shucked through auctions and other wholesale channels in search of an inexperienced schlub. Who doesn't understand that the funny money that is finance fodder now dominates the car business.
(Picture Courtesy of www.hyattsvilleautoauction.com)
This lower-spec car that is usually parked for months on end becomes the industry's 'Almost' car. The car that everyone pretends that they will supposedly settle for when they do the numbers. But then they go a little crazy, get more comfortable with the idea of long-term consumer debt, and buy their automotive dream from dealers who are all too used to selling it.
In reality, you can already buy those dreamy features of a loaded car for about twenty cents on the optioned out dollar in the used car market if you're patient. Let me give you a real life example.
My brother-in-law, Tom, wanted to get a Ford Escape back in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit the southeast. Prices were spiking at the auctions due to the near-future insurance payouts, and the exodus of New Orleans refugees who were moving to Atlanta and other southern cities.
For $7000, I ended up buying him a four year old Escape with a five-speed that was "1990s loaded". The enthusiast in him loved the stickshift, and the inner frugalist loved the 25 to 27 mpg the Escape got on the highway.
It had the power features, ABS/Cruise, and the nicer door handles, but it had no alloy wheels. This price was about $4000 less than what the loaded up Escapes were going for at that time.
From there, Tom became patient. He waited until he found a set of leather seats on Craigslist for the Escape . Sometimes you can find folks parting out their cars. Other times, you can contact junkyards and haggle your way into a $300 deal for a set.
He undid the four bolts for each front seat. Six for the rear, and had himself a perfectly nice leather set.
Alloy wheels? Same deal. He waited, then bought.
Radio and better quality speakers? Easily upgradable. He was handy. But plenty of other places can do it for far less than that stiff optioned out premium priced versions you find on a late model car.
As time went on he didn't stay cheap. He bought solid sets of tires, brake pads and struts that were the best in the business, and it became his. A true keeper that had been bought with just over 100k on the odometer, and is still going strong and looking great with what is now over 260k miles.
He saved his money first, and invested in his vehicle later. That investment paid dividends in his bank account, and his life's experiences as an auto enthusiast.
So do yourself a favor. Buy the less popular, lower-spec car that has been well kept. And then build it your way.
When it comes to loving what you drive, it's better to build your dream than to debt it out to the dealer.
(Steve Lang writes for Yahoo! Autos, and has been a frequent contributor to a variety of publications over the years. If you get bored today, which shouldn't take much, feel free to Google 'Steven Lang and cars' or click here. You'll have more stories about auctions, and the buying and selling of cars, than you could shake a stick at!)