By on September 7, 2011

This market has ceased to make sense. 

$7300 (plus auction fee) for a 2003 Honda Accord EX coupe with 220k and a bad rear bumper.

$8800 (plus auction fee) for a 2003 Chevy Tahoe with 102k and scrapes along the side.

$23,800 (plus auction fee) for a 2003 Corvette Z06 with 16k and some really crappy plastic add-on’s.

Keep in mind that last price was well over two grand higher than on Ebay. Same miles. No Wal-Mart quality chrome add-on’s. No interior detail needed.

What the hell has happened to the car market?

Well I’ll tell you. The first two sold to a Middle East exporter who will no doubt roll back the miles in their time honored tradition. A lot of salvage cars also head over there (the United Arab Emirates in particular) where thousands of immigrants spend their days using the finest hammers and blunt tools to bend these vehicles back into shape.

I once saw a neat video about how all this is done. Courtesy of a million plus vehicle a year salvage auction company. The video highlighted dozens of East Asians and Africans pounding out old metal and switching out the electrics. Parts would already be put in the shipping containers along with the carcass of a vehicle and sent to rebuilders a half world away.

It was interesting. Especially to the auction’s investors. Junk cars do make money and do employ an awful lot of people the world over.  However getting that video for public consumption in North America was somewhere between verboten and fugheedaboutit! I never managed to get that video for TTAC.

I don’t know who bought the Corvette. The dealer may have already had a member of the general public wanting to buy the car for him, which is as common as kudzu these days.

At this particular sale I always see non-dealers walking around the cars. Dealer sales are in name only these days. Nearly everyone buys vehicles for the public. However this is the only sale I’ve been at where the public is literally swarming around the vehicles before the sale. As a guy who has to spend $10k+ every year as a dealer for the right to sell ‘cars’ of all things… I don’t see why we even bother with dealer licenses.

This business is not rocket science in theory. But it IS challenging in practice. The ‘education’ comes from losing money on cars you should have never bought in the first place. Most members of the public are clueless when it comes to these things, and when I see a piece of junk sold at the public auctions, it’s often times an individual with no experience bidding on it.

I believe in free markets though. At least when it comes to buying cars. So you want to buy at an auction? Go for it. 

Just remember that auto auctions are a lot like Wall Street. You will always be the last one to know when you have bought the wrong thing.

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48 Comments on “Auction Day: From Hydrogen to Helium...”


  • avatar
    aristurtle

    Private sales are the only place for a private buyer to go with at least a hope of not getting screwed. I’m starting to see the asking prices begin to slide down a bit on the Craigslist “by-owner” section, at least. For some models, anyway.

    Once exporters start looking there, though, all bets are off. Sounds ridiculous? Maybe, maybe not. If they can get better deals pursuing private sellers than at auction, they’ll do the math and see if it’s worth the extra time.

  • avatar

    Your closing reminded me of the opening line of “Rounders”.

    “Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker.”

  • avatar
    threeer

    Well now, see….this just muddies the waters for me. I’ve been trying to tell my mother that her 2003 Toyota Corolla LE (leather, sunroof, etc…) with 85k is worth more now than it probably ever will be (and more than it probably was a year ago)…but in looking at varied sources, it looks to have lose a few hundred dollars in the last two months (further bolstering my arguement that now is the time to attempt a private sale so she can buy her last new car ever). But then I read something like this where it appears the market is still wonky (real technical term there!) when it comes to used cars. Makes it hard to decide on how hard to push to sell said toaster…

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    Those are fashion prices.
    They don’t reflect reality at all. We have a couple generations of people willing to pay Tulip Bubble prices for some Japanese cars. It takes two kinds of people to make this happen. Greedy ones who try to play the angle, and suckers falling for it.

    Listen folks, these are not houses with 30 year mortgages to raise your family in. These are disposable cars that can get smashed a day after you buy one driving down to the corner. You don’t have to make a lifelong commitment when you buy a car.

    There is no reason to pay the going prices for a boring Toyota or Honda. No one in China was paying double the price of a new Mao suit in order to wear a used one, just to fit into the crowd. No one is going to throw rocks at you if you are seen driving a used Pontiac. And if you think they will, then you are hanging in the wrong crowd. IT IS A CAR.

    When things like this happen, folks get screwed. Anyone thinking a Camry is worth as much as dealers are charging for them are idiots and wrecking the prices for all vehicles in that price range.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      I’ve seen far more people get burned by buying a ‘bargain’ car that can’t command a strong transaction price in its market segment than I’ve seen get burned by overpaying for a Toyota or Honda. How do you get shafted buying a Camry that lasts a long time, costs little to maintain, and is still worth more than you owe on it the day you drive it off the lot?

      • 0 avatar
        mike978

        “is still worth more than you owe on it the day you drive it off the lot?” That is the point, if these are bubble prices (for all used cars) then it won`t be worth more than you owe (if a 100% loan) as the bubble will burst at some point.

      • 0 avatar
        CJinSD

        This isn’t a bubble. This is a fire sale. The US economy is going nowhere but down. The dollar isn’t going to be worth printing by the time Bernanke and Obama are done. For as long as order remains, people will be buying even our most marginal assets until there is no sign left that our middle class ever had a high standard of living.

      • 0 avatar
        PintoFan

        Hyperbole won’t do your side any favors. It didn’t work with Kerry and the netroots movement in 2004, and it won’t work for the Tea Party either. Your mistake was in thinking that you were the first ones to make “Inflation!” your battle cry, when the public at large had already become innured to such nonsense 3 decades ago.

        If you overpay for one of these cars, you’re contributing to the frothiness of the market which is completely illogical and not based upon any kind of meaningful economic factor. It’s just another example of too many small-time speculators dabbling in a market (just like real estate) and driving up prices to ludicrous levels. It’s already showing signs of deflating as used car buyers realize that there are no deals anymore.

      • 0 avatar
        geeber

        Yes, I’m just imaging that our grocery bill is higher than even a few months ago, and with fewer items on the checkout slip, to boot. Those rising price are all just in my head…planted there by those devious Tea Party members. Thanks for clearing that one up!

        My wife will certainly be relieved, too. She has been “imagining” the same thing whenever she visits the local grocery store.

      • 0 avatar
        Chicago Dude

        Geeber, your grocery bill has little to do with the Federal Reserve and a lot to do with crappy weather the last few years and vastly increased demand for “expensive” foods in India, China, and other countries that have a growing middle class.

        American farmers are making out like bandits as most of the crop disasters over the last few years have been outside of the USA. US agricultural exports keep setting records and the fastest growing customer is China – who will probably be our #1 customer within a year or two.

  • avatar
    George B

    Steve, what car or truck models are most likely to be bid up by a Middle East exporter and is there a trend that endured over years? Would be good to know which vehicles have good resale value in spite of extremely high mileage.

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      Toyota Camry & Corolla, Honda Accord, ALL Toyota SUV’s (especially Land Cruisers and LX’s), full sized domestic SUV’s with leather… there was a time when Crown Vic’s and Grand Marq’s were selling. Now not so much.

      • 0 avatar
        MM

        In Phnom Penh, Cambodia at the moment. Cars here have exploded in number over last 3 years; almost 100% US imports (many have dealer markings on trunklids or even US plates still affixed). Most common by far is the ’01-02 Camry. Toyota Highlanders and Lexus 330s also popular. Occasional ’00-05 CRVs and Corollas. The ‘it’ status symbol is the Lexus 470 (or a cleverly re-badged Land Cruiser), with gaudy 10-inch “LEXUS” appliques down the doors. 2-6 families will combine $$ to buy and share a car, and though I can’t read Khmer, “$99/week” car lots are springing up everywhere. Wonder what the down payment/terms are…

  • avatar

    It’s not uncommon at dealer-only auctions to see dealerships pay slightly over market value for a vehicle they want in their inventory ( or may already have a customer for ). When you have the general public involved bidding and some lacking the knowledge of vehicle’s value – does it become more about “winning” and less about whether you paid too much?

  • avatar
    MrWhopee

    Indeed, what’s happening in the used car market? It’s not as if there were shortage in the new-car supply, right? There were some reduced supply for Japanese autos a while back, but looks like it’s pretty much over now, The cash for clunkers happened a while ago, and I think its effect in used-car supply is pretty much over now. Plus the economy’s bad, and I think that should depress demand on both used and new cars. What’s driving used car prices up then? If it’s exporters buying used U.S. cars for sale abroad, then this demand would’ve existed before as well, right? Or is this a recent phenomemon?

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      Quantitative Easing. We print money now. Check out commodity prices. The dollar is worth less than you think, and we’re a corpse getting picked over by scavengers from countries with futures.

      • 0 avatar
        PintoFan

        Because people are still stuck in the paradigm that “used car= better value,” without actually trying to fact-check that assumption. As long as that continues, unscrupulous dealers will continue to rip people off left and right. My other theory is that there are too many amateurs trying their hand at the used car market right now, hoping to make some easy money from the high prices.

        CJ, if you really believed anything you were saying, you would have learned Mandarin and moved away long ago. But you don’t, and that’s why now we are being subjected to uncreative and childish tirades about how we have no future, which we wouldn’t be experiencing if somebody with an R next to their name held the nation’s highest office right now. If the dollar was “worth less than we think,” why is real estate still in the gutter? Why have prices for oil been relatively stable, and why does nobody outside of a frenzied group of speculators and self-serving libertarians believe that gold is really worth $1900 an ounce? Please stop representing politicking as honest analysis. Nobody is buying it, kind of like how nobody is buying 2012 Civics.

      • 0 avatar
        geeber

        If you believe that gold is overpriced, make an offer below the going rate, and see how far that gets you. Just tell them that you’re not a libertarian, and don’t believe it’s worth that much, and get back to us with the results.

        And anyone who doesn’t believe that there isn’t inflation (i.e., an erosion in the purchasing power of the dollar) obviously hasn’t been grocery shopping lately. The amount we pay for food and household items is up, up, up, and we are trying to cut back whenever possible. Manufacturers are also doing it for us, by charging the same amount or more for the smaller quantities. Sometimes it helps to live in the real world.

        And who says that the Civic isn’t selling? The same people who said that Lexus, not Lincoln, is the dead brand walking? That prices aren’t rising for items in the grocery store?

        May be time for a new source of information…

      • 0 avatar
        GarbageMotorsCo.

        That’s alright, nobody is buying Volts either.

        http://www.cars.com/for-sale/searchresults.action?stkTyp=N&tracktype=newcc&mkId=20053&AmbMkId=20053&AmbMkNm=Chevrolet&make=Chevrolet&AmbMdNm=Volt&model=Volt&mdId=35025&AmbMdId=35025&rd=100000&zc=00001&enableSeo=1&searchSource=TRAIL_HEAD

        Government Motors wanted to peddle 10k of them for the first year so having that many languishing on dealer lots is pretty telling of it’s failure.

      • 0 avatar
        CJinSD

        Real estate is still in the gutter because of a number of very real issues that Pintofan is apparently ignorant of. Unemployment and underemployment are massive. This diminishes the number of eligible home owners. The government is interfering with the functioning of the real estate market, drawing out the impact of the fall of inflated values from a time of full employment and easy credit. Banks and businesses are raising their cash reserves in order to prepare for costly regulatory mistakes headed down the pipe from the clown in chief. Investors are hesitant to jump back into real estate, as eventually the fantasyland of the Keynesians will crumble. That being said, I’m involved with a group buying up rental properties in crime ridden Memphis at values that are just this side of Detroitesque. If Obama and his ilk get tossed on the ash heap of infamy soon enough, we’ll be tycoons. If his kind stick around, maybe we’ll be rich enough to become party members instead of Kulaks. You won’t.

      • 0 avatar
        PintoFan

        @geeber:
        As long as there are long lines of loyal Glenn Beck listeners willing to trade real money for paper gold from hucksters, of course they won’t sell it to me for less, because intelligent customers do not believe that commodities are sound investments. The high price of gold is already starting to strain on the few industries that actually use it, such as electronics and jewelry. That, coupled with a continued economic recovery, as well as the farcical history of gold “investing,” is more than enough proof for what I have already said. You must assume that I don’t eat, either. I know that prices have increased at the grocery store, but that is only partly because of inflation, and partly because the US food subsidy system has become so stilted that it no longer benefits consumers. That and the continued persistence of ethanol.
        @GMCo:
        As much as I enjoy your solipsistic and misguided obsession with the Volt, I can’t help but notice that you utterly sidestepped my original assertion. Honda won’t start putting cash on the hood; they’ll start making hoods out of $100 bills held together with epoxy if they don’t want to get crushed in their best market segment.
        @CJ:
        Why am I not surprised that you dabble in slumlordship? I guess that you and the rest of the vulture capitalist cabal aren’t ashamed of your contribution to the housing crisis. The rest of your post is either nonsensical or polemic, so I won’t waste my time on it.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert Schwartz

      This is easy. In the early part of the decade, 16 million new cars were sold every year. Starting with 2008, that number plunged by 25%. So now the number of late model, low mileage used cars coming off lease, has dropped by 25%. At the same time, many people who used to buy new cars lost their jobs, so if their old whip craps out, they need a used car.

      Supply down, demand up. Price way up. Econ 101.

    • 0 avatar
      econobiker

      Shortage of people able to afford new cars, new car payments, or who have the credit available to afford a new car. $7300 for a used decent gas mileage car versus $30k for a new version of same.

      The former credit based new car buyers are now buying used, the former credit worthy used newer car buyers are buying older used cars, and the former credit worthy older car buyers are buying buy here/pay here. And people are holding onto the cars longer so not as much churn in the market

      Ergo the rising prices of used vehicles.

      • 0 avatar
        Robbie

        Yup, that is all there is to it. It is also funny to observe that people seem to be still quite averse to buying a new 15K small car, and prefer a second hand SUV or full size car at that price level.

  • avatar
    marjanmm

    I wonder if this is simply inflation due to the weak dollar. Weaker dollar means cheaper to buy in US when you sell for much more valuable currency.
    Economists say lower value of the currency makes your exports rise – they seem to be right though this is not the export they had in mind.

    • 0 avatar
      Chicago Dude

      Mr Lang mentioned that two of the three vehicles are heading to the UAE. Sorry, but the Dirham is effectively pegged to the dollar. The relative strength or weakness in the US dollar is irrelevant here. Further, money moving around inside the USA is totally independent of the exchange rate.

      Lastly, inflation is not caused by the relative strength or weakness of the currency. It is true that rising prices are a reflection of the presence of inflation, but the opposite is not true. There are many reasons for rising prices, only one of which is inflation.

      • 0 avatar
        Steven Lang

        The ‘weak’ dollar has nothing to do with it.

        However embargoes, tariffs, import friendly regulations (or lack thereof), low import costs to a given port, wide open borders, lack of regulations when it comes to inspecting used cars, and as always… good connections…

        They all go an awfully long way in the developing world.

  • avatar
    Neb

    A early economist described the two animating forces of the market as greed and fear. Notice how rationality doesn’t necessarily enter into it.

  • avatar

    My sister & her husband recently upgraded from a Golf to a small SUV so they could tow a small popup trailer for family camping trips.

    The golf was a 2001 1.8T owned since new by my sister with some scrapes & bumps and high mileage but a recent tuneup & timing belt. They were advertising it for $3500 and the guy who sold them the SUV said he had a friend who ran a used car lot that might be interested. The dealer lowballed them at $2300 and they said they weren’t interested. He called back an hour later and left a message offering $3200, and an hour after that left another message giving them the full $3500. I joked with her that in this market she could have waited another hour and he’d have gone above their asking price.

    • 0 avatar
      drylbrg

      We are in the process of buying my wife a new car. The sales guy asked me what we wanted for her 2002 Outback. I told him and he laughed saying he could only do $3k less than that. I said that it was ok since she knew a guy that was interested in buying it. An hour later he called me back willing to meet the asking price and gave some BS story about a “family friend” of his manager looking for that car. I think that, if you can do it, now is the time to buy new. The new car prices haven’t gone up that much and you get good money for your old one.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Crazy prices Amigo. Things don’t seem to be that bad in my neck of the woods, it only gets crazy around here during tax season. In the 20th poorest county in the nation when many members of the population get ALL their tax money back anything that runs commands C4C money.

  • avatar
    200k-min

    Just the other day I was eyeing a 2003 Accord EX coupe. Fully loaded with leather, sunroof, navigation, V6 and 6 speed manual. Mileage 99,000. Owner wanted $10k for it. My first thought was “TEN GRAND FOR A NINE YEAR OLD HONDA!?!” Nevermind that it’s due for a pretty expensive timing belt change since it’s the V6.

    Now I’m thinking if I could drive that thing for another 100k miles and only take a couple thousand in depreciation I’d be doing pretty darn good.

    • 0 avatar
      econobiker

      Mileage 99,000 means a Honda car is barely broken in now-a-days.

      My family had a friend who always purchased used Honda 4dr cars at 90-110k since he drove around the US for his work (he was contracted as an expert for court testimony in a certain field). In part due to his easy driving style (55 to 65 mph max) he would drive the cars to 250-to 300k before ditching the cars in private sale and buying the next one. Civic or Accord as long as it was 4 doors and automatic he was into it. And yes he would pay to maintain the car (radiator replacements , trans fluid changes, tires/brakes, etc) but, as above, the miles were true highway miles at an easy pace…

  • avatar
    thesal

    “$23,800 (plus auction fee) for a 2003 Corvette Z06 with 16k and some really crappy plastic add-on’s.

    Keep in mind that last price was well over two grand higher than on Ebay”

    Where on Ebay are you seeing these prices??? I’ve been keeping my eye on 02-04 Z06s but nothing in the $21K range, especially with that mileage. I saw only one nice one go for ~22k. Most of the bids end with “Reserve not met” or sold for more. Am I missing something here?

  • avatar
    tallnikita

    Those bad bad importers are turning the odometers back just like the private parties are doing here. I know people who basically make it standard paractice with their purchased and leased cars. There is something about the digital odometers that makes it possible.

    • 0 avatar
      aristurtle

      The digital odometers make it more difficult, actually; for older cars you just needed to find a replacement instrument cluster with fewer miles on it (from a wreck, for instance) and swap them in. Nowadays the mileage is recorded in both the ECU and in the microcontroller in the instrument cluster and an error is thrown if they don’t agree.

      So, still possible, but more work.

      • 0 avatar
        tankinbeans

        My mom told me a story, and I have no reason to disbelieve her, about how when her mother was a teenager she, her mother, had taken her father to the airport. Her father knew the mileage on it and how many miles she would put on driving back home, meaning take this anywhere else and die.

        Meanwhile, my great-uncles had to go somewhere and my great-grandfather’s car was all that was available. My great-uncles apparently disconnected the odometer on the bugger and reconnected it later on. I wanna say this would have been the mid-50s, but I could be off by a little bit.

      • 0 avatar
        aristurtle

        Yeah, that trick worked clear into the nineties; if the speedometer is disconnected, the odometer obviously can’t work.

        Nowadays the speedometer is tied into the ECU’s fuel delivery logic so the car will either act funny or go into limp mode when you do that.

      • 0 avatar
        redmondjp

        Yes, back in the good ol’ days, one could reach underneath the dash and pull back the speedo cable from the cluster. Or if your car had cruise control, you could do it at the module underneath the hood as well. Certain, ahem, car dealer type people would do this on very rare occasions if they needed to get a “new” car somewhere (like a parking lot sale at the local mall) but didn’t want to rack up any miles on it.

      • 0 avatar
        wagonsonly

        RedmondJP – certain auto execs also did that back during the Iacocca years, on “new” cars that were later sold to the public…to the point that it was addressed in his autobiography.

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        No the mileage is not recorded in the PCM and an error will not be thrown if the instrument cluster is replaced at least up until 07-08 models, haven’t messed with something newer yet. Sure if you plug in the scan tool on one that has been disconnected the tool will tell you that it can’t communicate with that module. Now on some Chryslers the gauges on new clusters won’t work until the gauges are calibrated with the factory scan tool. A used one will work but the gauges may not be very accurate. I’ve replaced a number of the Chrysler clusters when the have a short and short out the CAN bus and prevent the car from running. Unplug the instrument cluster and the car will run.

  • avatar
    Sinistermisterman

    Having bought 5 cars at auction for personal use, I find that even with the most careful going over (many UK car auctions don’t even allow you to lift the bonnet until it is on the way from the stock yard to the auction house), an auction car can spring all sorts surprises, so I can understand Steve’s comment about members of the public picking up complete junk. Out of the 5 cars, 1 cars engine exploded 15 miles down the road, another had a whole string of issues that needed resolving, whilst 3 turned out ok for the money.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    kbb.com shows a private party price of $10k for my ’05 Scion xB, manual trans, 46k miles.

    The first sucker (um buyer) who wants to give me $10k for it can drive it away. I’ll get the ’12 Kia Soul 1.6.

  • avatar
    PintoFan

    The problem is that there are too many amateurs flooding into the market in the hopes of making easy money. In my city, there has been a huge proliferation of “Buy Here Pay Here” lots and various other small, often shady dealers cropping up overnight, and usually going bust after a few months. The big new-car dealerships worsen the trend by expanding used-car offerings and jacking up the prices to the point of absurdity. As soon as consumers realize that used cars are no longer the value they once were (and there are signs that is already happening), we could see a pretty major deflation of prices. Especially if the economy continues to recover.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Many years ago, around 1971, I needed a car, but I didn’t have any money. Luckily my grandfather’s friend Nate was a used car dealer. He took me to the auction and we bought a 1965 Chevy Malibu sedan with a small block and powerglide for about $400. He then took it to the shop where they turned it into a creampuff. I remember seeing one mechanic removing miles from an odometer with an electric drill, and another one making an engine run smoothly with 90W.

    I still don’t trust used cars.

  • avatar
    50merc

    Do prices vary much by region? I check OKC’s Craigslist “owner” cars frequently, focusing mainly on under-$6,000 listings, and I haven’t seen a price surge. Maybe Mr. Lang could make money by spending a couple days scooping up cars in Oklahoma (or New Mexico, from what Dan says). Admittedly, though, I don’t pay much attention to high demand Camry’s, Accords or CUV’s. But here’s an ’03 Tahoe that seems better than the car mentioned by Mr. Lang, and with an asking price a thousand less: http://oklahomacity.craigslist.org/cto/2557056702.html


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