Hammer Time Rewind: Depreciation Kills

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang

From the good old days of 2007…

“Is that yours?” Millions of car buyers spend billions of dollars hoping that this statement will be born of admiration rather than pity. When these words come out of a car dealer’s mouth at trade-in time, they can be especially hurtful– even if the salesman is as honest as their spiel is long. That’s the moment when most car buyers finally discover whether or not their automotive “investment” has walked off a cliff and fallen into the financial abyss known as depreciation.

Here’s how to avoid the freefall.

It simply can’t be stressed enough. Depreciation is the mother of all automotive operating costs. Even if gas soars to four bucks a gallon, depreciation STILL represents the biggest hit to the car owner’s wallet.

To wit: The average cost for a new car in these great United States currently hovers around $30k. After seven to eight years– still a few years less than the ever-increasing average amount of time American new car buyers hold onto their whips– the car’s owner will be looking at a depreciation rate somewhere between 65 percent and 85 percent.

In other words, come trade-in time, they’re facing an average loss between $19,500 and $25,500. That’s before any considering of the “opportunity cost” (i.e. money lost by NOT investing the cash in a house/money market/alpaca farm). Or inflation.

Bottom line: if you want to avoid depreciation, forget about buying a new car… or even a near-new car. Yes, a new car offers warranty-related peace of mind and late model vehicles can be purchased as certified pre-owned models. . But it’s an extremely expensive security blanket. A carefully-selected used car may need repairs. But in most cases, repairs of those expenses still cost a lot less than depreciation.

If you’re willing to forgo that new(ish) car smell, figuring-out your buying pattern is the next step. There are two basic buying types: Keepers (keep cars for the long haul) and Traders (trade them in after a few years).

Many Keepers are ready, willing and able to enjoy a vehicle for well over a decade. “Keepers” believe their car should be a cruising companion until the point where the perceived risk of owning it (usually the cash outlay for major repairs) outweighs the fact that ownership itself eventually costs them nothing/virtually nothing.

In the automotive world they are what we call “married.”

The key to being a successful Keeper: marry genuine quality, not reputation. Say what you will about “import bigots” and brand loyalty. The automotive market is a place where perceived reputation translates into dollars and cents.

Toyotas and Hondas routinely receive price premiums– even though many of their products fall far short in value and performance as compared to their peers. By the same token, overlooked or unloved models represent an excellent way to keep the hounds of depreciation at bay.

In most cases, car buyers get more bang for their buck (power, features, etc.), lower up-front costs, and lower depreciation costs simply by buying a used example of a less well known/accepted car. Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Buick– there are plenty of brands that sell excellent products that simply fail to capture the public imagination. The fact that these cars take a huge initial hit on depreciation works entirely in your favor, both buying and selling.

For example, if you’re looking at a midsized commuter, a 2004 Buick Century or 2004 Oldsmobile Bravada, both of which finished first in J.D. Power’s dependability study and received strong ownership ratings, will cost thousands less to purchase than a comparable Camry, Accord or Pilot. Remember: badge snobs must pay for the privilege.

The Trader is a different animal. They are looking at a shorter time horizon than the Keeper. They require a different strategy.

To avoid depreciation, Traders are best off buying a carefully vetted seven to nine-year-old car of their choice. At that point, depreciation has exacted the majority of its revenge.

With due diligence, Traders can get a superb return on their money. The average seven-year-old car kept for two years experiences minimal depreciation (20 percent or so). The average nine-year-old car experiences even less, and so on. It’s a simple but highly effective buying pattern.

And then there is the Sage. The Sage can buy nearly anything and make a buck at it. Yours truly has enjoyed hundreds of vehicles over the last few years– and it’s only taken huge chunks of my free time to do it. Mechanics, auto auctioneers, wholesalers, retailers and hobbyists will always have an edge when it comes to depreciation costs. We know what’s hot, and we know plenty of people who appreciate hotness.

Again, wisdom comes at a cost. Sages don’t pay for depreciation (much), but their insight requires years of hard work, money (mistakes are never free) and a feel for the auto biz’ cycles of fashion and fame.

Whether you’re a Keeper, Trader or Sage, remember: a car is an expense. It may excite you or be a daily nuisance, but it is still an expense. By minimizing depreciation you will avoid the single largest cost in the process. With that money you can save the world, buy groceries or save up for your next car.

Steven Lang
Steven Lang

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  • MadHungarian MadHungarian on May 07, 2012

    Has no one mentioned the ultimate Keeper car yet? Town Car. Other "old guy cars" like Impalas and Lucernes can play this role too, but the Town Car really tops the field. They depreciate like mad over the first few years then level out. I have a 2005 Townie that I bought in 2009 for less than $15K -- with only 39K miles. It will be interesting to see what the effect of the end of production will be on the Town Car market. Prices might settle in at higher levels if the last few years become more desirable because there aren't any new ones -- sort of what happened with the 1991-96 GM full size wagons.

  • SuperCarEnthusiast SuperCarEnthusiast on Aug 14, 2012

    The truth of the matter is that a car represents status in society. Unless you are very wealth like a Warren Buffett and he drives a 5 or 6 year old Cadillac or Lincoln; he does need to show his status since he is the second riches person in the U.S. Plus, he does not care too much about status. But most people need to tell others that they too are people with means. They lease their cars you see; then roll it back into another car lease for a brand new car when that lease has ended. It call "Keeping up with the Jones"

  • ToolGuy This guest was pretty interesting.
  • NJRide So this is an average age of car to be junked now and of course this is a lower end (and now semi-orphaned) product. But street examples seem to still be worth 2500? So are cars getting junked only coming in because of a traumatic repair? If not it seems a lot of cars being junked that would still possibly worth more than scrap.Also Murilee I remember your Taurus article way back what is the king of the junkyard in 2024?
  • AMcA I applaud Toyota for getting away from the TRD performance name. TuRD. This is another great example of "if they'd just thought to preview the name with a 13 year old boy."
  • Jeff Does this really surprise anyone? How about the shoes and the clothes you wear. Anything you can think of that is either directly made in China or has components made in China likely has some slave labor involved. The very smart phone, tablet, and laptop you are using probably has some component in it that is either mined or made by slave labor. Not endorsing slave labor just trying to be real.
  • Jeff Self-driving is still a far ways from being perfected. I would say at the present time if my car took over if I had a bad day I would have a much worse day. Would be better to get an Uber