I bought my 1998 Mazda 626 in the spring of 2006 for $3,300. It's been an insanely reliable car, and J has posited that it's like a zombie that just keeps coming despite age and (routine) deterioration.
The last time J and I were in the used car market, $3,300 was a pretty darn low price for a reliable car, although it wasn't that difficult to find other relatively reliable used cars (sold by owner) in a similar price range.
In between then and now, we had the Cash for Clunkers program in 2009, which removed 690,000 used cars from the road. Between that and the fact that the economic downturn meant that more people were holding onto older cars, and it's no wonder that the American fleet of cars is getting older. 10.8 years old on average, to be exact.
The problem with these trends is that it's much much harder to buy a reliable used car these days.
For example, the Mazda is currenly 15 years old. It has 185,000 miles on it. It sports a bumper sticker which reads "Reading is Sexy." The dashboard light is out. The door gaskets are coming loose on three of the four doors. In short, it's not exactly a prize on paper.
J, with his extensive experience selling used cars (and trust me, he knows what he's doing with this. He sells used cars more often than some people change their underwear. Gross, hygiene deficient people, but still.) Okay, I got lost. Let me start that sentence over again. J, with his extensive experience selling used cars, was sure that we wouldn't be able to get more than $1200 for the Mazda, and he thought that might be a tad optomistic. This was even acknowledging the fact that the car is insanely reliable.
Then, after spending some time on Kelley Blue Book and other car sites, he revised his opinion. We might be able to get as much as $1500 for it, without breaking a sweat.
We decided to list the car on Craig's List for $1650 and hoped we'd get an offer close to that.
Within 20 minutes of putting up our ad, we had gotten five emails, four of which were from people willing to pay exactly $1650, in cash, that very day.
J immediately started wondering if he'd underpriced the Mazda. He spent a few minutes on some dealer websites and found that Mazdas like mine were going for $2500. Granted, that was including a dealer markup, but it was abundantly clear that we were underselling our 15-year-old clunker.
J contacted each one of the (serious) offers and explained that he'd goofed, but that the car was still available. Would they be willing to negotiate from $2000? Everyone was quite polite about it, which surprised me a little, and we ended up selling the car for $1850 to one of our original contacters.
Our buyer had recently been transferred to an office in Tipton, 60 miles away, and he was feeding his truck a ridiculous amount of gas. My gas-sipping Mazda was a perfect fit for him. He even liked the Reading is Sexy sticker. ("I just read a book!" he exclaimed when he saw it.) He even noticed that we had neglected to remove my graduation tassels from the rearview when cleaning out the car, and drove back to give them to us since he was sure I'd miss them.
Time between posting the car on Craig's List and waving goodbye to it? Less than five hours.
That was too easy.
In point of fact, I'm pleased at how much we got for the car and how quickly we were able to sell it. But I really do worry about the fact that the used car market is so dried up these days that I could get such a princely sum for a 15-year-old car. What are the people who are just trying to get by doing for cheap transportation now? How long will it take for the used car market to recover?
This experience makes me very grateful for my new Honda from my parents, and for our car replacement savings account. I know that if something were to happen to one of our cars, we would be able to afford a decent vehicle in a hurry. I worry about the people who are in a more precarious state.