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Average used-car price climbs to nearly $30,000

January 7, 2022
When the government reported Dec. 10 that consumer inflation rocketed 6.8% in the 12 months that ended in November — the sharpest jump in nearly 40 years — the biggest factor, apart from energy, was used vehicles. And while the rate of increase is slowing, most experts say the inflated vehicle prices aren’t likely to ease for the foreseeable future.
 
The blame can be traced directly to the pandemic’s eruption in March 2020. Auto plants suspended production to try to slow the virus’ spread. As sales of new vehicles sank, fewer people traded in used cars and trucks. At the same time, demand for laptops and monitors from people stuck at home led semiconductor makers to shift production from autos, which depend on such chips, to consumer electronics.
 
When a swifter-than-expected economic rebound boosted demand for vehicles, auto plants tried to restore full production. But chip makers couldn’t respond fast enough. And rental car companies and other fleet buyers, unable to acquire new vehicles, stopped off-loading older ones, thereby compounding the shortage of used vehicles.
 
Bleak as the market is for used-car buyers, the computer chip shortage has also driven new-vehicle prices higher. The average new vehicle, Edmunds.com says, is edging toward $46,000.
Even so, prices of used cars are likely to edge closer to new ones. Since the pandemic started, used vehicle prices have jumped 42% — more than double the increase for new ones. Last month, the average used-vehicle price was 63% of the average new-vehicle cost. Before the pandemic, it was 54%.
At this point, used-car dealer Jeff Schrier has to tell lower-income buyers that he has very few vehicles to sell them.
 
"What used to be a $5,000 car," he said, "is now $8,000. What used to be $8,000 is now $11,000 or $12,000."
Including taxes, fees, a 10% down payment, and an interest rate of around 7.5%, the average used vehicle now costs $520 a month, even when financed for the average of nearly six years, Edmunds calculated.
Ivan Drury, a senior manager at Edmunds, said that while he doesn’t track used-vehicle prices relative to household income, he thinks November marked a record "in the worst way possible for affordability."
Monthly payments for the average used vehicle, he noted, were $413 two years ago, $382 five years ago and $365 a decade ago. The November average payment of $500-plus for a used vehicle, Drury said, is about the average that was needed five years ago for a new vehicle.
New-vehicle dealers have about 1 million vehicles available nationally — scarcely one-third of the normal supply, said David Paris, a senior manager at J.D. Power. And the vast majority have already been sold.
Given pent-up demand from consumers, prices for new vehicles are expected to remain historically high until the supply returns to around 2 million or 2.5 million and automakers resume discounting, which could take well into 2023. Once new-vehicle prices do ease, the pressure on used-vehicle prices would eventually follow.
Yet even after that, the availability of vehicles will be tight because traditional sources of used vehicles — autos turned in from leases and trade-ins or sold by rental companies — have essentially dried up.
For the past decade, cars returning from two- and three-year leases were a leading source of almost-new used vehicles. But that was when more than one-third of U.S. new-vehicle sales were leases, a figure now down to 22%, said Edmunds’ Drury. Because there aren’t many new autos, people with expiring leases often are buying those cars once their leases end.
Rental companies, another key source of late-model used cars, can’t buy new ones now and are holding the ones they have. Some rental companies are even buying used vehicles. Given all those factors, Paris expects the shortage of used cars to worsen through 2024.
Among the few consumers who stand to benefit are those who want to sell a used car and don’t necessarily need to replace it. The average trade-in value in October, Paris said, was $9,000, twice what it was a year earlier.
 
 

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