Navigating the Used Car Shortage

Most first cars aren’t the most glamourous of beasts. They are classically awkward, a bit boring, and, most of all, have a “this car will outlive anything” way about them. They do break down though, a lot. The average age of vehicles on the road has risen to 12.1 years , meaning that people are buying used cars and driving them for longer. Going by cars’ average yearly mileage, these older vehicles are pushing 150,000 miles, well over the “trouble-free” range. 

Over the past few years, the market for new and used cars has inflated wildly due to a shortage in semiconductor chips. While on the surface this does not appear to affect high schoolers, the shortage of new cars is very connected to the sale of older ones. These record high prices are more than inconvenient for families, it’s an economic problem that many people can’t afford to get caught in.  

Helena High auto teacher, Mrs. Robertson, says, before buying any vehicle, “make sure it’s going to last. High school vehicles are difficult as you don’t always have a lot of money… if I am looking at a 4,000-dollar vehicle, I would happily give a hundred dollars to know it’s going to last. Or, they could take Auto 1 and learn all these tricks themselves.”  

Also, don’t forget to factor in mileage, maintenance, and major jobs such as timing belts that need to be changed at 100,000 miles. “Timing belts are massive jobs, head gaskets are massive jobs, oil leaks on the engine, or ball joints are big jobs,” Robertson said.  If the inspection comes out with one of those problems, the car may not be a reliable option, or may take thousands of dollars to get there. 

Offering cash when making your purchase also helps when shopping from private parties. Finding a deal is still possible if you know where to find it and what to watch out for. Don’t offer asking price. “Low ball them,” Roberston said. 

While the shortage has hit dealerships hard, it still may be a viable option for some. “This has definitely made things different,” said Matthew Hoffman, the assistant sales manager at Deals on Wheels, “but we still have a strong inventory.” He advises first time buyers to “ask a lot of questions, read everything that you’re buying.” As for repairs, it’s best to not get caught off guard. “Everything is going to have something wrong with it if it’s used. Sometimes you get a golden nugget, but there is always going to be something,” Hoffman said.  

Whether you’re shopping at dealerships or from private sellers, getting cars inspected is critical. Hoffman warns, “If somebody is willing to sell to them without having it go to a mechanic first, then I wouldn’t buy it.” 

Being a teenager in Montana is not the time or place to have transportation problems. Between a high school wage and the prohibitive cost of vehicles, the American dream of working for a summer to buy your first ride is not as easy as it used to be. Navigating this market will be a challenge for a while. For older teens using a family car or other methods of transportation, this leaves a year or two to prepare and hope that the market shifts before college, traveling, or starting work. For those in the buyers’ market today, tread carefully. 

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