Car Shopping During the Worst Time to Car Shop
Is it possible to buy the car you want these days without having to sell a vital organ to afford one?
The short answer: yes, but doing so takes a lot of perseverance, footwork, and patience.
Speaking of which, I've been shopping for a car at the worst possible time for car-buying in recent memory. Over the summer, I wrote about trying to test-drive heavily-marked-up cars and sorting through what I really need, and since then, the new and used inventory has only shrunk while the markups have kept growing (for an excellent, in-depth discussion on this topic, tune into the EveryDay Driver podcast episode #645, wherein Todd and Paul address a question on used car shortages).
I almost gave up. For awhile, I thought I could manage with my current setup until my son leaves for college next Fall, and so I stopped shopping. But since the kid needs to drive for a new job and I don't feel great about his venturing long distances in my 1990 Miata, he's primarily been driving the 2015 FR-S while I've been commuting 50 miles a day in a 32 year-old car. The Miata runs very well, but this is neither an ideal nor tenable situation. I decided to resume my search for something newer and better suited to commuting than the 90 NA and fun enough to eventually replace the FR-S once the kid moves.
I scoured the used car market, tracking auctions of interest on Cars & Bids and searching listings through AutoTempest, Carmax, Carvana, and Shift.
There are, I learned, a lot of good used cars out there that I’d be happy to drive. Cars & Bids (which I much prefer to Bring a Trailer) consistently has great vehicles up for auction, from clean BMW Z3Ms to Porsche Caymans. I didn’t bid on anything, but I came close on occasion. With only two exceptions, though, the winning bids I tracked were higher than I would have paid. I probably could have found something through that site eventually, and I will definitely return to Doug DeMuro’s site when I shop for cars in the future (and sooner, as I’ll discuss shortly).
Through AutoTempest, I found two cars within driving distance worth taking a closer look at: a 2000 Porsche Boxster S with very low miles and a 2013 BMW 135is (also with ridiculously-low miles).
The Boxster overall looked the part, with a clean exterior and interior, and the engine felt strong, but there were issues that I didn't have the willingness or patience to address. For one thing, the previous owner swapped out the factory wheels (what's wrong with the factory wheels?) with aftermarket ones which were not to my liking and suffered from extensive curb-rash. More importantly, though, the suspension felt old and crashed over bumps. For the steep price the dealer was asking, I couldn't justify the purchase.
The 135is was far more compelling. 15,000 miles, six-speed manual, flawless all around, and a car I've coveted since it was available new, the BMW looked like a contender. I was hesitant to see the car, whose asking price did not at all jibe with the "I can make do with a used car" frugality with which I started the search, but I couldn't resist.
First, allow me to address BMW directly for a moment: Bavarian Motor Works executives, please, PLEASE bring back the 1 Series (but without the obscenely-large grill that's defacing your current lineup). I know you have the 2 Series, which is OK and all, but the 1 is where it's at.
Small but still practical, beautifully-styled and appointed (aside from the Dracula-red upholstery, of which I am not a fan), and enthusiast-capable, the 135is has been on my radar for a long time, and I wasn't disappointed after driving it.
But, to my great surprise, I wasn't thrilled. The BMW was comfortable, powerful, and agile, but it was also a tad bit poised for my taste (clearly, I've spent too much time in cheap, "raw" sports cars). I could certainly tune and mod the 135is to achieve Beast Mode, but that's not what I was after. And were I to shell out the asking price for it (the used-car market is crazy, people!), this car, I suspected, would become too precious to park outside without worrying. With a sigh, I pulled out of the dealership parking lot in my decidedly not precious NA and reassessed.
Used cars are more expensive than ever, while new car inventories are low and dealers have marked up seemingly every interesting new vehicle in existence. Nevertheless, I gave the new market another go. I researched several models, visited a few dealer lots, and made calls to dealers all over the greater Bay Area. For the cars in which I was interested, just about everyone told me versions of the same thing: “With so few cars on our lot, we have to add a dealer markup on [X or Y model] to turn a profit.” These markups invariably added thousands of dollars to the MSRP. And as I researched, inventory dwindled further. It wasn’t looking good.
I kept it up, though, and I learned that some dealers out there still wanted to help me get in the car I wanted. Some markups were non-negotiable, sure, but others were, and even if they didn’t have the cars I wanted on their lots, a couple of dealers showed a genuine interest in helping me (one connected me with a former customer so that we could potentially work out a private sale).
And you know what? After all this work, I contacted a dealer willing to sell me the car I wanted with a manageable $500 markup (I know, I know: I just posted a manifesto on not paying for markups. I contain multitudes, people). I went for it (just drove it home two days ago as I write this). The dealer not only worked with me on the price but went out of his way to help me secure the car and get there to sign papers, despite inquiries from other interested buyers who undoubtedly would have paid more for it than I did.
I will write about that experience--and the car I chose--in my next piece, so stay tuned. In the meantime, if you or someone you know is interested in a delightful, still excellent-to-drive 1990 Mazda Miata, let me know! I plan to put it up for auction at--you guessed it--Cars & Bids.
Erik JP Drobey lives in San Francisco. He chronicles some of his culinary and vehicular adventures on Instagram as @zjpd.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.