About a month ago, I read about a shortage of late-model, energy-efficient Toyotas, Hondas, Hyundais, Nissans, Mazdas and the like. Among the reasons for this paucity of fuel-sippers: Few people leased cars during the recession, so such cars weren't being turned in now; people kept their cars longer, meaning fewer 2- and 3-year-old autos were being traded in; fewer people bought cars at all in 2008 and 2009, so factories weren't running full-tilt.
Meanwhile, today's buyers still want these late-model, low-mileage cars.
According to the article, this low-supply-high-demand situation means that Corollas, Civics, Elantras, Priuses, Versas, etc., are fetching amazingly high trade-in values at dealerships. Dealers then quickly sell the cars at a nice profit.
There were anecdotes of people buying such cars 6, 7, 8 months ago -- before the demand got sky-high -- and then turning around this summer and selling the cars for a profit.
It's unprecedented, the article said. Even in good times, cars -- unlike houses in good times -- do not gain value. Traditionally, new cars lose 10 to 20 percent of their value the instant they are driven off the lots.
So while I read the story, I was skeptical. Cars don't appreciate.
Then I read a similar article about a week later. And then there was another a few days after that. And then another the following week. These were in trusted publications such as the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.
OK, I figured, let's give it a shot.
Those who know me know I'm a weirdo who actually enjoys the "thrill of the chase" that is car shopping. I am an extremely earnest negotiator who does significant research before I ever step foot in a dealer.
On Tuesday, I decided to see how much I could get for our 2009 Hyundai Elantra SE with 24,000 miles. My goal was to trade it in on a 2012 Hyundai Accent as part of a deal that would be so favorable, we couldn't afford not to do it.
The totally redesigned Accent has been winning rave reviews -- it's nothing like the cruddy tin-box of yore -- and it gets fine gas mileage. Dealerships are having trouble keeping them in stock; even before Accents arrive, the cars are spoken for. I thought it would be a great commuter car for my wife.
As for our Elantra ... including taxes, tags and all fees, we paid $11,650 for the 2-year-old Hyundai on New Year's Day. Now, the N.A.D.A. trade-in value for the car in "average" condition with 24,000 miles is $13,050.
Could we really drive this car for 7 months and then "earn" $1,400 by selling it? It was worth a shot.
First, I negotiated the best deal I could for the Accent, getting it for just a couple hundred bucks over invoice. Then the dealer offered me $11,000 in trade for our Elantra.
Nice try. I said I had to have the $13,050 -- which would mean $4,000 (plus taxes and various profit-guaranteeing fees) out of pocket.
After 5 minutes with his manager, the salesman came back with a $12,000 offer. My answer: Nope. Our Elantra was nice, I didn't need to trade it and, well, there are lots of other dealers in Charlotte.
After 10 minutes, the salesman came back with a "split-the-difference" offer of $12,500. My answer: "I'll take a day or two to think about it, weigh other offers and get back to you. Please bring the keys to my Elantra so I can go." I was polite but firm.
To a dealer, "I'll think about it" almost always means a lost sale. Very few people who drive away from a dealership without a new car ever come back. The salesman left again, presumably to give his manager the bad news and get me the keys to our Elantra.
Ten minutes later, the salesman returned and said: "We'll do it for the $13,050. You are getting a great deal."
Could I have done even better by going to another dealer (or threatening again to do so)? Perhaps, but I thought the transaction was fair.
I was getting a nice, safe, economical commuter car for Roberta. And we basically had been paid $1,400 for using that Elantra for seven months.
Hey, what do you know? The Legend of the Appreciating Car was true!