Affordable Used Cars Hard to Find in the Tampa Bay Area

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Channing Riley fled abuse when given the chance. She took her daughters, 5 and 7, but not the car which was not in her name. From a women’s shelter in St. Petersburg, they walked.

They learned to avoid roads with stray dogs after Riley was bitten. They saw how a missing bus could derail an entire day. The girl once passed out in the heat while rushing to school so Riley could get back in time to catch a bus to work in Seminole.

“They had no idea what it was like to walk around a city,” Riley said, “and neither did I.”

When 15 miles proved too far, Riley had to quit her job at an animal shelter.

It was the car-free life in the Tampa Bay sprawl. School outings, grocery restocking and doctor’s appointments follow one another with bus routes and seedy sidewalks.

Lately, finding a decent car has been a pain for families like the Rileys. More locals drag dented cars to the mechanic, while those determined to buy compete for higher prices. Dealers are bidding more just to stock their lots.

Since the return to life after the pandemic lockdown, demand has increased as options have narrowed. New cars are being held back by microchip shortages, which means fewer trade-ins, which means fewer used cars. Buy a new car now and you could face long waiting lists. Fancy a used car, then? Prices are up 53% and don’t try to bargain.

And for the budget shopper hoping to pay $5,000 cash for something used, nothing fancy, just a reasonably reliable commute to work — it looks like those deals no longer exist.

A social worker referred Riley to a charity called Wheels of Success, which provides a rarity in 2022: cheap, refurbished cars. For a 2002 Lexus SUV, Riley paid $100 a month for 14 months.

With the tailgate, she could load customers’ pets for a new dog training business.

“This car has become everything,” she said.

Today, that business has grown, the girls are in private school, and Riley has a new car. This Lexus, which helped rebuild their lives, she donated. After all, auto charities can’t keep up with the demand.

When his son crashed the family Mazda, the long search for Bilquis Quasem began.

“We went to see a car in a parking lot that we saw online. The car didn’t even turn on,” said Quasem, who runs the Maher food market in St. Petersburg with her husband.

On another test drive, she said, “The car was shaking at 35, 40 miles per hour.”

A year of dead ends and breakages later, the family reluctantly settled on a 2004 deal with 110,000 miles. After taxes, tag and fees, it was just under $7,000.

“It’s like 200,000 miles is the new 100,000 miles,” said Reid Kogelman, who, along with his father, runs the Pats Automotive repair shop and Parkside Auto Sales in Pinellas Park.

Dealerships used to push cars back more than 100,000 miles, he said. “Now you’re buying high mileage cars and people don’t care, they’ll buy them anyway.”

John Ebner fixes cars on the road at Suncoast Auto & Tire. The store works for a large dealership that sells new and used cars. The recent shortage of used cars has changed the game for dealerships, he said.

Previously, large dealers sent older, less desirable trade-in cars directly to auction. Now, he says, “they send them to me to fix them so they can sell them.”

Dealers had to get creative. Several Tampa Bay residents told The Times that dealers had offered to buy back vehicles they had purchased only a year earlier, sometimes for more than they paid. The old rule that a car’s value drops by 20% when you drive it off the lot doesn’t apply.

Dealer auctions, where smaller dealers source cars that end up selling to the most cash-strapped buyers, are now more competitive, said Mike Luce, director of Your Auction. Dealers pay more for older cars and fewer cars pass through the St. Petersburg auction house. Auctions are getting weird, Luce said, with conflicted dealers trying secret signals.

“They hide behind posts and come out and try to bid without anyone seeing them,” he said. “So if the auctioneer doesn’t see them, they’ll complain.”

For these reasons, the auction is recorded on high definition cameras. An armed sheriff’s deputy stands guard as the auction brings in tens of thousands of dollars in cash in one day.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the cacophony overwhelmed a first-time visitor. About 100 dealers moved in four lanes of vehicles passing through an open-air pavilion. Industrial fans hummed hot air as four auctioneers jabbered at the same time.

The men – they were all men – were pushing the fenders, looking under the wheel wells and holding their hands in front of the air vents. Each car took about 60 seconds to sell. The cheapest cars often had the most bids, such as a 2005 Cobalt with 106,000 miles that sold for $1,900. Same goes for a 2012 Civic with 144,000 miles that sold for $6,300 – prices two years ago were what a buyer could expect to pay in the retail market.

Other cars auctioned that day include:

A 2009 Volkswagen Tiguan with 112,000 miles that someone traded in at Volkswagen of Tampa. It sold to a reseller for $4,200 and landed on Facebook Marketplace for $6,999.

A silver 2000 Volvo S70 with 110,000 miles sold for $1,400 and left at a local lot for $3,588.

A silver 2008 Nissan Rogue with 158,000 miles sold for $3,800 went for $5,588.

“Low-income homes do better with a car,” said Evelyn Blumenberg, a professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s higher employment rates, better neighborhoods.”

She pointed to research linking cars to stability — even in areas where public transportation is more robust than in the Tampa Bay area — and showing that the loss of a car can be catastrophic.

Local mechanics say customers are repairing cars they would have abandoned in years past, even though repair prices are also rising. The average age of vehicles on U.S. roads this year has risen to 12.2 years, the oldest on record, according to vehicle registration data.

“People are dragging cars here that have been in their yard for two years covered in leaves,” said Martin Wood, a mechanic at Brewer’s Garage in St. Petersburg.

Blumenberg studies the effects of pandemic car prices on lending. Preliminary data shows more auto loans, with higher dollar amounts, in lower-income neighborhoods, which historically housed cash buyers.

Repossessions already appear to be increasing, Barron reported in July, even among high-credit borrowers. When the market corrects, some who bought during the peak will almost certainly be upside down on auto loans. Bankrate.com reports that monthly payments on used cars now average over $500.

Case managers from nonprofits serving poor clients in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties said they are seeing more and more people struggling to keep their vehicles.

Wheels of Success car donations have plummeted so much that founder Susan Jacobs briefly wondered how the charity could continue. At the same time, calls from people in need have exploded. Jacobs places about one customer in a car each week, “but we could do three a day if we had the cars.”

Its customers must have a job to qualify and are required to take courses in car maintenance. They also have to pay something, even $50 per paycheck, because, Jacobs said, “people just take better care of something when they pay money for it.”

But with so few cars, Wheels tried something new: helping customers fix the ones they already have.

“For so many people we hear from now, their car is their job,” she said. “We try to keep them on the road because if they stop they become homeless.”

Last week, Nathan Henley and Marnie Hammon, who receive help from the non-profit organization One Community Now, accompanied their children to the first day of middle school in Port Richey. Their broken Chevy Trailblazer was left in the driveway. The family’s primary means of transportation for a year was one of the boys’ Razor scooters.

Hammon goes to the store and brings the groceries home. She takes her to work on the bus, and if she finishes late, she drives the 11 kilometers home. The repairs on the Trailblazer are too much and they can’t even consider buying from this market. If it rains, the children stay at home.

A significant chunk of the couple’s income goes to pay for car insurance anyway, so Hammon’s license isn’t suspended. In case.

In Clearwater, Bruce Howard recently moved into an apartment complex for homeless veterans as part of the Homeless Empowerment Program. With a roof over his head, he took the plunge and spent all his savings on a 2010 Nissan Maxima for $5,000, his first vehicle in years.

It was a milestone for the 61-year-old former Marine who has been putting his life back together after addiction. He could make an appointment at the VA hospital and visit his brother in a nursing home. “I want to be there for him,” Howard said. “I felt bad about it.”

After a few weeks, the Nissan broke down. He bought a new battery, but now it needs a jump starter and other work that he can’t afford. He had a bank-cleaning job at night, but car trouble put an end to that.

“I’m back on the bus,” he said. “Getting caught in the rain is just something that happens every day.”

The car remained parked in front of his apartment. On the doorstep, a pair of sneakers were drying.

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