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The used car market is experiencing record shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The issue is multifaceted, but it all points to one outcome, buyers are paying more. There are some tactics used car shoppers can use to get a great deal, even amid this unprecedented time. Bargains are still out there for shoppers who know where to look.

A small used car lot
A used car lot | Steven Miric/Construction Photography/Avalon via Getty Images

Focus on local cars for sale by owner

The COVID-19 pandemic has hard-hit dealerships. While the rental car industry was at a standstill, companies began selling off fleets to remain solvent. This means fewer former rentals on offer to used car shoppers, and prices at dealerships are at an all-time high.

Person to Person sales has a big advantage over dealerships when it comes to price because these market shifts don’t apply. Dealerships hold most of the power during the negotiation of a sale. Private sales level the playing ground making haggling easier.

There’s more risk in private sales. Dealerships benefit from detailed inspections by certified technicians. Even small dealerships have a mechanic on hand to inspect and service cars. Costly issues can be hard to notice with an untrained eye. There are great deals to be had for those willing to take a chance.

Visit a rural family-owned dealership

used cars for sale on a lot
Used cars for sale | Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

Large used car dealerships depend on rental fleet sales for a large portion of their annual inventory. Small dealerships are less likely to buy batches of cars this way. Smaller auto auctions, trade-ins, and private sales fill their lots. Because small dealerships are insulated from some of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, they often have better deals.

Shoppers willing to widen their search area are more likely to find these deals. Family-owned businesses just outside cities or even deeper into rural communities shouldn’t be overlooked. Many buyers skip right to major dealerships and miss these deals altogether.

Small dealerships often offer their own warranties and service plans. These smaller businesses often list their inventory online, but some hidden gems may not be advertised. Making an in-person visit may yield an unexpected find.

Shop for features, not a specific car

Pre-owned car lot
Pre-owned car lot | Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

The easiest way to save money on a used car is to keep an open mind. Buyers set on one specific make and model could miss out on cheaper cars that offer the same features. A less-popular car that serves the same needs can be thousands of dollars cheaper.

Open-ended shopping requires a well-defined vision of how the vehicle will be used. Buyers need to know which features are the most critical, which can be skipped, and which are nice to have. Once the perfect used car template is defined, many makes and models can be weighed against it. Consumer Reports recommends shoppers act fast once a suitable option is found.

There’s nothing wrong with brand loyalty. Many automakers have consistent reliability and owner satisfaction. During such an unusual time, being willing to consider atypical options is an asset. At the end of the day, what matters most is a safe and dependable ride at the right price.


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