Why it’s so Hard to Find a Deal on a Car Now


Car Buying and Selling

If you’re in love with cars like me, you’re always looking for that one great deal that you can snag. However, I’ve found it seemingly impossible to find a decent deal in today’s automotive marketplace. I think back to the way we used to search for and purchase cars and compare it to the way we do it now. A lot has changed for the good, yet at the same time for the bad.

I got my first car almost 15 years ago. It was a white 1994 Mazda Protege LX, which my dad found through a listing in the local newspaper. From what I could remember at that time, the marketplace was limited to the following: Newspaper classifieds, “For Sale” signs on cars, and specialized classified listings (such as The Recycler). This contrasts with the way we buy cars today: car dealerships and the online marketplace.


Rewinding back to the early 2000’s, I remember looking through the local newspaper for the classifieds almost every morning. As I got to be of driving age, I started looking less at the comics section and more at the classifieds for my first car.

The bad news with newspaper classifieds: most of the listings were by local dealerships. Just like I ignore online dealers, I largely ignored the bulk of the newspaper classifieds except for the private listings at the end of this section.¬†There weren’t too many private listings because no one wanted to pay a fee to list their car for sale.

For Sale Signs

Remember the days of “For Sale” signs posted on a car window? Sure, you still see some today occasionally, but more than a decade ago, there were much more in plain view. Back in my hometown of Burbank, CA, there is this busy street with tons of daily traffic. Because of this, long lines of vehicles had “For Sale” signs posted on the rear window, which were parked along the side of the road. At any given time, there would be about 20-30 cars that were for sale that had been parked along this thoroughfare. This became another way of buying and selling cars in our local community.

I recall plenty of times stopping alongside the road, walking back to the car that I was interested in, and reading the handwritten details of the car meanwhile jotting down the almost illegible phone number at the bottom. This was a pretty cool way of being able to see the cars with your very own eyes in person, before reaching out to the seller for a potential sale.

The Recycler

Next to the cash register at the local liquor store or supermarket, there’d always be a display of newspapers and specific classifieds for cars: The Recycler. The Recycler was free at first, but I recall paying a few dollars for a copy in the later days. Now, this was the grand-daddy of private seller listings for cars and trucks. Sorted alphabetically by Make, then Model, there were hundreds of private listings that were tantalizing to read. Because it was free to post a listing on The Recycler, there were considerably more listings compared to the local newspaper.

recycler classifieds - craigslist why so hard to buy a car

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Today’s Vehicle Marketplace

Fast forward to how we buy and sell cars today, and it is apparent that there has been a huge shift to online. Although strides have been made to provide much more accessibility to the masses, it has also created an over-inflated marketplace, from which stem a significant number of issues: greater competition, less-personal transactions/interactions, and the prevalence of scammers and small-time dealers.

High Competition through Technology

With so many more vehicles for sale that are now available on your smartphone, there is a significant amount of power that the buyer now has when looking for a car to buy. But, that also means that every other potential buyer out there has this same amount buying power. Where you fall within the competitive atmosphere largely depends on how much time you can spare.

Many of us are busy and can only look occasionally for any cars on sale that fit our criteria. However, those who have a greater amount of leisure time will scour the local web listings throughout the day only to nab any good deals that pop-up. Other more clever buyers will set up notifications or feeds that will alert them the moment something comes up that is worth buying. That leaves us with the remaining inventory of overpriced and poorly maintained vehicles.

When most of the online searches were through the computer and there was a lack of ubiquitous smart phone use, people were still able to employ the use of search tools as mentioned earlier. However, with advent of smart phones, everyone and their mother are able to do it at any time of the day. Competition is incredibly high in today’s world of online car shopping.

Digitized Interactions/Transactions 

When the internet was just gaining steam and there was not much mobile internet use yet, much more deals were to be had. I found many deals on Craigslist that allowed me to own some amazing cars. In fact, I was able to find and purchase this B5 Audi S4 for a great price. I also was able to sell my cars without much of an issue. Everyone who got on Craigslist, needed to get on a computer to get online to buy/sell cars.

With smartphones in everyone’s pockets, it’s easy to pull up listings and reach out to the seller instantly. This in itself isn’t a terrible thing. I’ve taken advantage of this myself and I love that I can check the latest listings at any time. But what this has done to our interactions between buyer and seller is make it much less personable. I’ve noticed a huge shift towards texting during inquiries and it makes the whole interaction so blunt and callous. It’s also hard to gauge actual interest when you’re communicating via text. Because of this phenomenon, we have so many more potential buyers and sellers flaking out because they are not afraid to reach out through text or email.

As a seller, it is not uncommon to receive significant interest, yet also multiple no-shows as well as inconsiderate requests from potential buyers. Ask anyone who has used the online classifieds, Craigslist, and you will hear stories about how someone flaked on them during a potential meeting. There is no more substance behind these meetings, which is quite a travesty if you ask me.

Scams and Dealers

Everyone has a phone with the ability to look on Craigslist (or other vehicle marketplaces) at any time they want. They can set up apps, and email notifications to let them know the second a vehicle that they are interested in, pops up. These tools in the hands of small-time automobile dealers and scam artists leads to many more interactions with these folks. Scams are always an issue in the online world and we deal with them accordingly.

The interesting group that has arisen are small-time car dealers. Of course there are the normal dealers who are normally weeded out in the listings when you click the check box for ‘private listings only’. However, there are individuals who make a living from buying cars cheap, and selling them for as much as they can. So what’s the big deal?

For one thing, doing a search online will bring up numerous listings that appear to be private listings, but are actually listings by the same owner. The prices are also inflated and very uncharacteristic of private sales because they need to make up the difference in the costs from their purchase and from fees associated with it. These listings end up clouding up the private listings if you are truly looking for real sellers who are selling their own personal cars.

Another thing that a buyer will have to deal with is the likelihood of dealing with an unscrupulous dealer who will try to hide problems with the car in order to make a profit. An actual private seller may be more willing to disclose issues with the car versus a dealer who is trying to make a profit. Here’s an example of someone warning everyone on Craigslist about this potentially shady seller.

Finally, you have to compete with these dealers who aggressively poach any available good deals. Instead of you scoring a great deal on a car, another small-time dealer may have snagged it from you just to make a few hundred or a few grand off their buy and sell tactics.

Concluding Thoughts

This has been my experience buying and selling cars in the past decade and what I’ve encountered along the way. I really do miss the days of buying and selling cars through more physical mediums like newspapers and paper classifieds, but I think it was an exciting time when the internet starting gaining steam. I’m glad I was able to utilize the online classifieds prior to the smartphone movement so that I was able to enjoy my fair share of fun cars.

Now, I’m looking for my next project car and let me tell you it sure is hard. Trying to find that fun project car that has been well-cared for, but yet at a bargain is tough. And getting through to the seller, setting up a meeting to look at the car, and to actually follow-through with the transaction is even more difficult.

With all that said, I’m still optimistic. I plan on continuing my search, and I’m going to find that gem. And to those who are in the same rut as me, keep searching—it will only make the prize much more rewarding. I leave you with a quote from famous American writer and political figure, Thomas Paine:

The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress and grow.

– Thomas Paine

Scott enjoys fixing and improving cars, motorcycles, and his home in his spare time. He does his best to transcribe his journey as he navigates across unknown territory, finds himself in peculiar predicaments, and figures out how things work in the process.

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