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A big drop in used car prices means this could be a good time to buy

But buyers have to be prepared to be tough negotiators

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Granted, there’s no place to go if you’re working from home in a semi-lockdown situation. But if you think you’ll need a car or truck in the months ahead, industry experts say this may be an excellent time to buy.

A report from Manheim, a subsidiary of Cox Automotive, shows that wholesale prices for used cars and trucks fell 11.8 percent in the first 15 days of April, compared to the first half of March. Year-over-year, the index that tracks wholesale prices was down nearly 10 percent. 

If that trend holds for the entire month, the decline would be nearly double the previous record, a 5.5 percent drop in November 2008 during the financial crisis.

The Manheim Market Report (MMR) shows the decline in used car wholesale prices accelerated over the last four weeks as millions of Americans began sheltering in place. It notes that there was a nearly 5 percent drop in prices for three-year-old models, one of the most sought-after segments. But the drop might have been even larger.

“It should be noted that, given the unprecedented downturn in sales and market disruption that the industry is experiencing because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the decline we have observed thus far in MMR values at the vehicle level and at all aggregation levels does not fully reflect the declines occurring in the relatively limited number of sales transactions taking place,” the authors wrote. “Adjusting MMR for retention, which is the average difference in price relative to current MMR, results in a decline of 11.9 percent for three-year-old vehicles since the end of March.

Where’s the savings for consumers?

Dealers who purchase used cars at auction are getting some very attractive deals because they’re buying recent model cars and trucks at lower prices than they paid in February. They could pass those savings on to consumers by offering their vehicles at a lower price, though there’s no evidence they’re doing that.

So far, the evidence suggests that car dealers are sticking to their old prices. Automotive News cites Cox Automotive executive Dale Pollak as saying that retail prices for used vehicles were only down 1 percent in early April while they were buying the cars at discounts of more than 10 percent.

That means people shopping for a used car should look for vehicles at a number of different dealers and carefully compare prices. They should also prepare to bargain to see how low the dealer will go.

On the flip side, the decline in wholesale used car prices will work against you if you’re trading in a used car on a new one. The dealer will most likely point out -- truthfully -- that your vehicle is worth less than it was a couple of months ago and give you less for it.

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