How Far Would You Travel to Buy a Car?

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I got in my car on Saturday to go to the grocery store, and as soon as I turned it on, I knew something was wrong, because, after my Honda Fit started, it sounded like a racecar. The shop later told me why: The catalytic converter had been stolen, and that would only be about $3,000 to fix. I may be, unexpectedly, thrust into the terrible car market, a vast search of America for new wheels that I am only a little bit dreading.

It is not a foregone conclusion just yet that I’ll have to buy a car, because I haven’t heard from the insurance adjuster yet, and while I’m assuming it will be totaled, it’s possible that it isn’t, too. Insurance companies know very well how to value cars, even 14-year-old Honda Fits, but also the market is so strange at the moment, I suspect that their time-tested systems are being tried, too. All of which is to say that I’m expecting to argue with the adjuster when they call and inform me that GEICO has determined that my car is worth next to nothing.

Still, that will lead to the next, inevitable, terrible step: Finding the Fit’s replacement, a long process that will leave me deep in thought as to what car to buy. When that is over, I will set about finding the right example, searching from anywhere between New York City, where I live, and the Mississippi River.

That would’ve been my process before the pandemic, too, but, according to Automotive News, pandemic-induced car inventory shortages — both new and used — mean that has become a lot of other people’s process, because for all you know the world’s most perfect Mitsubishi Mirage is sitting on a lot in Topeka.

A March survey of 2,690 buyers across the country commissioned by Quantrell Subaru found the average person willing to travel up to 469 miles to purchase a used vehicle, with consumers from Alaska saying they were willing to go up to 722 miles — the longest distance in the survey.

Brentley Jones, general manager of Quantrell Subaru, told Automotive News that the inventory shortage driving up the cost of used vehicles is pushing consumers to drive farther distances — particularly if they’re seeking a specific car they can’t find in their local market.

“Most of it is just availability and the type of car you have,” Jones said. Where shoppers once may have searched up to 250 miles away to find a specific vehicle, “I think now they probably would search the whole country more or less.”

I’m glad that people are expanding their horizons when it comes to looking for used cars but also a little stressed about all of this new car-buying competition, too. I’m also lucky enough to not need a car to commute to work, which means that I have the luxury of time, if and when the Fit is confirmed gone. I won’t like it, either, but if you need me for the next several weeks I’ll probably be at home, looking for a car to buy.

Katherine T. Burrows

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