As I cruise America’s back roads, I am always struck by the number of used cars rusting away on the side of the road, long grass growing around them, in contrast to the close-cut lawns on which they sit, and sun-bleached For Sale signs pasted in the windows. I have never understood why so many of them seem to have been there for months and even years. Sure, some were probably junk cars from the start not worth the money due to technical issues, but surely most of them began their front lawn vigils as used cars in reasonable condition. So in a country where pretty much everyone seems to need/want a car, why are all these used cars left sitting there? This is a question I had pondered many times and that I am still pondering, but this weekend I got an insight into at least part or the reason some are stuck in limbo, and it is not because there is anything wrong with the car.
About 6 months ago, I fell in love with an old Ford Bronco (not the proper classic old Bronco but old enough to look good). It sat in the driveway of an old double-wide along the route from my office to my girlfriend’s home. Every time I drove to see her I would hope the owner was in so I could slow down and longingly admire the Bronco as I sailed past.
Then, about 2 months ago, the beautiful Bronco was perched right out near the road, and as I slowed to get a good look at it, I noticed a For Sale sign was up in the window. I was all a flutter, but decided it was silly; I already own a van to sleep in and my beautiful Jules neither of which I am willing to get rid of, and having a “weekend driver” down at the girlfriend’s just so I can look super cool and burn 15 mpg two days a week is a really stupid waste of money and extremely un-samolian. However, as the weeks passed and the Bronco sat there, I started to think more and more about it, eventually stopping, getting out, taking a few photos, and managing to convince myself if would be an investment piece. I decided I would pay no more than $3,500, thinking it would likely be more than that, so I wouldn’t actually have to buy it, and that if they would sell it for that it was an amazing deal and I should buy it. No one was around, so I took the cell number off the For Sale sign and decided I would just inquire regarding a few details. Here are the initial texts:
I figured that was the end of the conversation, though it had been there a while and obviously wasn’t in great demand, I could see where he got the $6,500 price from, and if that’s the price, that’s the price. I really wasn’t concerned about it at all, knowing that in reality I had dodged a bullet, and wishing the owner good luck with getting what he wanted for it. I then received this:
In hindsight I can see how the “haha” message I sent might have seemed like I was mocking the price, but at the time I honestly thought he was joking, as I had told him what I had to spend. It wasn’t his defensive tone that confused me, though, it was his response after I sent the message essentially saying well if you ever decide you will take $3,500 for it, let me know. I meant it too; if it sits there for a year it really will only be worth $3,500, and then I would still be happy to pay him that much for it.
It was his last text that really puzzled me (I have corrected it here to what I think he was trying to say) “I would let the junk man [b4] I let someone get it for nothing.” The idea that more than half the asking price constitutes “nothing” is just mind boggling to me, and goes completely against my understanding of value. So here cometh today’s lesson:
Something (used cars in particular) is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it.
I still hope the guy gets what he wants for the Bronco, and I am happy that I was unable to buy it. What saddens me is the fact that he really might not sell it, and he really might just let it sit there and rust. Not because I want it (now I really want the 1996 Jeep a couple of miles further down the road), but because it is so sad to see these rusting hulks. I will never be able to pass another one of these used cars without thinking that it might only be there because the owner was too stubborn to sell it for what it is worth to someone else. We attach enormous emotional value to cars; we live our lives in them, have first kisses in them, take amazing memory-filled life-changing trips in them, but all those experiences are worth nothing to the person buying that vehicle, and we have to take that into account when pricing them.