LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Supply chain woes have made car lots emptier and price tags much, much higher. As NPR's Camila Domonoske reports, this year has been a truly terrible time to buy a vehicle.
CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Sonja Simpson is a mom of three in Ohio. After putting nearly 200,000 miles on her SUV, it was time for a new vehicle. Her heart was set on a Kia Telluride. Last time she bought a vehicle, she just stopped by after work, bought it on the spot. This time...
SONJA SIMPSON: There were lots where we'd go and we tell them what they're looking for, they're like laughing at us, like, yeah, you're going to get that. No.
DOMONOSKE: Vehicles in short supply right now, especially popular ones like the Telluride. After two months of fruitless searching, Simpson finally got her SUV - not a Telluride. She settled for a Hyundai model. Not the same day - she had to pay to get on a waiting list, which took weeks.
SIMPSON: I was, like, putting money down ahead of the vehicle even showing up on the lot. That's nuts. But she had to do.
DOMONOSKE: As for price, she paid full sticker, and that felt like a bargain when some dealers wanted five grand over. This is what buying a car looks like in 2021, and it's not just new cars. Pedro Moncada and Stefanie Franc live in Salt Lake City with their 21-month-old son.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yay.
STEFANIE FRANC: Great job.
DOMONOSKE: They were car shopping this spring, looking for something that could fit two car seats. They wanted a second baby. And they thought they'd set a reasonable budget for a late model used vehicle, nothing fancy.
FRANC: But it's been insane.
DOMONOSKE: Used car prices have been at record highs. Some are almost as much as a brand-new car. After months of searching, they found one vehicle they liked in their budget. But...
FRANC: As we were driving around, we noticed it kind of smelled strange. And there was mud.
DOMONOSKE: It had been totaled in a hurricane. No warranty. No way it would be their next vehicle.
PEDRO MONCADA: That's when we kind of realized maybe we should put a little time out in the planning to expand our family for now (laughter).
DOMONOSKE: And they did, for months now. Most people aren't putting off pregnancies because of the car market, but plenty of people are putting off purchases. So why is the car market so bad right now? It's no mystery. Car manufacturers are struggling with a shortage of parts, especially the computer chips that are embedded throughout cars these days. The result is plain to see on dealer lots across the country.
SARAH CHISMAR: Normally, all of this kind of in the middle here is filled with new cars.
DOMONOSKE: Sarah Chismar is a Toyota salesperson in Missouri. We video chatted on her lunch break. Her dealership rearranged the lot to try to make it look more full. They'd normally have 120 new cars.
CHISMAR: And right now, I think we have maybe 10 new. And about a week ago, we only had five.
DOMONOSKE: There's no sign that this is ending soon, and that's bad news for, well, for people like me. Not to reinforce any public radio cliches here, but this car reporter has always gotten around by bicycle. Now I've moved back to my hometown, and I'm going to need to buy a car soon. I told that to Chismar, and she said...
CHISMAR: Oh, no.
DOMONOSKE: I asked if she had any advice.
CHISMAR: Be flexible.
DOMONOSKE: On what you buy, on how far you'll travel for a deal, whether you want new, used or leased. And then there's a really big question, one a lot of frustrated car shoppers are asking themselves. Do you really have to buy a car right now?
Camila Domonoske, NPR News.
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