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The frenzied used-car market seems stuck in overdrive

In Cambridge, a 2021 BMW that cost $79,000 new went for $85,000 — used.

Brian Bell is being hounded by his dealer to sell his car back, a 2016 Chevrolet Traverse. “I’ve got used-car FOMO,” he said.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Larry Lawfer, a jovial real estate agent from Milton, is a hounded man. “I can’t get away from him,” he said.

The e-mails, texts, phone calls, they never stop. But who’s on his tail? Some disgruntled new homeowner? Nah. His car dealer.

Lawfer is two years into a three-year lease on his 2020 Nissan Altima, and as the severe shortage of new cars turns used cars into objects of intense desire, the dealer is begging Lawfer to turn in the car early — for a big bucks bonus — so he can turn around and sell it to another customer.

But returning the car would not only leave Lawfer without a way to get to showings, part of him is holding out for an even bigger payday, hoping that if he waits a few months prices would go even higher.


“I’m playing the market,” he said. Yes, for used cars.

Used cars aren’t minting millionaires, like Bitcoin or Moderna. But a little bit of luck is shining down on people who don’t always have enough of it. Many people driving modest cars — dare we say even clunkers — are finding their heaps are worth something. They may not have the latest safety features, or even an attached bumper, but they’ve got one major thing in their favor: They’re here now.

Since March 2020, used cars and truck prices have gone up 43.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index. That’s compared with an 11.7 percent rise for new vehicles, and an overall US inflation rate of 7.3 percent.

The average listing price of a used vehicle for sale on the online platform CarGurus broke $30,000 at the end of October, compared with about $23,000 a year earlier, according to Kevin Roberts, director of industry analytics for the Cambridge-based site. .


Although it’s hard to remember back less than two years ago, there was a time when the one true thing in this world was that a car lost value the moment it was driven off the lot.


“A car you bought six months ago could now be worth $5,000 more than you paid for it last spring,” said Charlie Karyanis, president of City Motor Group, a Cambridge firm that buys and sells used and new cars to dealerships.

He recently paid a customer $85,000 for a 2021 BMW that cost $79,000 new. The owner of a 2016 Toyota Corolla got nearly $17,000 for a car that cost $19,630 more than five years ago. A 2021 Ram TRX truck earned its owner $10,000 over the list price.

Are these cars — or Southie condos?

In Andover this summer, Trevor Barcelo sold his Porsche 911 — his “fun car,” in his wife’s words. He paid $73,000 for it in 2016 and figured it would depreciate about $6,000 or more per year, for a $30,000 hit.

Instead … a dealer from Acton came over, checked out the car, and promptly wired him $74,000. For the hard work of driving a sports car for five years he earned $1,000. “I’m going through my stuff to see if there’s anything else I can sell,” joked Barcelo, a VP of engineering at a technology consulting firm.

Of course, not everyone has an extra “fun car” to sell. And for many, the prospect of easy money is vying with the stress of having to find a new vehicle.


“It’s getting to the point where I think I might be crazy if I don’t sell,” said Brian Bell, a producer and on-air personality with the ROR Morning Show.

He’s on the receiving end of vigorous outreach from the dealer who sold him a new Chevy Traverse in 2016 and now wants to buy it back — for $4,200 over the Kelley Blue Book value. “But I’m like within a year of paying it off,” Bell said. I’ll be free and clear with no car payments at all.”

“I’ve got used-car FOMO,” he said.

That’s a fear Kyle Best, a sales consultant at a used-car dealership in Quincy, tries to stoke.

He cold-calls 50 customers a day, minimum, and makes it clear the bubble’s gonna burst, so they better hustle in.

Best starts with a low-key introduction — “Hey, good morning, this is Kyle calling from Bos Auto. I just wanted to check in with you and see how everything is going with your …” — and quickly escalates.

He dangles an offer of a $1,000 or $2,000 — time-limited — bonus on top of trade-in value. Then, darkly warning that the new car crunch will, at some point, end, he moves in for the kill. “I guarantee you will be getting a deal right now you won’t be getting in a year.”

But giddy times for people selling their old cars mean the opposite for would-be buyers such as Shamus Russell, a North Shore ballroom dance instructor with Arthur Murray.


He recently accepted that sinking more money into his beloved “Blueberry,” a 2010 Hyundai Accent, wasn’t financially wise, even if the car was “my sanctuary, my escape.”

That thrust him into the competitive world of online used-car shopping. “I was messaging all these different dealerships and getting round the clock e-mails, text messages, and calls. It was all hours of the day and I couldn’t keep up,” he said. “It was worse than a dating app.”

But when he saw a car he liked and quickly requested more information, the answer was always the same: “Sorry, it’s gone.”

Russell eventually found his car — a black 2019 Hyundai Kona Ultimate that he’s yet to name — but here’s how upside down the world is:

Everyone knows that in the traditional customer-used-car-salesperson relationship, the obsequious behavior belongs to the salesperson, but it was Russell who felt forced to turn on the charm. “I was trying to be my sweetest self,” he said.

Beth Teitell can be reached at Follow her @bethteitell.