Last month, my commute home took a turn for the worst when my faithful SUV died on the side of Route 1. Over seven years and 159,000 miles, it got me to and from work through the worst of weather and the dead of night. It drove me to my wedding, and saw the birth of all three of my children.

But when I replaced the engine (for a second time) a few months ago, I vowed that I could not sink more money into the car to keep it limping along. So when the latest repair estimate came in over $4,000, I decided it was time to go car shopping.

Easier said than done.

The State of the Car Business

Have you looked at any car lots around New Jersey lately? They are pathetically empty. One dealer rep I spoke with said his new car inventory was about 10 percent of usual.

A very empty car dealership lot. A very common scene around NJ right now. (Dan Zarrow, Townsquare Media)

You'd probably be quick to blame staffing and supply issues, driven by the pandemic. And you'd be mostly right. There is a global shortage of semiconductors — important chips that serve as the electronic "brain" in modern vehicles. (Along with smartphones, computers, appliances, and more.) Assembly lines worldwide have halted. And some estimates do not show a return to normal production levels until 2023.

But there's another more local issue in play: Ida.

When the remnants of Hurricane Ida soaked New Jersey in early September, thousands of cars were flooded and declared a total loss. Those vehicles had to be replaced, putting an additional strain on the already low inventory throughout the auto industry. In other words, this autumn's car shortage has been even worse in New Jersey than in other places.

Disclaimer

I do have some inside knowledge on the car industry in New Jersey, as my father has been a salesman for over 25 years.

Also, I've opted to leave dealership names and specific car brands out of this post. It is not an advertisement or endorsement.

On the flip side, I do not want to be accused of maliciously harming a business by openly complaining about my experience.

My Story

As you might guess, in my car shopping adventure, finding a suitable vehicle was difficult. Every dealership web site I visited showed low to literally no inventory.

Eventually, I was thrilled to find a used car I really liked. Good condition, low mileage, decent price. They weren't willing to budge on the sticker price by even a penny. But given market conditions and my immediate need for a vehicle, I put down a deposit anyway.

Due to unfavorable finance terms and stubborn, slimy dealership management, I walked away from this car. (Dan Zarrow, Townsquare Media)

Literally minutes after handing over the deposit, I got a call from the Sales Manager. (Uh-oh.) Because of the "deal" we had brokered, I would not be allowed to bring my own financing to the table as planned. (For the record, there were no special discounts or a "deal" here. And despite my excellent credit, their interest rates were terrible.)

Red flag. Alarm bells. Fight or flight. It just felt slimy. So I didn't just walk away, I ran away. (And yes, I got my deposit back.)

There is a happy ending to this story. The very next day, I found an even better vehicle at an even better price at an amazing dealership. Although it was 50 miles from home, they were friendly, professional, and respectful.
What a trifecta, and what a difference. They earned my business and made me a very satisfied customer — I love my new-to-me SUV!

After weeks of stress and headaches, I ended up purchasing this car and couldn't be happier. (Dan Zarrow, Townsquare Media)

Some Advice

There are some lessons to be learned here about the current state of the auto industry.

1.) Do your homework. New vs. used? Which makes and models are a good fit for you? What bells and whistles are priorities for you? And, most important, what is a fair market price for your ideal vehicle? The internet is your friend — there are some outstanding resources out there to help you answer those questions.

2.) Know the market. Don't expect much wiggle room, especially on new car sales — manufacturer incentives are scarce right now. Having said that, there are absolutely deals to be found — especially on used cars that have been sitting on a lot for a while.

3.) Watch for addenda. Also known as the "Dealer Posted Price," some places add thousands of dollars to the manufacturer's suggested retail price. Sometimes the adjustment is for specific models. Sometimes (especially in this tough market) it's across the board. True sticker shock — are you willing to pay upwards of $12K more than a car is actually "worth"?

4.) Sundays are awesome. Ahh, blue laws — an archaic tradition dating to the 1600s. Buying and selling cars is illegal on Sundays in New Jersey. Every car dealership in the state is closed. What a perfect time to cruise some lots, and see what you like and what you don't. (From the outside, at least.) With no sales pressure at all.

5.) Red flag? Run away. Unless you are looking for something very specific, become emotionally invested in a particular car, or have significant credit challenges, don't be afraid to literally get up and walk away from a particular dealership. This is a major purchase decision. If you feel uncomfortable at any point because they're being slimy, shady, or too aggressive, go somewhere else.

Dan Zarrow is Chief Meteorologist for Townsquare Media New Jersey. Follow Dan on Facebook or Twitter for your latest weather updates.

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