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Not a Whole Lot on the Lot: Car Dealerships in the Ohio Valley Face Inventory Shortage

Photo by Nora Edinger A big number on an odometer may have signaled the need to purchase a new car in the past. Given the COVID-driven shortage of new vehicles for sale and rising prices for used ones, area automotive experts say many drivers are either holding on to their current rides — or are finding new ways to shop.

WHEELING — A survey of a local car dealership, a repair center and an insurance company makes one thing clear: Cars are to 2021 what toilet paper was to 2020. Supplies are scarce. Some prices are up. And, people are holding onto what they’ve got.

Here’s a closer look at how the international car shortage is playing out in the Wheeling area.

EMPTY LOTS, BUSY INTERNET

“It doesn’t look like we have cars, but we’re still selling,” said David Chambers, a sales associate at Jim Robinson Toyota near the Highlands.

Chambers said a COVID-driven supply chain tangle that has drastically reduced new car inventory and caused a spike in the prices of used cars has caused a new kind of market to emerge locally.

“We’re selling them before they touch the ground,” Chambers explained.

He said some customers are shopping inventory online and putting money down before they’ve even seen the car in question. This includes customers from Florida, Alabama and other far-flung states, he noted, adding that he’d sold a Toyota Tundra to a Buffalo, N.Y. man in early October.

Chambers said other customers who want a specific new car not currently to be had in the region are placing orders and getting in a line for a vehicle that may take up to 12 weeks to secure.

“People will call in and give us a general idea (of what they want) and leave a deposit,” he said.

In a related twist, if someone wants to test drive something that isn’t available on the lot, they’re just test driving the most similar car that is available, he added.

“We’re still selling cars and we’re still hitting numbers that we’re supposed to be hitting,” Chambers said. “We’re just doing it in a different way.”

This situational adaptability is stretching into the pre-owned market at times, he added. If customers can’t find a new vehicle, but need one immediately for some reason, he said some are going for used models even though prices are notably higher than normal.

“Every situation is different,” he said of some buyers’ need for speed.

That said, he acknowledged other buyers are putting on the brakes.

“A lot of people are holding onto their vehicles longer because they don’t know what’s out there (now) and what’s going to be around (later),” Chambers said.

Tom Paree, owner of Paree Insurance Centers of Wheeling, Moundsville and St. Clairsville, noted that dealerships are in the same oddly rocking boat. He said that the agency insures the inventory of two regional dealerships and that both have adjusted their coverage in the last 60 days.

“Why pay for $4 million of coverage if you only have $2.5 million on the lot?” Paree explained.

ACCIDENTAL DISCOVERY

In another twist on the car shortage and related insurance issues, a local business that repairs automobiles damaged in accidents said their owners may be in for a surprise.

“You see cars that would have totaled (in the recent past) that aren’t totaling – especially with the trucks,” said Spencer McKim, general manager of Elm Grove Collision Center.

The value of used vehicles is rising so quickly — and is being tracked by insurance companies that are, ultimately, authorizing and paying for the repairs — that even major problems like a damaged frame are being fixed rather than totaling the vehicle for cash, McKim said.

In West Virginia, he noted, a vehicle is generally totaled — by law — if the cost of repairs exceeds 75% of the value of the vehicle. But, with prices moving so high, he said even older cars are winding up being repaired in many cases.

On one hand, this may be just as well, given the market reality, he added.

“Maybe someone can’t afford or even find a car to replace it,” McKim said.

But, the flipside is that the drive to repair rather than total is causing another shortage — this time, of used parts, he said. Because the parts needed to repair damaged vehicles are often out of production, he said collision repair centers rely on a mix of used and after-market parts that are inspected for their integrity and quality.

“Demand is exceeding the actual inventory,” McKim said. And that is both driving up the price of parts and putting insurance companies and their clients in an unusual fix. At the same time repairs are slowing down because of lack of parts, he said rental cars are getting harder to come by given the overall car shortage.

He said insurance companies, which are sometimes footing the bill for 30 or more days of pricey rental vehicles, are starting to negotiate with clients and his center is moving to two-step repairs to help ease the delays.

If a missing part is cosmetic — like a hubcap — the center is getting the vehicle back to the customer with a pledge to finish the repair as soon as the part is available, he said. But, that doesn’t work if what’s missing is a door or something similarly critical.

As of early October, McKim said repair work at his center was already scheduled out until Thanksgiving because of delays — and he knows that more cars will inevitably join the queue. “Life happens. People will have accidents and vehicles will get towed in here to be fixed.”

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