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Guide: How to read vehicle sales listings

Chris Teague

Chris Teague

vehicle sales listings

If you’re an enthusiast, looking at vehicle sales listings is second nature. Many of us have favorite sites and forums to find the coolest, most obscure models, but car shopping is annoying and time-consuming for many people. That can be especially true today, as many dealers struggle to get new vehicle inventory and automakers scramble to keep up. 

Car listing sites have become confusing to sort through, especially if you only occasionally shop. Some vehicles appear to be for sale when they’ve already been purchased, while others are listed for an amount other than what they’re actually selling for. We know it’s tough to shop, so we’ve put together a short overview of how to read sales listings and determine where to spend your time and, ultimately, your money. 

Phantom vehicle listings

Online listings have made shopping for a car easier than ever, but the way some automakers and dealers list vehicles may lead you to waste time looking in the wrong places. Desirable new models like the Ford Bronco, Volkswagen Golf R, and Toyota GR Corolla show up on search sites and dealer listings all the time. Search Autotrader for one of those vehicles now, and you’ll find dozens of listings that make them appear plentiful.

That isn’t always the case. When a customer places an order or reservation, some automaker-dealer websites and inventory listings show them as available or in-transit. This can make it seem like you’ll have a chance when the vehicle is already spoken for. In other cases, the car is there but is being sold for a higher price than listed. Emailing, calling, and answering dealers is time-consuming and will lead to having an inbox full of emails and voicemails.

There’s no surefire way to tell if a vehicle is available or already sold when viewing a listing online, but there are a few tricks to help you get around the issue. Many sales listings for new vehicles use stock images from the manufacturer instead of a photo taken by a human. These listings are less likely to be available. If you’re shopping for a new model, look for real vehicle images because they suggest it’s physically on the lot and available for purchase.

Another way to get around the listing mystery is to filter your search for used vehicles and sort by the newest model year. You’ll almost always pay more for a used current model year vehicle than one you ordered, but at least you can have it right away. 

The best way to avoid wasting time searching sales listings is to order the vehicle you want, if possible. Many manufacturers allow and even encourage custom orders, so you’ll be able to get what you want with little patience. This isn’t always the case, as some automakers rely on dealers to handle reservations and orders, which can lead to markups.

Dealer markups

Nobody likes markups, and they hurt almost every party involved, whether on a public relations or financial level. That said, it’s unlikely the practice will stop any time soon, especially as automakers release desirable new electric models with limited production capabilities. Dealers know demand outstrips supply for many automakers, so there’s little incentive to cut deals when everyone wants a particular model. 

You can avoid paying markups by shopping around and looking outside your home area. Ordering the vehicle you want is ultimately the best way, but again, your ability to order may be left up to the dealer. 

vehicle sales listings

Frequently Asked Questions

Are used cars easier to shop for?

Used cars are generally less confusing when it comes to sales listings, but prices are all over the map. New Consumer Price Index data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows used car prices falling, so there are promising signs. 

Is it still a good time to sell a car?

It’s still possible to get a reasonable price for your used car, especially if it’s a newer, more desirable model. That said, you may need to shop around for more than one dealer or car-buying service to get the best price. If you own your vehicle outright, selling to an individual is the best way to get a fair deal

Should I wait to buy a car?

The best time to buy a car is when you need a car, but waiting is a good idea for many. According to the BLS data, new car prices are elevated and increasing year-over-year, so there aren’t many deals to be had. 

Do I have to pay a markup?

Since the dealer determines markups, they can be negotiable. That said, markups are usually applied to hard-to-find models, so it might be a hard negotiation. You can also push hard to buy without a markup, but the dealer has no obligation to cut you a deal. 

Wholesale used car prices have fallen; why haven’t retail prices followed?

Wholesale prices, or the price dealers pay to obtain used inventory, have fallen over the last year. Even so, dealers are still sitting on tons of inventory they bought when prices were higher, which could mean slower price declines while they sell higher-priced vehicles. 

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