If you want to know why it's hard to buy a car these days, just take a look at all the vacant spots at your local dealerships.
When Sarah Chismar, a Toyota salesperson, surveyed the empty pavement at her dealership in Missouri this week, she sighed.
"In a normal month, we probably will have, like, 120 new cars," she said. "Right now, I think we have maybe 10."
And she's happy to have 10. "Last week we had five," she added.
Her dealership has rearranged its vehicles to try to make the lot look fuller. But you can't really hide the difference between 10 and 120. The used-car selection is two-thirds smaller than usual too.
Automakers are struggling with persistent shortages of essential parts — especially semiconductors, which are embedded throughout vehicles these days and whose production hasn't kept up with the roaring demand for vehicles.
The result is a severe car shortage: Auto-sales site CarGurus reports inventory levels are down 64% over last year. And that has driven average prices up by thousands of dollars in just a few months.
But it is still possible to buy a vehicle — as long as you're willing to make some compromises.
Be flexible: Consider other makes, models or sizes
The car market in 2021 is not kind. Take Sonja Simpson, a mom of three in Ohio.
She had put nearly 200,000 miles on her old Ford Flex. She was ready for a new vehicle and had her heart set on a Kia Telluride, the popular, well-reviewed midsize SUV.
After two months of searching, she realized that would not be happening. Some Kia dealerships didn't have even a single Telluride on the lot.
"There were lots where we go and we tell them what we were looking for, and they're, like, laughing at us," she said. "Like, 'Yeah, you're going to get that ... no.' "
Simpson finally settled for a Hyundai Palisade instead. She still had to pay to put her name on a waitlist and wait weeks longer to actually get the vehicle — which was mind-boggling to her.
"I don't feel like I should have to do that for a car, you know?" she says. "And I'm not talking about some handmade, foreign, German-engineered something — this is the family car!"
But that's what it took.
And experts say that looking beyond your preferred make and model — or even at vehicle classes you weren't considering, like a sedan instead of an SUV — can expand your likelihood of driving a vehicle home, even if it's not the car of your dreams.
If you have a trade-in, use it to your advantage
With so few vehicles for sale, it's proving tough to haggle over the price of a vehicle you're trying to purchase — sellers know that if you won't pay up, someone else will.
But if you have a vehicle you're trading in, you can use the tight market to your advantage and shop around for the best offer. Instead of haggling down on your purchase price, haggle up on your trade-in value, and you may be able to offset the sticker shock.
Place an order and wait ... and wait
Ramon and Claire Castillo, who live near Tampa, Fla., were looking for a new Toyota RAV4. And they specifically wanted a hybrid — Ramon was driving a hybrid Ford Fusion and loved it.
"It's amazing to see 41 miles to the gallon on the trip computer," he says, "just fantastic."
But after months of looking at what dealers had available, all over the state of Florida, they hadn't found a single hybrid RAV4 on a lot. So, for the first time in their decades of car-buying, they worked with a dealer to place an order direct with Toyota.
Ordering a new vehicle from the factory — with exactly the color and features you want and a weekslong wait for delivery — is commonplace in Europe. But like many Americans, the Castillos had never even considered it.
It took a little over two months for their RAV4 to arrive. But Ramon Castillo says it was a positive experience. "I would be comfortable doing this again," he said.
Ordering a vehicle is one way to cope with the current lack of options on dealer lots, and it could also have big implications for the future of U.S. auto sales.
Ford's CEO recently said he's "committed" to switching toward an order-based system — and electric-automakers like Tesla and Rivian have built their business models around vehicle orders, with no dealerships involved at all.
Just pay up, if you can afford to
Of course, if you're willing to pay significantly more than a car would typically cost, car shopping right now can be pretty easy.
"We are marking some of our vehicles up $5,000 over MSRP," Chismar, the Toyota salesperson, says, referring to the manufacturer's suggested retail price. "That's a hard pill to swallow. And people are doing it. It shocks me all the time."
"Pay more" is not exactly a top-secret pro shopping tip, we know.
But some shoppers are flush with cash, thanks to foregone vacations, saved relief checks or a surprisingly valuable trade-in.
Others are just at the end of their rope — or as one exasperated shopper told NPR, "I was willing to spend the extra money because I was tired of shopping for cars."
Can you travel? Look farther afield
Some shoppers are trawling the internet and calling up dealerships far from home to expand their options — ultimately driving hours or even hopping on a plane to buy the vehicle they want without forking over thousands extra.
Ian Scott-Fleming, who lives in Lubbock, Texas, was determined to get a plug-in hybrid, a vehicle that can run on pure electric power in addition to gasoline. But Texas dealerships said that not only did they have none in stock, but they wouldn't even be able to get one for him. So he started calling dealerships that were farther and farther away.
Finally, he said with a chuckle, "I found a dealer in Massachusetts that actually believed me when I said that I would be willing to drive 2,000 miles to go to get a new car."
That kind of road trip is unusual, for sure. But many shoppers are driving an hour or more to find a (relative) bargain or a vehicle in short supply.
Finally, ask yourself: Do you have to buy a car now?
That's a question lots of frustrated car shoppers are asking themselves.
Pedro Moncada and Stefanie Franc live in Salt Lake City with their 21-month-old son. They are hoping to have a second child, so this spring, they went looking for a bigger vehicle that could fit two car seats, unlike their current compact sedans.
They'd set what had seemed like a reasonable budget for a late-model used crossover. But they were shocked by the prices they were seeing — virtually as much as for a brand-new vehicle.
After months of searching, they found exactly one vehicle they liked in their price range.
But then, Franc says, "as we were driving around, we noticed it kind of smelled strange and there was, like, mud in the crevices." It was a branded title — a vehicle that had been totaled in a hurricane, then repaired, and would be sold without a warranty.
Their only viable option was off the table.
"And that's when we kind of realized, maybe we should put a little timeout in the planning to expand our family for now," Moncada says.
Most people aren't putting off pregnancies because of the terrible car market. But plenty of people are putting off car purchases: A survey from Kelley Blue Book found that nearly 50% of vehicle shoppers are delaying their purchases, prepared to wait for up to a year and hoping for the market to get back to something like normal.
Of course, nobody knows how long that will take. Lots will not stay this empty forever; the problem is, no one can predict exactly when things will get better either.
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.