The Cheapest and Most Affordable Cities for Used Car Shopping
February 07, 2023
Used car buyers face a rocky road ahead — but the steepest incline is now behind them.
The price of a used car has risen 49% in the U.S. since June 2020. However, that rise is now slowing and even beginning to fall in some respects: “At the online marketplace Cars.com, the median price for a used vehicle in October decreased more than 3% from a year earlier to $23,499,” reports the Financial Times.
The supply chain crisis (particularly re: semiconductor chips) is easing while interest rates are rising. That means there are more cars on the market, but buyers are less keen to take a loan. Supply and demand is gradually shifting to favor buyers, but more than ever, buyers need a good deal.
The landscape isn’t even from one end of the country to the other. So, The Clunker Junker decided to compare prices between cities and states to find the places that are getting the best deals: the cheapest used cars and the best affordability relative to local incomes.
What We Did
The Clunker Junker analyzed thousands of Cars.com listings for America’s most popular car models across every state and the cities with the most ads. We averaged the prices in each area and ranked the cities and states to find the cheapest markets. And then, we did the same for the most affordable markets by comparing average prices against local average wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- Alaska is the most expensive state for used cars, with prices 10.69% higher than the national average.
- Florida is the cheapest state for used cars, which cost 4.45% less than elsewhere in the States.
- Jersey City is the cheapest city for used cars ( -9.08% against the national average) and all the most affordable compared to local incomes.
- In El Paso , TX, the average car costs 79.8% of the average annual salary — the worst affordability for any city in the U.S.
Alaska, Hawaii and New Mexico Have America’s Priciest Used Cars
Lots of factors affect the price of used cars from one state to the next. Local demand, supply, transportation issues and state taxes are among the issues that dealers consider when pricing up new stock on their lots. It’s a complex issue — for example, buyers could save hundreds of dollars just by crossing the state from New Mexico to Arizona to buy a car, despite Arizona’s higher sales tax — but the price differences speak for themselves, as revealed in this map.
Buyers in the two most expensive states don’t have the same easy get-out as those in New Mexico: the non-contiguous states of Alaska (+10.69% above national average) and Hawaii (+7.76%) have the highest prices for used cars, with freight costs having a lot to answer for. Meanwhile, Michigan and
Florida are effectively tied for the cheapest car with an average cost -4.45% below the national rate (Florida is cheapest overall by a few decimal points). However, when you take local wages into consideration, affordability in Alaska and Michigan is nearly neck-and-neck — as our next map shows.
Alaska may be the most expensive state, but there are 34 states where it takes a bigger chunk of your salary to get a used car. The worst is Mississippi, where prices are already +5.88% higher than average. Mississippi has a high proportion of low-wage workers and no local minimum wage, leading to a situation where the average local would need to spend more than three-quarters (75.7%) of their annual salary to buy the average used car.
Two Texas Cities Exceed Local and National Used Car Prices
Cities are strange animals, and some of the most expensive ones in which to buy a used car are not in the most expensive states. For example, Texas prices are just +1.12% over the national average at state level, but the Texas cities of El Paso (+8.85%) and Lubbock (+6.28%) are way above; in the case of isolated El Paso, at least, the distance for freight and for competitive pricing is to blame. Here are the ten most and least expensive cities in the U.S. for used cars.
Florida cities dominate among the cheapest used car markets, reflecting the state’s competitive auto pricing as a whole. Likewise, the New Jersey and Michigan cities on the table represent the general trend of their respective state as a whole. The outlier here is Santa Ana (-4.28%), which is the seventh-cheapest city in America — despite its state of California having slightly higher than average (+1.00%) prices as a whole. Santa Ana is also among the most affordable cities, as the next chart shows.
Local wages make a significant difference to most and least affordable cities for used cars. Four cities from Washington and Colorado join the top ten most affordable, pushing out cities from Florida and Michigan, which were among the ten cheapest. At the other end of the table, Anchorage in Alaska drops from being the most expensive city to not being in the least-affordable top ten at all, the city’s high prices cushioned by high local incomes.
Pre-Loved and Post-Fossil Fuel
The past three years aside, used car sales tend to follow a relatively undramatic pattern. But the pricing and availability issues that have arisen — largely as a knock-on effect from the new cars market — have drawn attention to the trends of the industry. Regional variations in price can be utilized by buyers even as the internet erodes geographic boundaries in other sectors. Getting a used car delivered from the other side of the country is not as economically viable as transporting small goods and digital assets. Still, enhanced post-lockdown web and data tools make it easier for buyers to track a bargain they might have missed trailing from showroom to neighborhood showroom. You can use our interactive table below to help find the cities and states near you that are worth a search.
With every new incentive to switch to electric cars, a little shock runs through the industry. Used buyers may think about swallowing the initial outlay for a new electric vehicle (EV) that’s cheaper to run and kinder to their environment. And older second-hand cars may seem an increasing liability as the tech and the culture shifts. Finally, as second-hand EVs flood the market, a new geographic variable enters the frame: are you in a city or state where charging your car is quick and affordable? Luckily, The Clunker Junker already made a guide for that.
METHODOLOGY & SOURCES
To compare the prices of used cars by state and city, we pulled the prices of 14 of the most popular car models (namely, BMW X5, Buick Encore, Chevrolet Equinox, Dodge Durango, Ford Escape, Ford F-150, Honda Civic, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Nissan Altima, Porsche Cayenne, Tesla Model 3, Toyota Camry, Toyota Tacoma) in every state and the top 200 most populous cities from Cars.com. We pulled 183,640 listings in total.
To account for differences in things like car age, mileage, etc., we ran a log-linear regression model that normalized a list of parameters:
- Normalized fuel types — grouped all the variations to the shortlist: ‘Gasoline,’ ‘Flex,’ ‘Electric,’ ‘Diesel,’ ‘Not specified,’ then dummy-encoded them;
- Normalized drivetrains — grouped all the variations to the shortlist: ‘All-wheel Drive,’ ‘Front-wheel Drive,’ ‘Rear-wheel Drive,’ ‘Not specified,’ then dummy-encoded them;
- Normalized transmission types — grouped all the variations to the shortlist: ‘Automatic,’ ‘CVT,’ ‘Manual,’ ‘Not specified,’ then dummy-encoded them;
- Encoded the trim levels assigning a value from 0 to 1, where 0 is the base trim level for the given model and its generation, and 1 is the most expensive one;
- Encoded the generations of the car models assigning 0 to the current generation, -1 to the penultimate generation, etc.; facelift changes were given 0.5 units shift;
- Dummy encoded the car models;
- Filled in missed values in the features ‘Accidents or Damage,’ ‘One Owner Vehicle,’ ‘Open Recall’ and ‘Personal Use Only’ with average values;
- Obtained the city and state from the zip code;
- Car features parameters (‘Brake Assist,’ ‘Memory Seat,’ etc.) were also included in the dataset as binary ones;
- We dropped the listings with mileage less or equal to 50 miles considering it is either mistaken or it is not a used car;
- We dropped the listings with a price lower than $2 as mistaken;
- We applied standard scaling to the mileage and scaled all other data features into the range [0,1].
We created the log-linear regression models for every state and the top 200 most populous U.S. cities. We added the parameter that represents if the listing is from the given state/city and also added a constant. At the state level, all results were kept. At the city level, we dropped the cities with less than 100 listings and the ones whose regression coefficient was not statistically significant at the 90% confidence level. Based on the regression coefficients, we calculated the percentage of difference in the prices in the location compared to the national average.
For the affordability categories, we used the annual mean wage data for U.S. metropolitan areas and U.S. states from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We assumed that the average wage of the city is equal to the value of the metropolitan area which comprises the city. The affordability was calculated as the % of an annual local wage required to afford the average used car in that state/city.
The data was collected in October 2022.