As 9:30 neared one Tuesday morning, Wayne Harrison, 53, fired up an old Dell desktop inside his office at Owl Own It Auto Sales and, within a few clicks on a dusty keyboard, logged in to the Manheim Auctions website.
Harrison usually goes to auctions to replenish his stock of used cars. This one is live-streamed, one of the many byproducts of the pandemic. Tuesday’s sale is one of Harrison’s favorites because it’s less crowded.
Harrison is a gold-chained, tracksuit jacket-clad man who alternates spits of Grizzly tobacco into a Styrofoam Coca-Cola cup and sips of a nearby Pepsi. He’s been in the car business for three years now after working in the aerospace industry selling fasteners. He wanted to something more interactive.
The avid road-tripper will sometimes purchase cars at auctions in Denver or San Antonio or Atlanta and book a one-way ticket to pick the car up to drive it back. Three pictures of a 30-day trip to hike nearly 500 miles of the Colorado Trail hang behind him, and the trail’s logo is newly tattooed on his right shoulder.
Bright yellow business cards read “GET YO BROKE ASS DOWN HERE & DRIVE.” A tab on his website is titled “The Struggle Is Real,” and the text under that reads, “And It Isn’t Getting Any Easier!”
The customers walking through the doors of the washed out tan building with a faded blue roof on Camp Bowie West are more often than not low-wage workers, those with barely any money to their name.
Harrison does no credit checks, nor does he do employment checks. He mostly finances cars (though sometimes he takes cash), but the bottom line is he’ll work out a way for customers who want a car to have a car, no matter how much money they have on hand.
He simply asks that you come with your cash and make your payments on time. In the end, it reaps benefits.
Business, though, has not gone as usual in the two years the pandemic has rocked the auto industry, only complicating the process for Harrison and his customers.
The shutdown’s domino effect across all layers of life has intricately woven its way into car sales. Dealer lots everywhere have been wiped over the past two years when people could afford to spend on cars did, some with the help of stimulus checks, and production stoppages led to supply chain issues. It sparked a crash in inventory for both car parts and cars themselves, an expert at Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute said.
When buyers couldn’t get their new car, they went to the used car dealers instead. And those who could afford to pay for them, did.
Prices nationwide on used cars and trucks rose more than 35% in March, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The automotive industry’s pulse is centered around efficiency. That efficiency was tossed away when everything shut down.
“It’s kind of like shutting down an engine,” Nicole Katsikides, research scientist at TTI, said. “You shut down the engine and then you have to, like, start it back up again. It takes time.”
Katsikides said that while the industry is spinning back up, it isn’t supposed to level back out until 2023. Just like with the housing market, those who can compete with prices have the ability to get a car. It leaves those who are disadvantaged at a loss, she said.
Business then, and now
The Owl Own It website houses a photo gallery of graduates who have purchased cars from Harrison, all posing with a gray and white furry owl figurine that sits on a windowsill in his office. There was a point in time someone could come in with $800 and drive off the lot with a plan to pay $75 a week until the car was paid off.
Harrison has seen wholesale prices on cars skyrocket 50% to 80% at auctions. Cars that went for $1,000 to $1,200 three years ago now go for $2,000, not including auction fees and the cost to get it prepped. Harrison now has to ask his customers for a minimum of $1,500 down and $100 to $125 a week. Anything less would be too much of a risk.
By no means was the business easy for Harrison before the pandemic, but the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped. It’ll be nice when cars start feeding into franchise lots, Harrison said, because then that will mean more will come through the system.
Not only has it been difficult to get inventory, but parts to fix the cars he buys have become more expensive too, and labor has been hard to come as the worker shortage squeezes businesses. Harrison has found himself having to slow down and buy fewer cars, though his inventory is around the same as it was before the pandemic hit. Then comes getting customers to make their payments.
Harrison relies heavily on communication, and if the customers give him that, he offers flexibility. Otherwise, the repossession process starts, though that rarely happens, he said.
Though his car sales are limited, Harrison can still cover all his expenses. Business now involves having more in depth conversations with customers so they’re on the same page.
Harrison is trying to get customers in a long-lasting vehicle. If the car can run for two years before hitting a junkyard, it’s considered a win, he said.
At auction, cars go quick
At the Tuesday auction, Harrison had his eyes a gray 2003 Volkwagen Jetta with 168,000. A year ago the car would’ve sold for $875. The past 30 days, it would’ve sold for $1,800. The Manheim site listed retail price as anywhere from $2,600 to $7,325.
The cars go quick, most above wholesale value. A White 2016 Kia Forte at $8,600 wholesale value went for $9,300. A red 2015 Hyundai Accent sold $7,400 after being advertised as $6,875 in wholesale. A beat up black Hyundai with a hood that didn’t look like it could close had no wholesale price, but ended up going for $11,200.
In a split second, Harrison decided to shoot for a silver 2011 Ford Fusion. It started at $1,000. He bid $2,000, but the price climbed to $2,500 and sold to someone else.
The Jetta’s bidding started at $500. At $1,700, Harrison hit the green button to cast his bid. Then it sold to another bidder for $1,900.
“That was an $800 car four months ago,” Harrison said. He still views it that way.
A short time after the Jetta sells familiar faces appear at the dealership.
Barriers to ownership
Family friends BJ Fennell and her daughter, Jazmine Brooks, are here to look for a car. Brooks has $5,000 saved, but is also planning for a vacation.
They eyed a white 2014 Nissan Versa with 105,000 miles and a big ding on the front left corner. It was newer than what Harrison normally sells and looks like a bullet, but didn’t quite drive like one as Brooks bolted out of the lot and down Camp Bowie West for a test drive.
Her biggest barrier to car ownership has been finding something cheap. Payments, she said, are high.
But this car might be the one. The car’s tow hitch was a catch, and so were the fold-down seats to drop off meals: Brooks works as a private chef and needs the space to haul.
Brooks and Harrison went into the tiny office to work out the deal, and Brooks parked herself in the chair closest to a bright orange wall.
The options were endless: Brooks could put down $2,500 and make 30 payments of $165 over the next year to cover the price. All the car would need is an inspection at the shop across the street, Harrison explained. He was sure it would pass. Or, he told her, she could put down $3,000 and make 27 payments of $165.
“It’d be what, a year and, well, it’s basically a year because if you don’t miss any payments, you’ll get your discounts anyway, right?” Harrison said. It pays for itself, he said, with the money Brooks would save in gas.
Then the haggling began.
“Can I lock it in for about a week? End of the week?” Brooks asked.
“I mean, you can give me some money to lock it in,” Harrison said.
Five hundred, he decided, but if she changes her mind or if someone comes in who wants to buy before she decides, she won’t get it back. There’s no one in line to buy it now, he said, but it doesn’t mean someone won’t come in who’s interested.
Brooks decided she was going to shop around. Harrison pushed harder, pulling up the same car at other dealerships for $5,400, $8,500 and $13,000.
“I think my $6,500’s pretty in line,” Harrison said, and Brooks agreed. He would be reluctant to walk out.
“I don’t think you’re going to give it up to anybody else, Wayne,” Brooks said. “I don’t.”
“I don’t know,” he said back. “It depends if somebody comes by and they’ve got money.” Brooks chuckles.
“But,” Harrison said, “If it does sell, I’ll just get another one for you.”
She’d have her dad come out to check it out. She’d get back sometime that week.
They shook on it.