Prices soaring for used cars in Sonoma County

There's never been a better time to sell a used car, according to auto industry analysts. But buying a used car to replace that vehicle may be difficult.

Used cars are selling at record high prices, while demand for fuel-efficient models is growing. And local auto dealers are having a hard time keeping their showrooms stocked with pre-owned vehicles.

"I've been in this business for 30 years, and this is the weirdest I've ever seen it," said David Bowen, owner of B&L Auto Sales in Santa Rosa.

"It's a real phenomenon for us," said Henry Hansel, president of Hansel Auto Group.

According to a report this month by Kelley Blue Book, the value of used cars has grown by 20 percent since January, with fuel-efficient cars leading the uphill climb.

A used Toyota Prius, for example, increased in value nearly $3,800 since Jan. 1, according to the Kelley Blue Book report.

Hansel said some used Japanese cars manufactured in the last two years, especially the Honda Civic and Toyota Camry, have a current market value that's greater than the original sale price.

"If they ever wanted to turn their car into cash, there's probably never been a better time," Hansel said. "If they have a car to trade in, we're paying more for it."

Industry analysts attribute the sustained price increase to a number of factors. The recession has led many drivers to hold onto their cars longer, so there have been fewer trade-ins.

The leasing market slowed down in recent years, so there are fewer of those pre-owned vehicles returning to dealerships, said Joe Spina, senior analyst with Edmunds.com. And rental car companies also are holding on to vehicles longer, rather than returning them to dealerships for sale, Spina said.

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