When Tony Cortese decided to sell his 10-year-old Honda Civic, he posted it on Craigslist a little before midnight on a Tuesday. The very next morning, he awoke to nearly a dozen text messages and missed calls, and the phone didn't stop ringing.
He had asked $4,000 for the two-door coupe that had about 105,000 miles on its engine. Throughout the day, Cortese fielded about 25 calls, with some frenzied buyers offering to pay hundreds of dollars more than his asking price.
His used car, Cortese discovered, was a hot commodity.
"I was amazed. I didn't think it would sell that fast," said Cortese, 21, a construction worker from Windsor. "I didn't even wash the car. I just put it on Craigslist."
The voracious appetite for used cars has been echoed around Sonoma County and beyond, as the demand, especially for fuel-efficient models, outpaced supply during the recession. And there simply aren't enough to go around.
Sales of new cars tumbled more than 50 percent in California during the recession, from 2.2 million in 2005 to 1 million in 2009, according to the California New Car Dealers Association, and many owners held on to their cars longer, leaving a smaller pool of used cars.
Sales of new cars since have increased, rising 13 percent in 2010 and 10 percent in 2011. But the shortage of used cars has driven up their prices to the point where some new cars are selling for the same price as their year-old counterparts.
"If you're looking for a $4,000 car, it's very hard to find," said Tarek Gad, owner of Auto Champs, a used-car dealership on Santa Rosa Avenue. "If you have it, it has to be high miles."
Overall, the value of used cars that are 1 to 3 years old increased 31 percent since 2009, according to Kelley Blue Book. Compact cars led the way, gaining 37 percent in value.
"We are seeing a lot of strength in used-car values, and this is really something that has been ongoing since 2008 to 2009," said Alec Gutierrez, senior market analyst at Kelley Blue Book. "A lot of that can be derived from the fact that there have been so many fewer new-car sales."
The situation has local dealerships scrambling to get used cars on their lots.
"It's not really that complicated of an equation," said Jim Bone, co-owner of Nissan of Santa Rosa. "We were going backward on the amount of cars on the highways, and that's what's creating pent-up demand."
Bone's dealership has been sending mailers, 5,000 at a time, to drivers of such imports as Nissan, Toyota and Honda, inviting them to come in and sell their cars. They get the names from the dealership's own database and from such companies as Experian that sell lists of drivers and the cars they own, he said.
"The imports tend to be a hotter commodity," Bone said.
One customer brought her car in to Hansel Auto Group and discovered it was worth $6,000 more than what she owed on the vehicle, said John Smith, a spokesman for the dealer.
"In many cases, the customers will come in and think a car is worth one amount, and they find out it's worth a whole heck of a lot more because the market is so hot," Smith said.