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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.

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Aside from trade-ins, dealerships buy used cars from rental companies, which also held on to their inventories longer during the recession, and auctions. In 2007, auctions often drew about 2,000 cars and 200 buyers, but now they attract the same number of buyers bidding for about 500 cars.

Smaller used-car dealers are getting outbid at those auctions by the larger players, Gad said. And often the offerings at the auctions are high-mileage vehicles being sold by rental companies.

"We're going to auctions Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday," Gad said. "Sometimes you go and get nothing. You spend money, time, gas and you get nothing."

The "cash-for-clunkers" program, which gave drivers rebates for trading in old vehicles for fuel-efficient models, took many used cars off the road and benefited large dealerships, Gad said.

"When the government did 'cash for clunkers,' it crushed the market," Gad said. "They wanted to help the big factories, and they don't help the small dealers like us."

Dealers also are competing with the type of frenzied activity that slammed Cortese, the Civic owner, when he posted on Craigslist.

"A lot of people are buying cars from Craigslist or junkyards, and just re-selling them," Gad said. "There's a lot of people, they work in the car business with no license."

This all adds up to a market where buyers and sellers alike should do their research before shaking hands on a deal.

In the case of crossover vehicles, which are essentially a cross between an SUV and a hatchback or station wagon, new versions such as the Volkswagen Touareg and Mazda CX-7 are less expensive on average than their 1-year-old counterparts, according to data from Edmunds.com. New and used versions of the Honda Civic and Nissan 370Z, a coupe, also are close in price.

"If you're looking for a vehicle that's like new, with fewer than 20,000 miles and only 1 or 2 years old, then in a lot of cases you might just want to consider buying a new car, because you might be able to get away with paying only $10 or $20 more per month," Gutierrez said.

"If you're already stretching your budget to get that 1- or 2-year-old vehicle, you might have to look a little older. . . . Ultimately you're looking at a little more wear and tear, and a little less life on the warranty, but that's the only way you're going to get savings."

As for Cortese, he thought about re-posting his Civic for a higher price, but in the end decided to go with the first buyer who handed him cash. Then he turned around and bought a 1999 Audi A4 on Craigslist for $3,800, a lower price than his Civic.

"I got tired of the two-door, and I wanted something (with) more luxury," Cortese said. "I traded my Civic for it."

Sellers also should check local listings to see what similar cars are selling for in their area.

"There's no better time than the present to go out there and try to get the best value for your car," Gutierrez said.

You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or cathy.bussewitz@pressdemocrat.com.

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