By Bob Dorn
Not so long ago, a car was regarded as the worst investment a person could make. It would lose about a third of its value as soon as you’d bought it. It was out of the question as an investment; you could only hope the manufacturer’s warranty would hold up for the first three years or 15,000 miles, whichever came first, and that after that warranty period expired you might be able to sell it on the used market for half what you paid for it.
Either that or you clung to it as it threw its bearings or burned its valves, driving you to despair when you weren’t driving it.
Worse were boats. I remember that definition: a boat is a hole in the water you throw money into.
Nope, for an investment you instead counted on buying your North Park craftsman, or little Spanish style east of 805 so you could watch it climb up two or five or 10 percent a year, depending on the given moment in housing history here and how many people – folks pretty much like you and me — were moving south from LA or west from who knows where at those given moments.
It’s all different now. It looks like you can’t get there from here anymore . A bomb began ticking after the millennium. It’s still blowing up in our faces.
Let me take you away from the misery of everyday losses and other austere disappointments to an island in the Mediterranean. I’m walking into the village just behind the crest of a hill that separates it from my part of the campo – a stony backside of pines and a few oaks perched on runoff landscape, a wasteland really, only good for letting the sheep run through it, sheep that can eat almost anything that comes up after a rain, and I’m alongside my 84-year-old friend Matteo, himself a pastor. We’re in Mallorca, and you pronounce that word, pah-STOR, with that upward bounce at the end, like a lamb leaping for the first time, exuberant.
It’s miserably hot, the kind of heat that dries your eyes and throat and makes the air swim in front of you. Luckily, we don’t have far to walk.
The crest of the hill is only at most a quarter of a mile away and from there it’s all downhill to Maria’s table for lunch, chopped tomatoes and onions from the garden, maybe three eggs fried in a bath of olive oil, some Mallorcan pizza (coca, they call it, and it’s the same distance almonds are from peanuts; it’s that good) and some cheap Spanish wine from the mainland, more affordable than the already boutiqued local varietals.
Suddenly Matteo stops to pick up a length of string perhaps five or six inches long. I’ve seen him do this, or something like it, before; it might be a screw or a hook, anything metal, for sure. But a piece of string?
This time I can’t resist asking him why he did this, why he picked it up, even though I wonder if I might be fucking up our uncanny appreciation of each other by highlighting a cultural difference between us. But there’s something to be learned here. I can dimly perceive it.
“Roberto,” he says, in his carefully elaborated Spanish (it’s not his language, but he makes his thoughts available to me through it), “I may need it on the way into the village.”
A string can be a thing of value. That’s what I took away from that moment. A string. A mere piece of string.
That’s what we are going to have to learn again.
I’m not suggesting something so howdy doody utopian-capitalist as the notion that you can corner the market on used string and finally have enough money to buy a house in San Diego. That would take a lot of string.
And you probably don’t need to hear that most of the people who can buy houses here are hedge funds and private capital firms buying up foreclosed homes and renting them out to us. Corporations, after all, are people, too.
Or they’re foreign investors, whose rights the Supreme Court might consider equal to those of San Diego citizens. Two months ago the manager of a really nice apartment on Park Boulevard in Hillcrest-by-the-Zoo told me a family from Singapore had just bought the whole complex. They’re people too. They’ll probably raise the rents like any American corporation will.
What I am suggesting, of course, is that things that help little people like us survive are growing more expensive, while the lavish and luxurious and wasteful stuff isn’t going up so much. While the suits and Dolce Gabbanas are prospering, the rest of us are running on fumes.
So, now, back to the car.
Did you know that you can buy a 2004 Mercedes Benz C230 coupe for $9,000 today? Brand new, it would have cost you about $30,000. But, the lowly 2006 Scion xB you bought new for around $15,000 costs today about the same on the used car lots as that Benz, between $7500 and $9,000. The Scion lost less than half its value; the Benz, two-thirds of it. Jaguar S-types in 2004 ran new anywhere from $43,000 to $62,000 and are being advertised in Auto Trader for the same price as that Scion xB.
The same startling change in values prevails between other economy cars on the used market and their opposite avatars of privilege, the Benz’s, Jaguars, and BMWs. A Civic from the years 2005 or 2007 cost new about $9,000 to $13,000 depending on what engine and trim package you bought. That same car today is listed on the lots for anywhere between $8,000 and $5,250. It lost less than half its value. Toyota Corollas of the same vintage sold new for $14,000 to $18,000 and now are costing anywhere from $10,000 down to $6,000. And those prices are for cars with an average of around 115,000 miles on their odometers.
The boom in small, used, fuel-efficient cars is fairly recent. Three years ago my wife and I bought a Civic for $2600, the same car that today costs two to three times that amount. I spent the last four months looking for cars and found, if anything, prices on the famous four Japanese, and even old Saturn coupes, mine having been wrecked by a road rager on probably just one of his bad days, seemed to rise in price as I read the ads.
I finally wound up buying a 1996 Volvo 850 sedan — described in Wikipedia as an “executive compact” — for just $4300 dollars, a deal on a luxury car which in its 17 years of life has traveled just 75,000 miles.
So what if it does only get 19 miles per gallon in city driving. It cost less than a Honda Civic, and it weighs half a ton more.
In a pinch, (I know, I know, it’s coming) I could part out this Volvo for nearly half its purchase price just for selling the metal in it.
Here’s to you Matteo. I wish I could give you a ride into the village in it.
We might miss a few pieces of string, though.