2004 TOYOTA PRIUS
Toyota via AP
Demand for hybrid cars, like the 2004 Toyota Prius shown in this file photo, is so high in Texas that consumers are paying above retail value for used cars off of eBay.
By Reporter
NBC News
updated 4/14/2005 2:36:45 PM ET 2005-04-14T18:36:45

At a time of record gas prices, people are coming up with new ways to save money.

Some form carpools. Some cut down on vacations.

But, with the fear that there may be no end in sight, many Texans have decided to think long-term and invest in hybrid gas/electric powered cars that cut down on fuel consumption.

Texans are flocking to purchase the most popular hybrid model, the Toyota Prius.

And because demand is high and waiting lists are long, many are buying used vehicles — at a higher price than a new one would have cost them.

Selling 100 percent of inventory
Tobias Fulton, General Sales Manager of Sterling McCall Toyota in Houston sells 100 percent of his Prius’ every month and says that the minimum wait time for a new one is four to six months. “This is the only model that sells like that. None of the others even come close,” Fulton said.

The consumers who are buying the hybrid models can usually afford any car they want. “Most have excellent credit, lots of equity. People trade in their high-end cars for these hybrids,” Fulton explained. “They are doing it because the cars are gas efficient and environmentally friendly.”

Ray Hair of Denton, Texas, certainly felt the need to invest — and quickly. He bought a used Prius on eBay for $1,000 over the sticker price of a new one.

“The Prius sticker said 60 miles a gallon, and that’s going to reduce our weekly cost of gas to about $21 a week. That’ll save us about $2,200 a year,” Hair told NBC affiliate KXAS.

Hair searched the eBay web site for a used Toyota Prius and at the time of his search found 26 up for auction. His came from Tennessee.

“My wife said ‘Click it! Click it!’ and I said ‘Don’t you want me to call the dealer first and find out if its ever been wrecked?’ She said ‘No. Click it now and ask questions later.’”

A new Toyota Prius ranges in price from approximately $20,975 to a little over $26,000, depending on the options chosen. Currently on eBay the asking price of a used Prius ranges from about $5,000 to $30,000, with many of the auctions still pending and prices likely rising.

Mike Hulsey of Fred Haas Toyota World in Spring, Texas, said he can understand how the prices can get driven up on eBay.

"I can certainly see how that happens — people don't want to wait for so long at those dealerships for new ones,” Hulsey said. “I've never gotten over the sticker price on eBay but I have sold used [Prius’] there for as much as $24,000. Most of the time I can't hold onto the Prius long enough to get them on eBay. But I've had people pay as much as $10,000 over sticker price to have it from the lot."

Likewise, Lance Williams of Northside Lexus in Houston agreed. "We usually deal in Lexus but we actually had a 2004 [Prius] on the lot that sold for just about the price of a new one. The demand is extremely high — its unbelievable."

Experts are not surprised by the wave of people thinking about their long-term savings when it comes to gasoline.

The current monthly average cost for a gallon of unleaded, self-service gas in Texas is $2.17 — a new monthly all-time record price.

According to AAA Texas, that figure is 52 cents higher than last year. While AAA Texas spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says that there will always be slight increases and decreases when it comes to gas prices, she warned, “We’re probably going to be in this ballpark for a while.”

Wave of the future
“As we moved closer to Memorial Day last year prices increased every day. It seems this year is the same,” Rougeau said.

Memorial Day is considered the kick-off to the summer driving season. “The only difference this year is that crude oil prices are much higher than last year. Now that we’re well over $50 a barrel, we are breaking records just about every day.”

AAA Texas recommends that consumers conserve fuel any way they can, which for many means buying hybrid cars.

But Rougeau also suggested that it may be soon to tell what kind of impact gas prices will have on the market.

“So far gas prices have had a mostly psychological effect on consumers. If you ask most people if they would rather buy a fuel-efficient car or stick with their SUV — most people we ask are sticking with their SUV. It is a ‘wait-and-see’ game. If prices continue this way long-term, we will likely see more dramatic changes in people’s driving and buying habits.”

That psychological effect seems to be working on Texans. Many of the Prius’ currently posted on eBay are posted by Texas car dealerships and the appetite for all of the hybrid models (Lexus, Honda, Chevy, all make them) continues to increase.

In fact, Toyota’s next hybrid model, the Highlander SUV, is already in demand.

Fulton, the Toyota sales manager in Houston, is amazed at the popularity of these vehicles. “I already have a waiting list of about 10-15 people for the Highlander. I don’t even have a ship date for the car yet. People hear that it exists and are willing to pay for it and wait.”

Sandra Rapp is an Assignment Editor on the NBC News Assignment Desk.

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