Yesterday, I wrote about a man who snagged a mint 4,400 mile-on-the-clock Jeep Cherokee from a 70-year-old woman for dirt cheap, only to try to flip it for $15,000. Some readers voiced their disdain, saying the man took advantage of the woman’s ignorance. So that brings us to a question: when is it wrong to flip cars for a profit?
This sort of question also came up when I highlighted the people buying up cheating Volkswagen TDIs with aims to later sell them to Volkswagen for major profits, so it’s about time we discuss it.
Whether both parties understand a car’s value is often at the crux of the “Is it moral to flip?” question, but the seller’s understanding the vehicle’s condition is also a factor. After all, can you really understand a car’s value if you don’t truly understand its condition?
A good example is that Jeep Cherokee a reader named Matt offered to give me for free a few weeks back, because he thought the engine was blown. He knew full well what Jeep Cherokees were going for on the market (about $1,500 for a running junker, basically $0 for one with a blown engine)—that part wasn’t the issue. The issue was that Matt couldn’t put a proper valuation on his Jeep, because he didn’t know that it was actually in decent condition. I, however, did.
If I had chosen to remain mum about the fact that his Jeep could be brought to decent shape by simply tightening four flex plate bolts, and simply taken the free Jeep, I could have flipped it for a $1,500 profit. But would that have been OK?
As you know, I personally couldn’t do it. Just knowing that the only reason Matt was selling me the car for free was his lack of a tiny bit of information is what would have bothered me.
Of course, I’m not saying everyone who’s about to buy a broken car for dirt cheap has to diagnose and tell the seller exactly what is wrong, and how easy it is to fix. But in my case, taking the Jeep—which could be fixed with so little effort—just didn’t feel right. Especially since Matt was a college student.
So to me, I think the answer to “Is it OK to flip a car?” depends on one thing: am I aware that the owner is missing a small parcel of information about the car’s condition or market value? If the answer is yes, and the sale price is substantially lower because of that ignorance, I would not feel right about flipping the car.
I should clarify that I’m not talking about what makes flipping a car legal, I’m talking about what makes it morally right—a much more nuanced and subjective topic. I know lots of folks will disagree with me, and say it’s the seller’s job to understand the car’s market value and condition, and that taking advantage of that ignorance is perfectly OK.
Others might bring up the seller’s mental capacity as a critical part of this discussion: is the seller old, or in any way limited in their ability to decide upon a fair price? If they’re selling a $50,000 car for $5,000, can you assume there’s something a bit wrong upstairs? And still others might think that the morality of the flip depends on the dollar figure (i.e. how much the flipper stands to gain).
But for me, just taking advantage of ignorance makes me feel a sinking feeling inside.
Update: This post has been edited after publication to remove a hypothetical example involving an actual car sale.