(USA TODAY) -- With the economy on the upsurge, it's a tough time to be a repo man.
More car buyers are keeping up with their auto payments or coming up with the cash if the repo man -- or woman -- shows up in their driveway. As a result, fewer vehicles are being hooked up for a tow to the impound yard.
An estimated 1.3 million vehicles were repossessed last year, the lowest tally in 12 years, says Manheim Consulting. That's down 31.8% from the recessionary peak year of 2009.
In the fourth quarter of 2012, repossessions were down 27.6% compared with the same period the year before, says Experian Automotive.
"I've been in the business for 20 years, and it's never been like this," says Les McCook, executive director of the American Recovery Association, a trade group for auto repo industry. "We're at the low point."
Repossessions have fallen because fewer cars were sold during the recession. In addition, many people lost jobs and weren't eligible for financing. With fewer cars being financed, there were fewer to repossess, says Tom Webb, chief economist for Manheim.
He also notes that lenders dramatically pulled back on subprime lending -- the making of loans to buyers with shaky credit histories who are most likely to default. However, subprime loans are creeping back into the market, Webb says. He's predicting that vehicle repossessions could rise 26.9% through 2015 as riskier buyers default on their loans.
So far this year, auto buyers have kept up their good habits when it comes to paying off their auto loans. Experian says the number of borrowers who were more than 30 days late on a car loan fell 2.9% in the fourth quarter, compared with the year-earlier period. Those more than 60 days late fell 3.5%.
That's good news for lenders but not so much for the mostly mom-and-pop shops that rely on repo work. Some of the more talented repo professionals are leaving the business and finding other lines of work. "You can drive a truck in the oilfields today for three times what we pay," McCook says.
In Canton, Ohio, the president of Central Ohio Recovery and Auto Auction, Bob Nicewander says business has picked up for him in the past eight months, in part because some of his smaller competitors are getting squeezed out.
But he says repo companies are under pressure to pick up more cars for less money. "We're getting paid a lot less," Nicewander says of his auto repo and sales operation.
There are fewer repossessed cars and trucks for him to offer at his auto auctions because more owners are showing up with cash to reclaim them. "The business has changed tremendously."
By Chris Woodyard