PHOENIX – When gasoline prices first hit $4 a gallon in 2008, dealer Courtney Cole did something that went against the grain: She stocked up on fullsize used SUVs.

Hordes of panicky consumers were trading in those gas-guzzlers and not buying new ones. Cole got some bargains when wholesale prices on the models plunged.

At the time, some people thought it was nutty to buy such vehicles at whatever price, but she was confident the fullsize-truck segment would come back. It did when fuel prices fell below $2 a gallon in early 2009.

“We knew people were making irrational decisions regarding cars,” she says, referring to the economic and a psychological shock Americans felt from paying $4 for a gallon at the pumps for the first time.

“We went out of our comfort zone by buying a lot of Dodge Durangos and thinking they would be worth more when things settled down,” says Cole, the co-owner of Hare Chevrolet in Noblesville, IN, north of Indianapolis. “Looking back, I wish we had bought more.”

For Cole, it was a matter of seeing an opportunity and seizing it. That is her operating principle as a dealer principal.

“I call it ‘riches from niches,’” she says at the National Remarketing Conference here. “You look for areas where you can make money, and then act on it. When you get creative, opportunities occur. Everybody does things differently.”

Her latest example of that came after Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast U.S. on Oct. 29. The damage included thousands of vehicles. Anticipating an overall increase in used-car prices as many storm victims replace their vehicles, Cole went on a buying spree to beef up her used-car inventory.

Some analysts predict the expected spike in used-car values won’t last long and will stay confined to the Northeast. But Cole is prepared should pre-owned vehicle prices jump in Indiana.

“We usually have about 200 used cars on our lot,” she says. “Right now, we have 350. We’re going deep with these vehicles, anticipating the storm will cause prices to increase.”

Cole acquires half of her used-car stock from trade-ins, and the rest from auctions, most of those online. Although she jumps at opportunities, her decisions are methodical. “We really study the books,” she says of wholesale pricing guides and other industry data. She also looks at which vehicles lenders will generously finance.

Interestingly, the Mitsubishi Endeavor midsize SUV is one of those, even though the Japanese brand has struggled in the U.S. in recent years. “The Endeavor books well, for whatever reason,” Cole says. “We got an extra supply of them, and I think we’re in a good position.”

Edmunds.com says Mitsubishi ranks No.1 on a list of new vehicles bought by consumers with subprime credit ratings. Many of Cole’s customers are what she calls “credit-stressed.” Her dealership typically sells 200 used cars a month, about 130 of those to subprime customers.

“Banks are back to lending to subprime customers, and that’s great for us,” she says.

Cole likes the used-car side of the business because it offers her more control. “With new cars, it’s essentially the manufacturer’s game,” she says. “You can’t control whether the factory is hot or not. If the auto maker is doing well, we’ll join the party. But used cars and service are where it’s at for us. The rest is icing on the cake.”

Cole’s opportunity-hunting also includes new-vehicle territory. For instance, she ordered more than 300 ’12 Chevy Malibus as General Motors phased out the models to make way for a redesigned ’13 version of the midsize sedan.

“We did well with the end-of-the-line Malibus,” she says. “GM offered a lot of incentives on them. That car was hot at the end. It was another niche opportunity for us.”

Cole co-owns Hare Chevrolet with her sister, Monica. Their ad tagline is “the Sisters of Savings.” They bought the store from their father in 2008.

“If you would have told me in college that I would be a dealer, I would have said, ‘No way,’” says Courtney Cole. “But here I am, and I love what I do.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com