After surviving several difficult years, Whatcom County car dealers were pleased to find many more residents willing to buy new vehicles in 2012.
Last year Whatcom County car dealers sold 3,657 new cars, a 16.5 percent increase compared to 2011, according to the Dominion Cross-Sell Report, which relies on data from the Washington state Department of Licensing.
Wilson Motors, which sells Toyota and Mercedes Benz models, had the highest total of new car sales with 977, followed by Rairdon's (545 new cars sold), Dewey Griffin (501), Northwest Honda (499) and Roger Jobs (445), according to a separate report by Members Only Inc., which also uses DOL data.
The Whatcom new vehicle sales trend in 2012 was similar to the U.S. According to Autodata Corp., 14.5 million vehicles were sold in the U.S. last year, up 13.4 percent compared to 2011.
When combining new and used vehicles, Members Only estimates that Wilson Motors again led the way with 1,784 sales, followed by Rairdon's (1,244 sales), Northwest Honda (981), Dewey Griffin (832) and Roger Jobs (798).
A variety of factors seemed to be behind the increase in sales, but one of the biggest was consumer confidence. In general people had been holding off big purchases after the national financial meltdown in 2008, said Julian Greening, co-owner and general manager at Wilson Motors. By 2012 cars either were getting too old and costly to repair, or people were tired or worrying about the economic uncertainty and decided to make the purchase.
Low interest rates and the fact it's been easier to get a car loan compared to recent years also were factors, he said. Those factors helped Wilson Motors have its best year since moving to its current facility on Iowa Street in 2008.
Car buyers also were ready for something different, said Seth Timmerman, general sales manager at the Rairdon's Hyundai of Bellingham dealership. He noted Hyundai unveiled several new models last year "that really turned a lot of heads."
"We were also able to get enough supply, which really helped," said Timmerman, adding that new car sales of Hyundai were up 14 percent at the Rairdon's dealership. Rairdon's also sells Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep models in Bellingham.
Greening noticed how different events influenced buying habits. In the spring, when gas prices were spiking, economy and hybrid vehicles were popular. As gas prices dropped in the summer, sales of vehicles were strong across the board, while trucks and sports utility vehicles were popular as winter set in. It was also a record year for Wilson's service department, with volume that sometimes hit 2,000 customers a month.
Both Greening and Timmerman are optimistic that vehicle sales will remain strong in 2013. At this point dealers have good availability; for the first time since moving into the current facility five years ago, Greening plans on having his lot completely full this spring, with about 350 vehicles at the dealership.
The used car market is expected to remain tight locally in 2013 because people have been holding on to used cars longer. With fewer used cars coming on the market, Timmerman said in some situations dealers can sell a new car for almost the same price as a used car bought at an auction.
Greening agreed, saying that they are also being careful to make sure they aren't getting vehicles that were damaged by last fall's Superstorm Sandy that hit the East Coast.
"You can usually tell when a car has been submerged in water, but we're going to be very cautious (when inspecting used cars)," he said.