"To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under the sun,” or so Ecclesiastes tells us, although since that was written about 2,112 years before Nicolaus Otto designed the four-stroke internal combustion engine, it may not have been specifically referring to buying and selling cars.
But is there a right time to buy and sell a car? The old saw is that you should sell your sports car in the spring for the best price and a 4x4 in the autumn. Certainly, there was plenty of activity on the websites of off-road car makers after the recent snow. After two unusually white winters on the trot, it’s only natural that motorists will have been looking at snow-proofing themselves, even if it takes only a couple of clicks on a mouse to persuade themselves that it isn’t worth it.
The figures seem to bear out that the only seasons you want to be considering a new car are the spring and autumnal equinoxes, although this has less to do with the tilt of the Earth’s axis and more to do with the registration plate changes.
New registration figures show that between 16 and 20 per cent of new cars are registered in March with a slightly lower percentage in September.
That doesn’t tell the whole story, however. Cannier buyers can often winkle a bargain out of the season by planning their buying and selling around the calendar. Here’s our guide to how the seasons affect the car market.
Sell while the sun shines
Why “Sunshine in March, when the birds are whistling in the trees, gives you a big margin on a convertible. I sold three [Rolls-Royce] Phantom Convertibles last week,” says ace car dealer, Tom Hartley.
There’s also a registration-plate change in March that creates “its own trajectory”, according to Hartley. There are few new-car sales before the plate change. “You should avoid buying in the run up to a plate change,” says Kieren Puffett, editor of Parker’s Guide to used car values. “It’s much harder to drive a bargain, but if there’s a lot of new or nearly new stock on a particular model that is being changed, then prices can be keen,” he says.
What to buy Any car that is subject to a staged replacement, such as the current Vauxhall Astra, which is only available in new form as a five-door, with the three-door, estate and convertible still based on the old model. “I’ve seen almost five grand knocked off the price of an Astra estate,” says Puffett.
You should tour the dealers after the registration plate change to see what they’ve taken in part exchange and need to get rid of quickly.
What to sell Sports cars, convertibles and roadsters. Drophead values go up when the temperatures rise. A typical four-year-old, 40,000-mile convertible rises by £1,000 in the first three months of the year. Budget soft tops see the biggest seasonal rises: Peugeot 206, 207, 307, Renault Megane, VW Beetle, Ford Street Ka, Vauxhall Astra Twintop, Mazda MX-5 and MGF. New mini cabriolets such as the Fiat 500, Citroen C3 Pluriel and Nissan Micra hold their value. Mid-range cars such as the BMW Z4, and Honda S2000 do quite well, but must have low mileages to catch the seasonal market.
“Convertibles experience dramatic seasonality, with premium brands seeming to rise first,” says Adrian Rushmore, managing editor at Glass’s Guide. He warns that a good supply to the market this year means that non-premium convertibles will probably buck the historic trend and fail to see such dramatic gains.
The market’s dog days
Why Everyone’s on holiday, and dealers concentrate on servicing. Cabrios continue to sell, but everything else suffers, especially off-roaders.
“When it’s 85 degrees outside, you’re not going to get the same price for your 4x4 as when there’s five inches of snow,” says Hartley.
New-car registration figures suggest that June and July aren’t too bad, but in August the dealer’s doors are locked. In some new car sectors last year, sales were less than a 10th of September’s. The most marked effect tends to be in the small-car sector where the financial stigma of owning the previous registration plate is worst.
What to buy Big SUVs such as Land Rovers. Unloved orphans at the back of the showroom. Stock-shifting refugees. Month-end marooned motors. In other words, anything that needs to be got rid of, fast.
What to sell Supercars, classics and top-end cabrios.
Fleet gets busy, retail slows
Why With folk back at work and a credit card to pay off, the retail market is often quieter than the fleet market, which uses the autumn to part-exchange its stock. This year might mark a return to the market for fleets so the stock of slightly higher-mileage ships of the motorway could be high and there will be auction bargains to be had.
We’re getting ready for the winter so 4x4s start to look attractive, although the Chancellor’s second fuel tax rise of 1p per litre will be introduced in October which will concentrate minds on the additional cost of all-wheel drive.
What to buy Good ex-fleet vehicles, especially non-premium stuff. In years to come there will also be a fair few scrappage-scheme cars in the mix. “Scrappage has taught a lot of people to buy new and they might well do the same in three years when they come to change,” says Sue Robinson of the Retail Motor Industry Federation. So expect a glut of small-engined cars such as the Hyundai i10, but with small mileages as well.
Look out for deals on the Renault Laguna and Peugeot 408. Four-cylinder BMW 3-series, Audi A4 and old-model Mercedes E-class and BMW 5-series coming off contract hire schemes.
What to sell Crossovers that will appeal as winter looms, but don’t cost the earth to fuel, such as the Nissan Qashqai, Skoda Yeti and Ford Kuga.
CHRISTMAS AND NEW YEAR
The bargain season
Why Because everyone’s out shopping or broke and “there’s also the psychological thing of new year, new car,” says Robinson. She points out that the festive season is almost exactly halfway between the registration-plate changes and dealers will have excess stock on which they will be offering deals. They’re also just bored. Go in and befriend them; you never know what they might have tucked at the back of the showroom.
What to buy Tim Naylor of British Car Auctions (BCA) says that although retail markets can be quieter, wholesale markets get busy as they churn over stock to improve the look of their year-end accounts.
“Watch out for models registered late in the year,” he warns. “A December 31 car appears much older than a January 1 model.” Look for pre-registered stock that dealers don’t want to take into the new year.
What to sell Sport-utility vehicles such as Toyota Land Cruisers, Volvo XC90s, BMW X5s and so on, with the biggest rises seen in older, higher-mileage cars. At the very top end, late-plate, high-value off-roaders are less affected by seasonal changes.
IN THE DEEP MID-WINTER
Get me out of here now
Why Heavy snow left many stranded in their homes this year and as Adrian Rushmore, managing editor at Glass’s Guide, says, it hit people where it hurts, in their pockets.
“This year’s 4x4 spike was more pronounced than I can recall. It was certainly a wake-up for people who really needed their mobility and there were severe financial consequences of not being able to get to work.”
The resulting interest in 4x4s has proved to be more than just a flurry. Manufacturers reported unprecedented internet interest and BCA said that average used 4x4 values achieved record levels in January. The boom has continued into spring, partly as a consequence of low prices in what was a depressed market for 4x4s.
“It’s changed the mindset,” says Adrian Rushmore. “All the negativity about 4x4s has disappeared.”
What to buy If you don’t live on an unsalted hill or down a farm track, now is the time to use your imagination and buy that Saab 9-3 or Volvo C70 soft-top. It will make all the sense in the world come spring, so get ahead of the price curve now.
What to sell Anything with four-wheel drive, especially Land Rovers of any vintage. Suzuki Jeeps, Subarus and Fiat Panda 4x4s with a low weight penalty and smaller engines start to look very attractive in the wake of VED rises.
This article was originally published in April 2010.