Northern Ireland car dealers see sales increase as Republic's drivers hunt out bargains
Car buyers from the Republic are making a break for the border, hoping to bag last minute pre-Brexit bargains amid political turmoil and confusion over what will happen to car imports after March 29.
Dealers in Northern Ireland saw a spike in cars sold to southern buyers in recent months and an "unprecedented" surge in the first weeks of this year.
Used cars exported to the Republic totalled a record 100,755 last year - a hike of 7.8% on the 2017 figure, and more than double the 47,774 in 2015.
At the same time, new car registrations in the Republic were down 12.6% in January this year compared to last.
The bonanza on car exports began the day after the referendum in June 2016, when sterling plummeted 8.5% overnight - within three months, the currency's decline had reached 18%.
Car traders in the Republic imported large numbers of cars from the UK to sell on, but the majority of private buyers chose to take the short trip north to get their vehicles.
Now, despite sterling experiencing modest gains last week, the number of Irish car-buyers heading north has stepped up a gear due to border uncertainties and fears of tax being added to imports after Brexit.
David Anderson, director of operations at John Mulholland Motors, a dealership in Londonderry and Co Antrim, said: "There is a feeling of urgency from buyers this January compared to last. People don't know the outcome of Brexit, so they are thinking 'just buy now'."
Charles Hurst Group, one of Northern Ireland's largest dealerships, saw a 20% rise in inquiries from the Republic in January. Sales operations director Jeff McCartney said: "People are doing the maths and seeing they can save around £3,000 (€3,425) on the average family car."
So lucrative is the market on exports to the Republic that Northern Irish dealerships are sending video tours of the cars to potential buyers and offering lifts from train stations to forecourts, so new owners can drive their car home the same day.
The boom in cross-border trade is having a big impact on dealers in the Republic, with a drop of 4.4% in new cars registered in 2018.
Brian Cooke, director general designate of the Society of the Irish Motor Industry, said: "New car sales were over 140,000 in 2016 - with economic growth we would have expected that to grow to more than 150,000, but instead we had 135,000 in 2017 and 125,000 in 2018.
"Used imports less than two years old are being bought as direct substitutes for new cars, and the sterling exchange rate has devalued Irish used cars."
Private buyers in the Republic need to factor in hefty Vehicle Registration Tax (VRT) costs, which can add thousands of euro to the price of a car from the UK.
Used cars are not liable for additional VAT, but some buyers get a nasty surprise when they realise Revenue regards any car which has been in service for less than six months or has less than 6,000km on the clock as a new car, and charges 23% VAT on it.
The buyer is entitled to seek a VAT refund from the UK to avoid double taxation.
Some 40% of used cars from the UK are over five years old, and tend to have higher emissions than new cars. The motor industry has used this to campaign for a ban on older imports.
An increase of 1% VRT was added to diesel cars at the start of the year in the Republic, but with the demonisation of diesel in full swing, the price of used diesels in the UK has dropped 10.3%, while the price of used petrol cars rose by a similar figure.
Those with more cash to splash are getting a higher spec, and research by Fexco Corporate Payments showed the average vehicle imported from the UK cost €21,612 - up €5,478 on 2017.
And then there are the lucky few seeking luxury models that aren't available in the Republic. Mr McCartney, of Charles Hurst Group, said: "We have sold a considerable number of the new Bentley GTs to the South."