After putting off buying a new car for a year, Jean and Don Fowler decided to use a cash "windfall" from Don's job to buy the vehicle they wanted: a Chevrolet Avalanche.
They visited three dealerships to see the 2007 vehicles in stock and found the right truck at the right price at Bradenton's Cox Chevrolet. While filling out the paperwork, Jean Fowler was struck by the fact that "the dealership was like a ghost town."
They were the only customers on a Thursday afternoon in September: "I have never been in a place where the salesmen outnumber the customers," she said.
Customers in showrooms have been on the decline across Southwest Florida, mimicking the declining fortunes of the region's housing market. That is no coincidence. Homeowners who have watched the value of their homes plummet are feeling much less inclined to make a big purchase like a car. People who had hoped to tap the shrinking equity in their houses are unable to.
New car sales fell 7 percent last year in Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties, and, as of July, were on track to fall 12.5 percent in 2007.
The two worst states for new car sales are Florida, down 11 percent, and California, down 17 percent, market studies show. They are also the two states that have been hit hardest by the slide in real estate values.
"Housing is a big issue here in Florida and in California and it's affecting our sales," said Marc Cannon, a vice president with Fort Lauderdale-based AutoNation Inc. "Industry retail sales this year are off about 8 percent."
In California and Florida combined, he said, they are down about 15 percent.
Car sales are expected to continue to suffer along with the fortunes of housing.
"We basically said in our second-quarter earnings release that as long as there is a downturn in housing, then we'll see it in the auto industry," Cannon said.
By TONI WHITT