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Guide: Buying a Car at Auction

March 10, 2016

Buying your next vehicle at a car auction can be a fun and highly cost-effective experience. Many buyers pay above the odds for their car because they don’t have the confidence to attend an auction, or simply aren’t aware of the savings to be made!
Car Auction Guide

Today, we’re going to change that with our handy car auction guide – arming you with all the information you’ll need to get a huge discount on your next car and have some fun too!

Why buy from an auction?

Used car auctions are a fantastic way to get a great deal – potentially saving you thousands versus dealership prices. Sellers tend to use auctions as a last resort, as they know it’s a buyer’s market. Popular with car leasing companies and commercial fleets, auctions are used to clear stock – making them the perfect place to snag a bargain on your next car.

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That being said, buying from an auction is a very different experience to buying from a dealership – so there are a few things to watch out for. You won’t have access to the kind of information you’ll get from a dealership – however, you won’t have a salesperson pushing you into making a purchase! Keep reading to get some helpful tips and advice on what to look out for when buying a car from an auction.

How to find a car auction

Even if you’re not ready to buy, it’s worth attending a few car auctions in your area to get a feel for how they operate – giving you more confidence when it comes to placing a bid. Auctions can be fast-paced and can feel quite aggressive if you’re new to the process, so it’s worth a few trial runs to get used to the environment and see how things work.

If you’re looking for a specific model, many auction houses publish online brochures listing the lineup prior to the event – meaning you can research the cars and auctions you want to attend in advance. You can find a helpful list of auction houses on our car auction finance page. If you’re unable to attend an event in person, there are growing numbers of auctioneers holding car auctions online – allowing you to bid from the comfort of your own home! However, this means you won’t be able to inspect the car in person – so proceed with caution.

It’s worth noting that many auctions are restricted, ‘trade only’ events – so if you’re buying privately, you’ll need to find a public car auction. Once you’re comfortable with the process and ready to buy, you’ll need to register upon arrival (or prior to attending) before you can get stuck into bidding – AKA the fun part.

The best cars to buy at auction

As a rule of thumb, the best cars to buy at auction are typically around three years old with one previous owner – and this could be a private or commercial owner, such as a car hire company or commercial fleet. Cars around this age have typically lost their ‘fresh off the forecourt’ value, but aren’t old enough have suffered from any major wear and tear – translating to a great saving from their initial depreciation.

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Dealerships which offer discounts when you part-exchange your old car often sell these vehicles at auctions too. Part-exchanged auction cars can be a great option if you’re on a tight budget and looking for something a little older – just make sure you do your homework to ensure the car is mechanically sound.

Auctions aren’t limited to stock clearance and part-exchanged cars, though – and you may even be able to find ex-police cars and repossessed cars for sale.

Planning your maximum bid

There are numerous resources available when it comes to estimating the value of a car. If you know the year and model of the car you’re planning to bid on, make sure you check out a variety of classifieds to see if there’s an average price for cars with a similar milage. If you’re interested in a few cars in the auction lineup, make sure you’ve got a good understanding of average prices for each model.

While it can be tempting to place a higher bid, especially if it’s only increasing in small increments, these price jumps quickly add up and you could end up paying more than the car is worth – so stick to your guns when it comes to your maximum bid.

If you want to buy a car at auction but still need car finance, look no further than The Car Loan Warehouse. We’re able to approve finance applications in advance, so you can attend the car auction safe in the knowledge that the funds are ready and waiting. Call us on 0800 066 2888 to discuss your options, or apply online today.

Hidden costs

It’s important to be aware of any auctioneer fees, as well as the terms and conditions attached to a potential purchase by the auction house. These can add hundreds to the sale price, so make sure you find out exactly how much these are and factor them into your highest bid.

On the day

The vast majority of car auctions are run on a ‘sold as seen’ basis – and although you should be able to establish whether the car is mechanically sound from its documentation, it’s vital to inspect the car for yourself.

Inspecting the car

Arrive early and give both the exterior and interior of the car a thorough inspection, looking for any rust or damage that may have been repaired. You’ll be able to identify this by looking around the seams of bodywork panels and underneath the car, and by looking out for differences in the paint finish where the bodywork may have been patched. Check the electrics are all fully functional, including the stereo, air conditioning and any electric windows.

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It may be possible to ask the auction staff to start the car’s engine – so make sure you ask, listening out for any dodgy sounds or vibrations. Pay particular attention to the exhaust when the car is started – looking out for excess blue or white smoke, which may be an indication of engine problems.

Ask the auctioneers if the car has all the necessary documentation. A V5 registration certificate (logbook) is a must – this will give you all the information you need to know about the previous owner, including their address and any important information about the car itself. You should also ask for other documentation detailing the car’s service history and MOTs – and these should match up with the car’s mileage. You may also be able to perform a vehicle history check, with websites like the AA offering instant checks for a small fee. This could flag up any issues surrounding outstanding finance or vehicles which have been reported as stolen.

If you’re planning to bid on a convertible, make sure the folding fabric roof is in good condition – paying close attention to any degradation in the rubber seals surrounding its edge, or any cracks or tears in the fabric.

The auction house should provide a description for each ‘lot’. Make sure you read this carefully, as it will contain any important information regarding the car.

Things get a little more tricky when it comes to classic car auctions – where the vehicles on offer tend to be less reliable on the whole, unless they’ve been well looked after by their previous owners. If you’re buying a classic car, it’s worth seeking the advice of a specialist to ensure you know what to look for in terms of finding the best deal.

If you’re still not confident when it comes to spotting the warning signs on a potential purchase, ask a friend or family member with a good knowledge of cars to attend the auction with you – helping you to inspect the lot before you start bidding.

How to buy a car at an auction

Cars will usually be driven into the auction room (presenting another opportunity to listen out for engine or mechanical sounds). The auction will start and buyers will place bids by clearly raising their hand or auction paddle. Depending on how busy the auction is, this part of the auction can be extremely fast-paced – so listen to the price increases carefully and make eye contact with the auctioneer when placing a bid. Be careful not to accidentally wave your hands or nod during the bidding process, as this may be misinterpreted as a bid.

Once the maximum bid has been achieved, the auctioneer with bang their gavel to mark the lot as sold.

What to do once you’ve bought a car

If you’re lucky enough to have the winning bid, you’ll usually need to pay the auction house a deposit to secure the sale – leaving you to pay the remaining balance by an agreed date. Once you’ve paid up, sorted your insurance and confirmed the car is taxed and MOTd, it’s yours to drive away!

About The Author

Jon Le Roux is co-founder and company director of The Car Loan Warehouse. Being a mad engineering and motorsport enthusiast, I spend more hours than is healthy, watching, reading or talking about cars, boats, motorbikes…..basically anything with an engine.