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Tips for buying a car at auction

Carlton Boyce / 14 January 2016 ( 19 October 2018 )

Don't buy a lemon! Make sure you get a good deal and avoid scammers with our tips for buying a used car at auction.

Lemon on wheels to represent buying a dodgy or shoddy car
Use our tips for buying cars at auction to make sure you don't buy a lemon

Buying car at auction is scary. You’re up against seasoned car dealers who won’t hesitate to take advantage of a gullible private buyer, bidding against their own cars in order to force you to pay more for a car that’s burning oil by the gallon and is weighed down with several tubs of cheap body filler. And if you buy a bad ‘un then you’re stuck with it forever.

At least that’s what most people think. 

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The reality is somewhat different; I’ve bought half-a-dozen cars at auctions over the years and have never had a single problem (unlike some of the cars I’ve bought privately through eBay, but that’s another story…), but then my brother-in-law’s family owned a car auction, so I had the inside line on what to do and, just as importantly, what not to do. This is what I learned:

It might not be that cheap

The first thing to understand is that an auction might not be the cheapest way to buy a car. This is because car auctions provide convenience to the motor trade, allowing dealers to view hundreds of cars in a single day, something that just wouldn’t be possible if they were buying from private sellers that they had to visit one at a time.

So the price you pay might be somewhere between what you’d expect to pay privately and the forecourt price at a dealer. There are online price guides from people like What Car and Parkers that will tell you what you should be looking to pay.

Don’t forget that there will usually be a buyer’s fee to pay too, which could be a percentage or a fixed sum, or both. You’ll need to factor this amount in when you decide how much you can afford to bid.

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Before you buy

It’s worth doing a couple of things before you go to an auction to buy a car. 

First, register with them to find out what auctions are coming up. There will be different auctions for different types of car and it’s no use turning up at a four-wheel-drive day if you’re after a small diesel hatchback.

Secondly, try to visit a couple of auctions to get a feel for them before you bid. It’s a fast-moving environment that won’t make any allowance for a new buyer who isn’t sure what’s going on. 

Having said that, it’s not as bewildering as you probably think it is, but it does take some tuning into.

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Buy direct

Some car dealers and private sellers use car auctions to sell off their lemons that wouldn’t stand close scrutiny anywhere else. This is why you should only buy cars that are being sold direct from a fleet until you are more experienced. 

Cars that are ‘sold direct’ are ex-company cars that will have a full service history and most will have had an easy life pounding the motorway.

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Checking it out

While you can almost buy an ex-fleet car with your eyes closed, I wouldn’t recommend it. So have a look at the paintwork, panel gaps, wheels, and interior trim. 

Cars that look right are generally good cars, and cars that are covered in parking dings and sporting scuffed alloy wheels have usually been abused.

Open the bonnet (the cars are generally unlocked) and check the oil: is it clean and topped up? Is the coolant clean and up to the right level? Are all four tyres from the same manufacturer? Is the upholstery clean? You’ll often find the car’s service history book in the glovebox, so check that too to make sure it hasn’t missed a service.

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HPI is your friend

If the car passes these rudimentary checks, then you should pull out your smartphone and perform an HPI check. Google is your friend but it shouldn’t cost you any more than £10 a time and it will tell you if the car has ever been stolen or written off, and whether it has any outstanding finance on it.

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Drink coffee

Now go and get a coffee and a bacon sandwich and work out which cars you’ve seen and want to bid on. Once you’ve narrowed it down to half-a-dozen or so cars, you’ll need to work out how much you want to pay for each one.

This is where your previous research will pay dividends, giving you a maximum price you should pay. Don’t forget to add on the auctioneer’s fees, plus the VAT on them. 

Write this down next to the lot number. This is your maximum bid: DO NOT EXCEED IT!

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Don’t be too keen

Try to be discreet. Try not to hang around the cars you are interested in as it’s not unknown for the seller to do the same in the hope he/she can bid against you forcing you to pay more.

Watch it being driven in

Try and get into a position where you can see and hear the car you like being started and driven into the auction hall. You’ll be able to tell if it starts easily, or if there is any black or blue smoke coming from the exhaust.

The person driving the car has no vested interest in it, so feel free to ask them if it drives OK as they enter the hall. If they don’t say ‘yes’, you can bet the answer is actually ‘no’, tipping you off that you should concentrate on the next car on your list.

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Listen to the auctioneer

Most auctioneers will describe a car in one of four ways: no major mechanical faults; specified faults; sold as seen or sold without warranty; and sold with an engineer’s report. 

The classes are self-explanatory but if it is being sold with an engineer’s report, this will usually be attached to the windscreen for you to read.

If you buy a car and it doesn’t match the description, you can make a claim as it’s been misrepresented.

How to bid

You’ll generally need to register as a bidder; this is a simple process that usually involves leaving a cash or debit card deposit and showing some identification. Check with the car auction in advance.

When you register you’ll be given a bidding number, which is generally printed on a card.

Bidding is easy, and almost impossible to get wrong. Your first bid should be made by raising a hand; after that initial bid the auctioneer will know you are interested and a small nod will be enough to bid again. The increments are decided by the auctioneer, but are generally easy to follow and will diminish as the bidding slows.

If you win, you’ll need to make your way to the rostrum where the auctioneer’s assistant will take your bidding number and record the car as having been sold to you. You might also have to pay a deposit in cash or via a card if you haven’t already done so.

If you are the highest bidder, but the car didn’t reach its reserve price, you might still be able to negotiate a sale. Ask at the cashiers’ office for advice.

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Auction fever

Auction fever is when you get carried away and continue bidding for a car even when it has passed the amount you decided you wanted to pay. Everyone who has done it has later regretted it.

Please don’t fall prey; this is why you decided how much you were prepared to bid up to earlier and the car is highly unlikely to have appreciated in value in the intervening couple of hours…

Paying for your car

You’ll now need to make your way to the cashiers’ office to pay the balance. The easiest way to pay for your car is with a debit card or cash.

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Taking it away

You’ll now need to take your new car away. Don’t forget to insure it and pay for the vehicle excise duty, both of which can be done online.

If it goes wrong

If you have a problem you should contact the auction house first. Most will try to help you and if the car isn’t as it was described, you will certainly have a very good case for rejecting it.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.