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Car Auctions - What You Need To Know

If the thought of buying a brand new vehicle sounds like death by hammer for your piggy bank, auctions can be a great way to find a cheap, reliable car. So what are you waiting for? Time to stroll down the luxury car lot in some fancy eveningwear, nursing a vodka martini (shaken, not stirred) while browsing the Ferraris, Aston Martins, and Lamborghinis, all up for grabs for less than the cost of a packet of ping-pong balls, right?

Unfortunately, no. That's not to say you can't find high-end auctions like those televised on cable channels, but your bank account will need more zeros than the 1940's Imperial Japanese Navy if you expect to buy anything. The auctions you're likely to find in your area will most probably be stocked with far more usual offerings. You'll find police vehicles coming off several years of patrol duty, or plain cars and pickups with more mileage than Apollo 13. Anything fancier was probably confiscated in a drug sting.

Play your cards right, and you can reap the reward, but no reward is without its risk. The risk, in this case, is that your chances of landing a lemon are greater than with used cars in general.

Here are some tips that will help you bid like a pro and avoid getting duped.

What you should know when considering a car auction
There are two types of vehicle auctions: government and public. To get a good deal at either you'll need an incredibly sharp eye, as there are numerous pitfalls in either case.

Government auctions
Here you'll find a police department needing to get rid of a few dozen patrol cruisers, or other government agencies disposing of well used (or possibly abused) fleets of vehicles.

Pros - You will know what you're getting, as all vehicles will have a known history. There will be a complete log of maintenance or repairs, the mileage is honest, and typically the department is there to sell every unit in the lot.

Cons - You can't drive the vehicle before bidding on it. The competition will be fierce. You'll be bidding against taxi companies looking for cabs, brokers set on reselling overseas, and other buyers who work auctions on a regular basis. These folks are experienced veterans, and they know the ropes of bidding and the values of the vehicles. With the continuing growth in competition, some of the cars go for more than retail! It's easy to get burned if you're not paying attention.

Public auctions
Cars at public auctions are often those that wouldn't sell at wholesale dealer events.

Pros - There'll be a large variety of vehicles and potentially some unique deals.

Cons - Again, you can't drive the vehicle before you bid. You'll need some serious knowledge to get a good deal. Many offerings will be shady, with clocks most likely rolled back well over 100,000 miles and sold as 'Miles Exempt,' meaning they're not guaranteeing the stated mileage is accurate. Some will be veterans of serious problems like flood damage or major accidents. There'll be rough repossessions and four-wheels-of-doom units fit for nothing but the junkyard.

Don't be fooled by an exterior so shiny you need a welding mask to look at them. Cosmetic repairs are cheap, and most of these cars will be fluffed and buffed to the highest degree. That's done to fool a sucker, and that's what you don't want to be.

Scared yet? Well, all this doesn't mean it's impossible to find a good deal at an auction; it just means it takes some skill to find that diamond in the rough. To steer clear of the pitfalls you need to know what they are!

Frequently asked questions
What types of cars are for sale?
Government Vehicles, Repossessions, Dealer Consignments, and Donated Vehicles.

When can I view the cars?
You may be able to see the vehicles for several days during a long event, while other sales will allow you to see the cars only up to 1 hour before the auction starts.

What do I need to buy?
You will need a valid U.S. issued driver's license, and you must be over 18.

What types of payment do they accept?
Cash, Credit Card, and Certified Bank Checks.

Do I get a warranty?
Ha! I mean...no.

How to avoid getting burned
Be a Mechanic, or Know a Free Mechanic

Many auction vehicles have mechanical issues and will involve additional costs to get them roadworthy and keep them that way. Having some mechanical knowledge is a good thing, both to help you evaluate the cars and to help you do the work that will probably be required post-purchase. If you do the work yourself or if you know a mechanic who will work for free, or for cheap, you may be able to mitigate these future costs.

Make close inspections
Since you can't drive the vehicle before bidding on it, you'll be relying on visual inspection alone. Scrutinize everything. Look for paint overspray, uneven sheet metal, and pools of liquid under the vehicle. You'll also want to search in detail for scratched brake discs, the car sitting unevenly, and any other detail that would indicate issues or major repairs made to the vehicle. Watch for flood damage! If you get a musty smell from the interior or detect a wet carpet, you can trust it about as far as you could kick it. Walk away.