Buying a car at auction – tips and tricks

Our advice to make sure you don’t get ‘auction fever’, and that you come home with a bargain used car.

Buying a car from an auction is becoming an increasingly common trend, as customers realise they may get a better price on used vehicles if they avoid the usual second-hand sales channels. But while there’s a certain element of fun to bidding at an auction, you can also get caught out if you’re inexperienced. We’ve therefore produced some top tips to help you get the best of your car-buying auction adventure.

Do your research

Before you even go to any auction house and start nosing around the vehicles, look online at the make and model of car you’re interested in, and in the same sort of condition, mileage and specification. That will give you a rough idea of the going market price, so you can then set a budget for auction accordingly. You can also research what the common faults are of your favoured model, to try and identify them when you eventually go to auction.

Try a few ‘dry’ runs

If you’ve never been to an auction before, go to a few other car sales where you have no interest in purchasing anything. This will simply give you an idea of the mechanics of a car auction – how the cars come through the viewing area, how the auctioneers describe them (including their condition, sometimes graded on a scale of 1-5 – 1 being best, 5 the worst), how fast the bidding is, how the cars are secured with a deposit and then paid for in full in the main cash office. It’ll just bed you in, without you having the pressure of bidding on a vehicle too.

Get there early, inspect the car(s)

When you do decide to take the plunge on a car auction with a view to buying one of the ‘lots’ – each car being sold is called a ‘lot’, just like at any other type of auction – then head there a few hours before the sale actually starts. This will allow you time to walk around the cars that will be going under the hammer and give them a once-over. Unlike other vehicle sales, you cannot test-drive any of the cars which will be in the sale, but most auction houses will at least let you fire them up to hear what they sound like and how smooth they can idle.

It is at this point that you need to give the car, or cars, you’re interested in the most thorough going-over you can. Prior to the day of the sale, the auction house will likely have an online listing that will explain everything about the car, such as its condition and previous history, but this will be your only chance to physically inspect the vehicle before committing to buying it. Do the usual checks you would on any used car: look over the tyres to ensure they’ve got tread, they don’t show uneven wear and there are no signs of cracks in the sidewalls; check the steering wheel, the pedals and the driver’s seat bolster to see if the signs of general wear-and-tear in these hard-used places are commensurate with the mileage and age of the car; open the bonnet and inspect for any evidence of leaks, either of coolant, vital fluids (like the power-steering fluid) and oil; if the car’s on hard-standing, check underneath as best you can to see if there is any evidence of leaks on the ground beneath the vehicle; do a general condition inspection inside and out.

If the auction house lets you start the car up, you’re looking for any signs of white or blue smoke from the exhaust, especially if the engine is starting from stone cold. If you do see either of these, walk away from the car and don’t bid on it, even if you think you might get a bargain; black smoke, though, is acceptable, to a degree, on turbodiesels. And with the bonnet up (but the engine off), unscrew the main oil cap and look underneath it – if you see an emulsion-like substance that’s a bit similar to mayonnaise, you again need to forget about bidding on the car when it gets into the sale.

Set a budget

If you’ve done your research beforehand and you’ve got the auction guide price too, you’ll know roughly how much the car you’re after should cost you. If you’re trying to get a bargain, set yourself a ceiling value a few hundred euro or so below what you’re willing to pay, and stick to it. If the bidding in the auction hall then goes crazy and the price of the car spirals well beyond the acceptable market value, you just have to chalk it down to experience and move on – don’t go chasing a car no matter what you’ll end up paying.

Don’t mark yourself out as a newbie

Both private buyers and motor traders attend car auctions in the chance of getting a bargain. Sometimes, the auction halls will give different catalogues to private buyers than they do to traders – so don’t take this into the actual sale hall with you, or (if you have to) keep it well out of sight. If you show your hand as a newbie, traders can sometimes bid against you to push the price of a vehicle up, before pulling out once you’ve made an oversized bid.

Remember buyer’s fee

There is usually a buyer’s fee to pay on top of whatever the agreed price of the car is. This is usually a small percentage of the final figure but be aware of it and factor it into your overall budget. Most auction houses will publish what the buyers’ fees are, so go forearmed with that knowledge before you bid on a car.

Ensure you’ve got tax, NCT, insurance

If you do end up winning a car for a good price at auction, remember it’s your responsibility to make sure it is road-legal so that you can drive it away from the sale. That means you’ll need to sort insurance right away and swiftly make an appointment for an NCT if applicable.