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5 tips to buying a car at an auction

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Updated 27 Aug 2019

Rachel White

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When you think of auctions, you probably envision an auctioneer rapidly firing off numbers and banging a gavel yelling “sold to the man in the yellow hat!” . . . or something like that. This still rings true in some auction houses but thanks to the wonderful world of the internet, you also have the option of online auctions.

Buying a car online appears a little daunting to me but online or not, the consensus is that auctions save you money and are certainly cheaper than buying through a dealer. I don’t think there are any arguments there, but there are risks that come with buying from an auction if you're not prepared.

First up, be aware that the quality of vehicles available through a public auction will likely vary quite a bit. Ex-government, repossessed, traded in, ex-fleet, and ex-hire cars may all be on the block. There’ll be plenty of vehicles with high mileage numbers there too and you’ll definitely be uncertain of their quality unless you can get down to have a look and inspect the one in which you’re interested before the auction hammer drops.

However, as mentioned, deals are to be had and if public vehicle auctions are new to you but you want to have a crack at picking up a wallet-saving bargain, here are five tips on what to do to secure that low-cost set of wheels:

  1. Prepare: Before you even begin looking at auction cars make sure you have the cash to buy. It doesn't have to be paper bills in the pocket, but at least make sure you have pre-approval on loans. Make sure you have some cash on hand, as you may need to put a deposit down if your bid is successful at auction time. Before you go to bid on a car though, attend an auction or two as a bystander and see how it operates. This will get you used to the process and get you ready for the atmosphere on auction day.
  2. Homework: Most auctions have vehicles listed online where you can view the stock and get some information about the cars. You can also usually go on site and physically look at the vehicle before the auction.
    There is a good chance you won’t be able to drive the car, but you should be able to inspect and start the vehicle. If you're not mechanically minded it’s a good idea to ask a mechanic to come and inspect the car with you. Make sure to check the exterior, looking for dings or signs of past bingles. Inspect the interior too. Does it smell OK? Do the seatbelts look safe?
    Start the car and listen to the engine. Listen carefully. Does it sound smooth or rough? Are there are any loud ticking noises? Check the vehicle history, is there a service log or condition report with the vehicle? If not, walk away.
  3. Ask questions: If you have any questions, ask before the auction. You’ll want to know if there is any warranty with the vehicle. There often isn’t but it is good to know. Be aware that most auction yards also have a no-refund policy. Ask these questions at the start so you go in with eyes wide open. Also, find out if the vehicle is registered. It is a good sign if the vehicle is registered and an indication of a better choice than one that isn’t. Find out if there are other expenses to consider. Will you need to pay taxes and auction fees?
  4. How much to bid: Check the market value of the vehicle. There are online platforms that offer market valuations. Use them. At an auction, you should be paying less than market value, never more. Remember these cars were probably overlooked by dealers, so you should not be paying the same as market value. Do not get caught up in the atmosphere on the day. Stick to your budget and don’t go above it.
  5. What to expect: When you arrive on auction day you will need to register with the auctioneer before the auction commences. They will require ID and you will be issued with a number, maybe even given a card to display. The general rule of bidding is to stick your hand in the air. The auction house will have people watching the group looking out for bidders.
    The seller sets a reserve price. This is the lowest price they will accept for a sale. If the reserve is not met on the day, then the vehicle will not be sold. Once the bidding has reached the reserve price then they must sell to the highest bidder. If you succeed as the highest bidder, then you will need to arrange payment for the vehicle. If you need time to settle payment they may ask for a deposit and arrange a day for payment and the handover of the vehicle. Consider if you’ll need a tow truck to get the vehicle home if it‘s unregistered.

Now you're in the know on what to consider when venturing into vehicle auction territory. I guess you have one last question . . . is it worth it? If you are looking for price over quality then you are probably looking in the right place. If you see auctions for what they are and make smart choices before you start bidding then it can ensure gavel-banging happy dances around the corner.

If you're not too keen on buying a car at an auction, we've got some general used car buying tips which might make you feel a bit more confident when car shopping. Our tips on how to avoid buying a dud car may also come in handy! 

After purchasing the new wheels you will want to get it serviced straight away, book with an AutoGuru mechanic to get the best service, hassle-free!

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Written By

Rachel White

Rachel spent her early adult life around cars, motorsport and hands-on with her own cars. This interest moved into various careers within the Automotive industry. Joined with her passion for writing, Rachel loves putting the two together to share her experience, so we can all become AutoGuru’s.