Car Auctions: 10 Tricks to Separate the Cream From the Crap

Classic Wagon

1959 ChevyWagon | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Sitting on the couch, craft beer in hand, we salivate over the parade of shining classic cars rolling across the auction block at Barrett-Jackson, changing hands for ungodly globs of cold, hard cash. It’s places like this where you can pick up cars like custom built Singer Porsches, old-school hot rods, vintage Ferraris, and soon to be released, serial #001 supercars, and as the drinks get stronger, so too does the bidding.

But ordinary folk typically don’t have the means to attend high-end events like these, so we have to settle for the local auction block, with all of its police impounded “perp-mobiles,” abandoned clunkers, and donated jalopies. But regardless of what kind of crap is being auctioned off, there are diamonds in the rough that can be unearthed, and as a bidder, you stand a chance of getting one for pennies on the dollar.

Government auctions are a great way to snag a retiring cop cruiser on the cheap, and being owned and run by the feds, you better believe it’s going to have records of every oil change, spark plug, and water pump that went into the damn thing. Nevertheless, it’s always best to remain objective, because even though it’s being sold by the United States government, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been thrashed. The competition at these things can also be pretty fierce at times (cab companies love old Crown Vics), so if cop cruisers and confiscated drug trafficking cars aren’t your thing, there are probably other options out there for you, like public auctions.

In recent years, public auctions have become commonly referred to as “the mechanic’s auction,” where lots can quickly become a money pit for novice bidders. There is no guarantee on the authenticity of the mileage on the odometer here, and since it’s an auction, you can’t drive the vehicle prior to bidding on it. This is a place where flood vehicles sell for top dollar after being hastily reupholstered in the hopes of duping amateur bidders, and cars with bad engines come loaded with heavy-duty oil in order to ensure it doesn’t belch smoke or leak on the auction block.

But that doesn’t mean there still aren’t good deals to be had at local auctions, because as intimidating as it may sound, there’s a reason dedicated bidders still show up to these things every week. You just have to remain skeptical and attentive if you want to take home the right ride, because you never know what might show up, and by using these 10 tips, you might land a gem.

1. Know before you go

Chevy Corvair Truck

Chevy Corvair Truck | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The majority of the vehicles found at local auctions will need some work done to them in order to be deemed “road-worthy.” Knowing this before you ever set foot on the grounds is a major part of deciding if this is the right way for you to source an automobile. A low bid on a crappy car has the potential to leave you stranded on the side of the road, so if you aren’t a savvy DIY wrencher, you’d better have one hell of a trustworthy mechanic.

2. The eyes don’t lie

Old BMW for sale at car auction

Old BMW | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Remember, you aren’t allowed to drive these vehicles, but you are granted access to them prior to the auction, and getting up close can reveal all kinds of hidden maladies. Look for things like paint overspray, uneven sheet metal, compromised suspension components, undercarriage rust, and anything else that looks out of place. Interior aroma is another major thing to watch out for, so be wary of things like gasoline aromas and mildew, because even though they may dissipate eventually, there’s a strong chance they represent a much larger issue.

3. But don’t believe everything you see

Bondo

Bondo | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

If it looks too good to be true, chances are it is, and there’s a simple reason why. While bodywork is expensive, it pales in comparison to the kind of profit a car will turn if a high-bidding buyer doesn’t notice it. A thorough pre-bid inspection should hopefully illuminate any issues prior to putting down your money. For more info on what shoddy bodywork can hide, don’t forget to read our write-up on nine ways you can tell if a car has been in a wreck.

4. A few dings may not mean a thing

Dodge Charger

Dodge Charger | Source: FCA

On the flipside, government auctions typically feature loads of tattered and dented cop cars, but mechanically many of them are quite sound. Take cosmetics with a grain of salt and listen to the engine, because you might have a winner on your hands that just needs a little body work and paint.

 5. Pull those dipsticks and check those reservoirs

Checking oil

Checking oil | Source: iStock

A well-maintained car will always have a clean dipstick when you check the oil or transmission fluid, so if it’s anything other than light and transparent, be careful. Also be sure to inspect the coolant overflow tank and shine a flashlight inside the radiator. If it looks like someone accidentally dumped chocolate milk in there it’s time to walk away, because that’s the sign of a blown head gasket.

6. The price is right… Or is it?

Toyota Celica

Toyota Celica | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

A simple search on Kelly Blue Book or Edmunds’s website should give you a pretty good idea as to what the used car in question is really worth. Looking at local prices on Craigslist will also likely yield a solid starting point, and remember that there’s no shame in walking away.

7. “As is” means exactly that

Subaru accident

Subaru accident | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Regardless of their mileage or whether they’re running properly or not, most vehicles at auctions tend to get labeled “as is” in order to prevent any headaches for the auction house down the line. So don’t go in expecting warranties or the ability to sue someone for selling you a total piece of crap. Auctions are like gambling in a lot of ways, and the only way to win is to pay to play.

8. Check the VIN

VIN number

VIN number | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Always take a photo of the vehicle identification number (VIN) toward the base of the windshield on cars you want to bid on at auctions. After that, walk around and check places like door jams, under the hood, and inside trunk lids, where stickers with this number may also appear. If the numbers don’t match up, or are missing entirely it’s best to move on, because there’s probably a really bad reason why it’s like that.

9. Study the competition

Car lot

Car lot | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

If this is your first swing at attending auctions, don’t worry so much about bidding on something; instead observe the people who are throwing cash at cars. This can be a pretty shady experience if you aren’t careful, so watch out for bidders who bid on damn near everything, as they may be working an angle in order to boost the final number.

10. Never get out of control

1984 Dodge Caravan

1984 Dodge Caravan | Source: Dodge

When it comes to car auctions, try not to put all your eggs in one basket, because there will always be more chances to score a sweet ride on the cheap. Like gambling, it’s always good to have a limit in place before the bidding starts, because nothing sucks more than overspending on a car that only gets you halfway home before the damn transmission craps out.

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