Car auctions: the complete guide to buying a car at auction

The murky world of car auctions explained, with top auction buyers tips to help you grab a great deal

Car auction MINI

According to motor industry figures, in excess of 12,000 vehicles are sold at motor auctions in the UK each week. It’s also reckoned a significant chunk of those – around 10 per cent – are snapped up by private buyers eager for an auction bargain.

If you’re wondering whether vehicle auctions are right for you, but are worried that you’ll be stitched-up or hung out to dry by unscrupulous auction traders, this handy guide to the pros, cons and pitfalls of buying auction cars is for you.

The ultimate Used Car Guide

There are auctions happening around the country every week with auction houses such as Manheim or BCA (British Car Auctions), specialist events like classic car auctions or even ex-police auctions to attend. There's a wide variety of auctions where bargains can be had at wholesale prices for buyers who know what they’re doing.

Car auctions are not to be confused with online auctions like eBay, where you generally have quite a long time to make your play. At the busiest car auctions, the action around a car you’ve had your eye on can play out in seconds – so if you blink you can miss it.

• The most expensive cars ever sold at auction

Still think you’ve got what it takes to mix it on the auction floor with the seasoned professionals? If you’ve got the confidence to get involved, we’ve got the advice you need to help keep the sharks at bay. Read on for our tips on how auctions work, how to make sure a car is right for you, and what to expect when bidding at your first ever car auction.

Car auctions: choosing what to bid on

As with all used car purchases, the most important thing is to inspect the vehicle you’re going to buy. 

Auction buyers can check each car going under the hammer either online or in the physical catalogues handed out at the auction house. Most catalogues provide a description of the car, detail its history and grade its condition.

We'd always advise having a good look at the online catalogue in advance so you get an idea of the cars you may be interested in. You should also get a feel for how much similar vehicles are selling for by checking online auction sites or used car pricing guides. They'll help you set a ballpark figure of how much you're willing to pay.

• How to reject a new or used car

After doing the homework you can narrow the field down by inspecting your chosen vehicles on the day. There is usually a one or two hour window before the auction starts where the cars are lined up and buyers can have a walk around and inspect them. Some auction houses provide independent checks of the cars they sell, but if you're confident enough, it’s always advisable to work your way through the basics yourself. Simple checks of the engine, bodywork, electrical systems, interior trim and tyres will give you a general idea of the car's condition.

What happens when the car auction starts?

Once the selling starts, vehicles are driven in to the auction hall one after another. The car for sale stops in front of the rostrum and the auctioneer describes the car to the crowd.

Tim Naylor from British Car Auctions told Auto Express: “It is very important to listen closely to what the auctioneer says, as his or her description is a legally binding selling statement.” The description by the auctioneer supersedes any of the previous descriptions in the printed catalogue or online. Below are the key phrases to look out for...

  • ‘No major mechanical faults’ – indicates the car should not have faults with engine, suspension, drivetrain or gearbox. 
  • ‘Specified faults’ – the auctioneer will read out the list of faults, pay careful attention here.
  • ‘Sold as seen’ – the vehicle is sold with any of the faults it may have, the auction house will rarely accept any complaints about the mechanical or cosmetic condition of these vehicles after sale.
  • ‘Sold with a warranted mileage’ - the mileage has been verified by an independent inspection and the car is sold on the basis of the report.

After that, the auctioneer will ask for a starting bid, with bidding typically done in £100 or £200 increments. However, it is not unusual for the bidding to go up via £1,000 intervals if the car is highly valued.

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How to bid at a car auction

It’s recommended to go to at least three or four auctions without actually purchasing anything to get a feel for the process and help avoid making any expensive mistakes. Some auction houses are specific about what format of payment they accept so be sure to check what type of credit or debit cards you can use. 

Bidding is done by raising your hand or the catalogue and will continue until there are no more bidders left in the room. The highest bid buys the car and that’s when the hammer comes down. Bidding is often fast paced, so make sure you keep up with the prices and the amount of people bidding on the car. 

What happens after the auction?

If you are the top bidder at the end of the auction, you will need to submit a deposit – usually 10 per cent of the vehicle's value – which is normally paid to the rostrum clerk. However, some auction houses can ask for 20 per cent of the vehicle value or £500, whichever comes first.  After this, you’ll be directed to the cashier’s office, where the documents will be signed and the rest of the car paid.

You will also need to pay a buyer’s fee on top of the purchase price, usually around four to six per cent of the price of the car. Naylor said: “Remember that at the fall of the hammer, the car becomes your responsibility and it is up to you as the new owner to ensure it is properly taxed, insured and road legal before being driven on the road.”

• Guide to buying a new car

Most auction houses provide specialty insurance services for the day – allowing you to tax and insure the vehicle and drive it home.

Five top tips for car auction first timers?

Our top-five tips will help you get the best deal at a car auction and avoid any costly mishaps...

  1. Do your homework: know what you want to buy beforehand and have a good idea of what the car will be worth.
  2. Don’t rush: Arrive in good time and spend your time looking around. If possible, select a few back-ups in case the bidding goes beyond your budget for your first choice of car.
  3. Check the car: Take the opportunity to inspect the vehicle to the best of your abilities, while some cars come with a independent inspection guarantee, it’s still good practice to go over the body work and mechanicals.
  4. Be flexible: It’s unlikely you will find the ‘perfect’ car at an auction, used cars always come with a history, so be realistic when critiquing potential buys. 
  5. Set a budget: It’s easy to get lost in the heat of auction bidding, set yourself a maximum budget and do not go over it. There will always be another car. Remember, you will still have to buy insurance and tax the vehicle and setting aside some money for service costs is always good practice, too.

Have you bought a car at auction? Tell us your experiences and top tips in the comments section below...

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