How to Buy a Car at an Auction

Don't know where to start when it comes to buying cars at auctions? We'll guide you through the process from start to finish.

Car Auction

If you are looking for a cheap car, you might be enticed by the thought of finding a bargain at an auction. With several different types to choose from, you must know how to buy cars at an auction and gain some tips to ensure the best deal. 

In this guide, we examine how to buy a car at the auction and we will discuss several different types you can shop at. Plus, we cover a few of the top tips to ensure you get the best deal.

How to Buy a Car at an Auction

To buy a car at an auction, you will check out the cars first, either online or in person. You can then place a bid and try to win the auction. If you are the top bidder, you pay for your purchase and any fees before figuring out how you will transport the vehicle back to your home or shop. 

Here are some more detailed steps on how to buy a car at an auction:

1. Check Out Cars

Before you place any bids, you want to carefully check over the cars. If you are doing an online auction, you must rely on the pictures presented to you.

If you go to an in-person auction, there will be special hours where you can examine the vehicles. The in-person option is ideal if you want to ensure vehicle integrity, but it isn’t foolproof because you don’t get to drive the vehicle ahead of time. 

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2. Place Bid 

Register with the auction house so you can bid. In some cases, you will need to pay an entry fee and you might need to be a licensed dealer to enter.

Figure out how the auction handles bids, whether it’s to wave the number you are given or to raise your hand. If you are the top bidder, you can move on to the next step. Otherwise, you want to bid on another model. 

3. Pay for Vehicle

The auction house isn’t going to release the vehicle to you until you pay for it. Not only will you have the price of the car to pay for, but there will also be fees. So there are no surprises, it’s helpful to look at these fees before you bid.

If the car can be driven home, you can get a buddy to bring it home. Otherwise, you will need to order transport or a tow truck to deliver it. 

Types of Car Auction

1. Dealer-only

With a dealer-only auction, you won’t get in unless you have a license with the state. A dealer permit is required to enter and bid. Some of the most popular auctions throughout the country, such as Manheim and Adesa, are dealer-only.

With these auctions, you can count on a better quality lineup of vehicles. Plus, you can purchase additional services, such as vehicle inspections or guarantees. On the other hand, you might spend a little more to buy a car here. 

2. Public

The public auction can mean many things, usually encompassing several of the following categories. Basically, it means that you can attend the auction without a dealer’s license. 

The public auction could be focused solely on vehicles or it could be something along the lines of an estate sale that includes some vehicles. 

3. Ex-government

The government has a massive fleet of vehicles in every city and state. When these vehicles go out of service, they are usually auctioned off to the top bidder.

You can find these government auctions throughout the country and online. Plus, there are some specialty vehicles available, such as ATVs, tanks and helicopters. 

4. Repossession

If a driver stops paying on the bank loan, the financial institution will take the vehicle back through repossession. The bank itself can hold an auction or they could send them to an auction house.

To find out what your bank does with repossessed cars, call and ask what they do with them. In some cases, they will supply you with a list of the vehicles ahead of time and sell them off privately. 

5. Online

It’s easy to find everything you want online these days, including car auctions. The most obvious way to buy a car through an auction online is through eBay Motors.

However, most auction houses are also online. You can do everything from the comfort of your home or office without ever showing up in person. The downside to this is that you won’t get to inspect the vehicle ahead of time, causing you to rely on the pictures that were taken. 

6. Insurance

After an accident, insurance companies will total any vehicle that requires more work to repair than it’s worth. These cars end up with a salvage title and often show up at auctions.

If you are looking to get some parts for a car or you want to rebuild a salvage vehicle, you can get a vehicle for a rock-bottom price. Just make sure you understand the extensive process needed if you hope to get this vehicle back on the road someday. 

Top Auto Auction Tips

1. Pick One Avenue

When you are first getting started, you want to focus all of your attention on one auction type. Otherwise, you could quickly become overwhelmed. For example, in a major city, you could visit a different auction every day of the week if you wanted.

However, you will have to learn the rules and policies at each one, which can become overwhelming. Instead, choose one to start with. As you get accustomed to that auction, you can branch out with another one until you find your niche. 

2. Show Up In-Person

If you have the option, it’s best to choose an in-person location. Trying to determine the condition of a vehicle with pictures can lead to you making assumptions that aren’t true. It’s much better to see the vehicle, with all of its dents and imperfections, before you decide how much to spend on it. 

With the pre-auction inspection, you can start the vehicle and look for warning lights. You can also get under the hood to see if there are any leaks or strange noises. 

3. Learn How to Bid

Before you make your first bid, it’s best to sit back and watch how it works. Find a comfortable spot and observe how the process flows.

You can learn a lot when you aren’t trying to bid. Once you are comfortable, you will be better equipped to get your bid into the race. 

4. Take a Friend with you

It can be an overwhelming and exhilarating experience to start bidding on cars. You can quickly get away from yourself and get caught up in the excitement. If you bring an accountability partner with you, there’s less chance that you will go beyond what you budgeted. 

A friend can also help you spot any problems with the car that you didn’t see. Give your friend permission to speak freely with you, so you don’t get conned by your emotions.

5. Set a Strict Budget

By doing your research beforehand, you can determine what each vehicle is worth. Use simple online tools, such as KBB or CARFAX to help you value the vehicle. With this budget in mind, you know what you are willing to spend when the bidding comes to you.

Because you will be held responsible for paying whatever the winning bid is, you don’t want to get caught up in the thrill of the auction. Instead, you must always be mindful about what you are willing to spend and be ready to back off if it goes too high. There will also be another car or auction that is better suited to you. 

As you set your budget, make sure you also take into account any buyer’s fees that are associated with the auction. You will be responsible to pay these fees on top of whatever you bid. Some auction houses charge a percentage of what the top bid is, while others will ask for a flat fee on every transaction. Plus, you will be responsible for transportation costs if the car can’t be driven home. This is something that you might be able to arrange through the auction house as well, with many offering their own transportation options.

Car Auction FAQs

Are online car auctions legit?

Yes, most large online car auctions are definitely legit. I’ve personally done it a few times and gotten great deals on vehicles. The key is to do your research ahead of time and know what you’re looking for. Choose a reputable car auction website, as there is a risk of losing your money if you choose a smaller auction site.

What are the most popular car auctions?

If you are looking for a popular online car auction site, eBay Motors is one of the biggest websites. ACV Auctions and Auto Auction Mall are two other famous car auction sites.

Is it worth buying a car at auction?

Yes, if you know what you are looking for you can get it for a great price. However, there are a few things you should keep in mind. Auction prices can vary widely, so it’s important to do your research and know what the fair market value for the car is. It’s also important to be aware of any potential issues the car may have – remember, you’re often buying it as it is from auctions, so if there are any hidden problems, you’ll be stuck with them.

Is it better to buy at a local car auction rather than an online auction?

It depends on what you are looking for. The advantage of using local car auctions is that you are not fighting the same amount of people. However, most car auctions today are done both locally and online to get as much money as possible from the object.

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Magnus Sellén
Written by:

Magnus is the owner and main author of Mechanicbase. He has been working as a car mechanic for over 10 years, and the majority of them specialized in advanced car diagnostics and troubleshooting. Certified Automotive Diagnostic Technician.