How to buy a used car at auction

If you visit a car auction as a spectator – which is a ‘must’ before you even think about buying a car at one – you’ll be amazed. Possibly even terrified.

Half the time you can’t tell who’s bidding, particularly if the buyers are traders rather than members of the public. And then the bidding goes so quickly, and the auctioneer speaks in such a gabble, that it’s hard to tell what level the bidding has reached. 

You can pick up a real bargain at auction but you can also be bitten – hard

But there’s a real buzz to it all. Once you know what’s going on, it can be hugely exciting to decide which lot you’re after, set yourself a strict price limit, and have a go…

You can pick up a real bargain at auction but you can also be bitten – hard. It’s potentially the cheapest way to get the car you want but it’s also very easy to come unstuck.

All the usual warnings about buying a used car apply when buying at auction; only more so. There is little or no opportunity to see the car running. Many cars are ‘sold as seen’, so there’s very little comeback if you buy a dud.

The number one piece of advice is to take someone with you who knows about cars and who is used to buying at auctions. Every auction has its own terms and conditions: read them very carefully before bidding. First, clarify the buyer’s premium – the commission you pay to the auction house over and above the hammer price.

And check how each car is described. If it’s ‘sold as seen’, and the engine blows up the first time you drive it – tough. Even if it’s described as being in good working order, test it as soon as you’ve paid, as you have only a short time in which to complain – often just an hour!

Even more importantly, don’t take your new purchase onto the road unless you’ve had someone with mechanical knowledge check that it’s safe to drive.

It’s not all bad news, though. It is, for example, a bit of a myth that scratching your nose at the wrong moment can mean you accidentally buy a car. Experienced auctioneers are a strange breed with superhuman powers, who uncannily know who is bidding for what.

Although I do remember the auctioneer at an upmarket London sale once speaking to a well-dressed woman in the crowd: “Is that a wave, madam? If so, it’s very expensive.”

Top tips

  • Visit a few auctions before buying to get the feel of what goes on. Learn about such things as reserves (the lowest price the seller will accept) and commission bids (written bids submitted beforehand).
  • Read the terms and conditions of sale very carefully: they’re different for every auction house. For example, the price you pay will be considerably more than your final bid. The auctions charge a buyer’s fee – typically a percentage of the ‘hammer price’.
  • Test the car as soon as you’ve bought it. You’ll normally have only a very short time in which to complain if it’s not as described.
  • The most often-repeated and most ignored advice: set yourself a price limit and don’t go beyond it!
  • Don’t forget in the heat of the moment how you will get your new car home: insurance is your responsibility from the moment the hammer falls. Generally, you’ll be expected to take the car away within 24 hours, or you risk being charged for removal and storage. Some auctions, such as BCA, offer a delivery service.
  • You’ll usually need to register as a buyer before you can bid, which means taking along some form of ID such as passport or driving licence.
  • Sometimes you put in a bid, the hammer falls, and you assume the car is yours. Then you discover that your bid didn’t reach the reserve – the lowest price the seller is willing to accept. This gives you the chance to think about upping your bid to the reserve, or walking away.