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8 Tips on How to Buy a Car At Auction

Be informed, do your research and drive away in your dream

Posted: August 15, 2016 8:00 am
by Andy Reid
Action getting hot at the Amelia Island Hollywood Wheels sale in March 2016.

When attending the Auctions America sale in Santa Monica, Calif., I gave a tour to prospective bidders. Doing this reminded me that many people do not know how to buy at auction properly. 

I’d like this article to serve as a primer on how to buy a car at auction properly; meaning buying a car you actually want, for the best possible price. I also want to advise you on the additional costs involved in an auction transaction so that you do not overpay for that car you have always wanted.

Here are eight of my hard-and-fast rules and tips for buying at auction: 

  1. Only bid on a car at auction you really want: This seems obvious, but you cannot believe how many people go to an auction with no idea of what they are looking for and end up bidding on a car on a whim. This can be very dangerous. I see many people bid on a car just because it looks nice, knowing nothing about what it’s really like. You should only buy a car you love and not just because it catches your eye.
  1. Do your research before the auction: This goes hand in hand with the rule above. If you have always wanted, say, a Sunbeam Tiger and an upcoming auction has one, get its chassis and engine number and do your research beforehand. Start by calling the auction company in question and speaking to a specialist about the car. Ask questions about condition, service/restoration history and ownership history. Also, make sure that any claims of work done on the car are backed up with paperwork, and ask the specialist to send you scans or a PDF about the car. The auction companies get these requests all the time and should be able to get you the info in short order.

    Next, search for the car by make, model and chassis number on the internet. Often, you can find out even more information than the auction company has on the car and fill in gaps of the car’s history.
  1. Never go to an auction to bid by yourself: I always take a friend and let that friend know the cars I am looking at and what I am willing to pay for them. Your friend should also be knowledgeable about cars and, ideally, about the car or cars you are considering.

    When you see the car, be sure they look at it too. After you view the car, ask their opinion of it before letting them know what you think. People will tend to be more candid before they know you are in love with it. This is your way to get a less rose-colored assessment of a car you are considering.

    Also, let your friend know what you want to spend on a car, and ask them to intercede if the bidding is in excess of that figure. No one likes to be the voice of reason, but this can often save you a lot of money and prevent you from overspending.
  1. Look for an expert while at the sale: If you are looking at an Enzo-era Ferrari and know that an expert on these cars is in the room during the preview, introduce yourself and ask their opinion on the value of the car. They will often be more than happy to point out any issues the car has and how this will affect its value, saving you again from making a bad decision.
  1. Consider hiring your own expert: If you cannot find an expert at the sale or do not have a friend to assist you with the bidding and evaluation, consider working with an independent auction expert. I do this quite a lot for friends and clients, as do friends of mine such as Dave Kinney and Donald Osborne. What you get in doing this is an impartial evaluation of the car you are considering and professional and experienced assistance and strategy when you are bidding. This is not only something new bidders do, but experienced ones do as well.
  1. Inspect the car thoroughly: Be sure to thoroughly inspect the car at the sale. If the car passes initial inspection, get with a specialist at the company and see if you can test drive the car. At the very least, have the specialist start the car and while it is running, thoroughly test every single switch and control to see they all function correctly. Sit in the car and make sure it is comfortable and you like the way you feel behind the wheel. If you do not fit in a car, you are guaranteed not to enjoy it.
  1. Be in the room at the auction: Yes, a lot of people phone, absentee or Internet bid, but there is no substitute for being in the room while an auction is going on. You will get an idea of the price trends at that sale, and when you are bidding, you will have some idea as to whom you are actually bidding against. If you notice that the person raising you each time you bid is, for example, Ralph Lauren, you can be pretty certain you are not likely to get a deal on said car and can stop bidding. This is something you will never know if you are bidding remotely.
  1. Set your price before the bidding starts, and stick to it: While the idea of winning something at auction is a romantic one, you are actually just buying a car. Unless you have a very large bankroll and are bidding on an extremely rare car, there is no reason to spend more than planned. If you pay too much for a car, you will always come away feeling regret, no matter what the market does. Also, be sure to remember the auction fee involved, as well as shipping for the car and taxes. None of these are included in the amount you initially bid for the car.

I hope the above tips assist you at your first, or next, auction. If you are at a sale and see me there, please feel free to ask me about whichever car you are looking for. If I do not know the answer, I am sure I will know someone on site who has the answer.

Also, if you are a rookie auction attendee, consider signing up for one of my auction tours, like at the RM and Bonhams sales at Monterey, Calif. You will come away from the tour with more knowledge than when you got there. As with everything in the world, knowledge is power.

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