Top tips for buying a car at auction

model car with key and gavel

Buying a second-hand vehicle can save you a lot of money and there are plenty of ways to find your next car.

The most common routes to purchase tend to be via dealers' forecourts, online used car sites and private classified adverts.

However, it's estimated that around 12,000 vehicles are sold at auction every week in the UK and as many as 10% of those are snapped up by private bargain hunters.

The biggest auctions are held by companies such as BCA, Aston Barclay and Manheim, but there are plenty of smaller operations dotted around the country, plus specialists including Anglia Car Auctions and Classic Car Auctions (CCA).

Most auctions are currently being held online due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and some are closed to private buyers, but the essence of a live sale is much the same – they’re fast-paced and can be overwhelming.

So, we've got 10 pieces of useful advice to help you steer clear of trouble, because vehicle auctions are not without risk if you don't know what you're doing.

1) Do a dummy run 

Don't jump in headfirst. Suss out the terrain by going to at least one auction as an observer. 

Research a specific car and watch the buying process, so you know what to expect when you go along next time for real. If you can’t go in person, register and watch online.

2) Do your homework 

Before attending or joining an auction on the internet, study the catalogue thoroughly. Choose a vehicle and a couple of options in case you miss out – and research each one. 

Check valuations by comparing with other cars for sale on sites such as Auto Trader. Look up your chosen car’s MOT history for free and read a used buyer's guide for the vehicle you've chosen on one of the car magazine sites. 

3) Financial facts

Check the auctioneers' terms and conditions. For instance, if your bid is successful, you'll have to pay a buyer’s fee (a percentage of the price of the car) on top of the purchase price. There may also be VAT to pay, and a commission (if bidding online). 

Some auction houses also require private buyers to make a deposit before they can bid. Finally, find out how the final payment must be made and within what timeframe.

4) Essential checks 

Arrive early on the sale day and take time to examine the vehicle that interests you. Unless you know a lot about cars, it's advisable to take along a friend, relative or colleague who does. 

Check the engine (look under the bonnet if you can, listen to it when it's started up to be driven into the hall, and watch out for a smoky exhaust). Study the bodywork and wheels for signs of damage, and don't forget to inspect the interior. 

As a result of Covid-19 restrictions, it may only be possible to see the vehicle before the auction by booking a viewing slot.

Cars at auction
Image source: Aston Barclay

5) Paper trail 

Check with the auctioneers to see if all the vehicle documentation is present, including the V5, or logbook. The V5 will confirm the name of the registered keeper, their address and key information about the vehicle. 

Hopefully there will be a current and previous MOTs (which will confirm the mileage record) and evidence of a service history to prove the vehicle has been properly maintained.

6) Stick to a budget 

Bidding at auctions is often frantic, so don't get carried away. Don't be tempted to bust your budget and walk away if the vehicle you’re pursuing goes out of reach. 

To bid, signal clearly by raising your hand or the catalogue – leave the nudges and winks to the professionals. The highest bid buys the car and that’s when the hammer comes down. 

Clearly, if the auction is only online, you'll need to pay attention to the live video and follow the instructions for making a bid. Either way, it's stressful!

7) Listen carefully 

Pay attention to the auctioneer who will use key phrases such as ‘no major mechanical faults’ (the car should not have faults with engine, suspension or gearbox), 'specified faults' and 'sold as seen' (you buy the vehicle with all its faults, whatever and however serious they may be).

8) Missed out? 

Unless you're only interested in one car, try to be flexible if you miss your first choice. Move on and if your reserve choices don't work out either, come again another day. 

Don't be tempted to buy a car that isn't right for you out of desperation.

9) Settle up 

Auctioneers differ, but broadly speaking, if you’re the top bidder at the end of the sale, you’ll then be directed to the cashier’s office, where the documents will be signed and the car must be paid in full. 

Debit and credit cards tend to be used most. A cheque or bank transfer may also be acceptable, but the vehicle will only be released once the funds have cleared. 

Before bidding at an online auction, make sure you are aware of the payment process.

10) Stay safe and legal 

There's one final obstacle to tackle even after you've paid up and signed the transfer document. The vehicle is now your responsibility, so it's up to you as the new owner to make sure it’s properly taxed, insured and road legal before being driven home. Many auction houses offer special insurance services for the day.

Classic car auction
Image source: Classic Car Auctions

Expert advice

Martin Potter of Aston Barclay says the biggest mistake made by private buyers at auctions is not sticking to a pre-determined budget. 

And his number one piece of advice? "Do your homework before visiting an auction as each one will have different rules and regulations about how private buyers can bid and buy. All cars being auctioned appear online a week or so before the sale which provides a perfect opportunity to carry out homework before bidding."

Gary Dunne of Classic Car Auctions (CCA) reckons it's a good time to buy a classic car at auction.

"The classic car market is really buoyant right now. In our June auction we sold 90% of the cars offered which is our highest sales rate to date. Our auctions see a range of classics offered within the price bracket of £5,000-£75,000 and we are seeing both new and existing customers buying."

And Gary's top tip for buyers? "Always inspect the vehicle of interest in person, prior to the auction. See, touch and feel the car, and if possible, take an expert with you. 

"We believe it’s of the utmost importance to satisfy yourself as to the condition of the vehicle and ensure it meets your suitability before buying. At CCA, we offer dedicated viewing days for this very purpose, and here, the history files and any documentation associated for the vehicle can also be inspected."

I'm an experienced journalist, digital editor and copywriter, now specialising in motoring. I’m editor of Automotive Blog and have worked across the media in newspapers, magazines, TV, teletext, radio and online for household names including the BBC, GMTV, ITV and MSN. I’ve produced digital content in the financial sector for Lloyds Bank, Nationwide and the Money Advice Service. I'm married with two children and live near Bath in Somerset.

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