I’ve developed a bit of a habit at work: Every time a customer calls and says the car they want us to look at is new to them, I ask them where they got it. Frequently that answer is “the auction.” Now, I’m not talking about the large internet car auction sites that post enough photos and videos that you could practically feel the gentle caress of 40 year old velour on the backs of your thighs through the computer screen. I’m not talking about the dealer auctions either, though we occasionally deal with those, too. No, I’m talking about the local public auto auctions.
[Ed Note: Andrea Petersen is a new voice we’re featuring on the site. She’s a service advisor who brings a unique perspective on the automotive experience. You all liked her previous piece (“When it’s time to say goodbye to your car”) so we thought we’d bring her back for another post. – MH]
There’s a certain type of person who likes to hunt for a bargain, but they’re a casual bargain hunter. They’re not a car flipper or enthusiast, they just like to occasionally browse the local auctions and then one day something nifty will catch their attention. Maybe it’s a decent looking SUV or a luxury sedan that was allegedly a part of some grandpa’s estate. They’re generally not hardcore car people, but it looks like cars they see on the road every day, so this might just be A Good Deal.
They go to the auction and take a look at the car. It might have a scratch here and a ding there, but no biggie. The auction will let you turn the key and it fires up ok, but perhaps it has a little bit of a funny noise, nothing terrible. This is where, in a normal car buying situation, you’d put it in drive or 1st for a test drive, but not at most auctions. Even insurance auctions will often allow a tiny bit forward and a little bit in reverse, but the actual driving part of “runs and drives” is down to assumption here. It runs, therefore it must drive.
As many car enthusiasts know, “runs” does not equal “drives.” But no worries, how bad can it be?
Bidding commences, bidding ends, and hey, you were the last person with their hand up. Congratulations on your new car! It was an exciting experience fending off the other bidders and here you are, the conquering hero of that 2008 Porsche Cayenne with 128,000 presumably gentle miles on the clock! You pay the winning bid, plus some buyer’s fees, and off you go. Time to find out what that little engine noise is and, now that you drive it, the car does feel a little bit shaky, too.
“Customer states vehicle feels shaky and has difficulty accelerating, vehicle has been this way since recent purchase, no history given from previous owner. Please check and advise.”
I happily enter the car into our system and jump in to take it to the back lot, which is where the fun begins. It starts out feeling shaky like a bad misfire while still parked, but after driving less than 100 feet I start to wonder how the car even made it here in one piece. The hour of diagnostics reveals a laundry list of issues but then the coup de grace: bore scoring. She’s a dead car running. Barely.
But how could this be? It ran when you checked it out, it just sounded a little funny. Shouldn’t there be some sort of process for making sure auction cars are OK? Nothing in the auction listing said the car had a fatal engine issue. Your buddy got a great deal on an Escalade at the same auction a month before and that thing runs like a champ!
I ::sigh:: sadly and have to tell you that this is very common with auction cars and there is usually a reason they are at the auction. If you found out the car has a major issue and could get $600 for it at the junkyard or limp it through the auction and get a few thousand, what seems like the better financial choice to you? It will be somebody else’s problem soon enough, but that’s a risk the next guy is willing to take, right?
And thus the cycle begins anew. How do you get out of this fatally flawed car while minimizing the loss? Send it back through the auction! There was no buyer protection when you bought it and there will be no protection for the new buyer, either. The auction is happy to take a fresh round of fees, it’s nothing special to them. It very well may end up back at our shop under the new owner who is again wondering why this thing is a little funky. The can has been successfully kicked down the road.
I see this time and again so let me repeat: cars are at an auction for a reason. It’s less hassle than online ads, less difficult than trading it in or consigning at a dealer. It brings in more money than Heaps-R-Us Pick A Part. Please understand that an auction car is a gamble. It’s buying a car with far less inspecting and testing than you would do in almost any other situation. And again the car is there for a reason. Yes, plenty of people use auctions to clear up an estate, but Grandpa might not have been a big believer in good maintenance habits. He also might not have driven it much in the last few years and cars, like people, become unhealthy when they sit a lot. Also, who is to say it even was part of an estate unless it is specifically an estate-only auction?
If you’re a seasoned flipper or want to burn some money on an endeavor that’s more adventurous than a meme stock or several trays of gas station sushi, go for it. If you know what you’re doing you can get an incredible deal at public auctions. David, for instance, bought this great Jeep Cherokee that came via an auction and that turned out great.
But if you’re not handy or up for an adventure ask yourself: Are you willing to risk losing thousands of dollars or would you rather put up with Joe McFlakey on Marketplace who will at least let you take it around the block? Yes, it is a pain in the butt dealing with private party sales and yes, there is just as little recourse if you buy a bad car from him as there is from an auction. But at least you can drive it around the block and, critically, you can get a pre-purchase inspection. That couple hundred you would spend in buyer’s fees can instead save you a few thousand dollars worth of headaches.
Otherwise, I look forward to seeing you at the shop.
Illustration by Sally Torchinsky
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……….but wait, you got a Cayenne for how cheap?
I had offered to write about my auction stories some time ago. No! It’s not all great! But also….it’s not all bad.
Oh my God, a writer *who* wrote “A certain type of person *who*…” instead of “A person *that*.” Thanks, Andrea, there’s still hope for the internet!
Super cool article, again, keep ’em coming!
I will drown this laptop in bleach before I click on a link that has been shortened and is now unreadable, especially given the oddly-worded message it accompanies. You’re now on my list.
Would buying at the auction of a well-known Michigan Jeep collector be good idea
2 Things I want to mention.
1. If the auction house allows OBDII scanners (I know not all do), this is a goldmine
2. People look at me sideways when I tell them I bought 2 cars (so far) from Copart. The way I look at it is there are 2 types of deals. The ones where the owner drove the car into the ground and its current state is a reflection of that… OR… The PO took good/decent care of the car and had bad luck one day and got into an accident. I would much prefer the second, because once you repair the damaged bits, you have a big head start on the first scenario. In a salvage auction vs public auction debate, I’ll always choose salvage.
In the past, I attended a public car auction, but never bought anything. My experience was that there would always be some idiots in the crowd that would bid too much because they felt the need to ‘win’.
Plus then you also have auction fees increasing the cost even more.
I’d rather just buy cars off of sellers directly.
Now I wonder how Copart listed my Saturn with the grenaded differential
We’ve seen a couple that departed our shop for CoPart listed without mention of the mechanical damage. It’s sketch
usually the Cars at the auction are there for exactly the reasons noted in the article. Because they cannot sell any other way. the hope is they get a bit above scrap value in most cases. The Copart auctions are where we need to really stop buying from. giving insurance companies high residual values of lightly damaged cars has resulted in many cars that should be repaired, scrapped to make their money back from Copart versus pay out for the repair. the only one benefitting here is the insurance company.
Preach Andrea, preach.
Auction cars are not for the faint of heart, wallet, mind, or skill.
Visit the auction, really look at the garbage, and know how broken it all is.
Why yes, I’ve purchased site-unseen, hard-to-find-parts-for, or wrecked cars from tow and crash auctions.
Things I have found in auction cars
1. Meth/Crack pipe (not sure which, I’m no expert)
2. 10″ purple dildo
Don’t buy auction cars.
One of the Autopian staff members is gonna be needing those back. I’m not telling you whom.
It’s you, isn’t it? 😛
Are you casting aspersions about all goths being sex crazed good time charlies?
Because, yeah that’s pretty accurate (apart from me of course, I’m chaste and virginal).
‘I’m chaste and virginal’
Is that you bragging or complaining?
Adrian needs them “for a friend”.
Possibly more than one. There may be a fight over them.
Won’t sniff the pipe, but you’ll measure the purple dildo?
You have some weird hangups, man.
“I know what you’re thinking- has that odometer rolled five times, or was it six?
Well, in all the excitement, I clean forgot myself.
So, you gotta ask yourself one question:
Try contacting a large and reputable dealership near you. Ask if they’ll let you buy cars they’re sending to auction.
There can be some good cars they took as trade-ins that they’re sending to auction because it won’t have enough profit if they sell it used.
Be honest and say you expect no warranty, but, do the test drive. Even better yet, pay for an inspection at the dealer.
Win-win for everyone.
This. I bought a car (Hyundai Accent) from a large new-car dealership off Craigslist. They told me that it was a trade-in that wasn’t quite nice enough for their own lot, and that they put such cars up on Craigslist for a couple of weeks before sending them to auction. A local mechanic gave it thumbs-up, Carfax report was ok, and it was a great car for a couple of years until it got totaled, no significant mechanical work ever needed.
Andrea, what are the four brands your shop focuses on? It makes a BIG difference (re $8000 rebuilt engine, etc.) if you are a German car shop, Japanese car shop, or mostly American. For instance, I have read that some nice Japanese sedans’ engine replacement costs are very high, just as high as the Germans.
We work on primarily German luxury cars and one German-adjacent economy brand. My boss does know I write these, but for discretion sake, I keep the brands and city I’m in private. It would be somewhat easy to narrow down if I gave either piece of info.
That means your four brands are obviously Porsche, Mercedes, BMW, and Dacia.
Great news !
Oh damn, you nailed it!
The way I’ve always put it is: “the only car you should buy at auction, is the wrecked one.”
In other words, the car where you know damn well exactly what you’re getting into. Which is a car that has been wrecked hard enough that repair costs exceed 40% of it’s value.
Counterintuitive is often the right answer.
Worked at a shop and we bought a TR8 that had an interior fire- found the engine had a spun bearing and the transmission had a hole blown in the case- no way this thing was running when it burnt- the fire was fairly minor so it didn’t affect the transmission
Completely agree. At least you know it’s a problem child ahead of time. My Camaro was a light front end hit. Some hidden damage,but nothing critical. Still have it 29 years later.
Not necessarily. Wrecked cars are often cars that weren’t cared for. Careless driving and careless ownership go hand-in-hand.
Unless you’re dealing with low mileage insurance write-offs. But then you’re facing serious competition in the established rebuilders’ market.
Every auction has its own set of risks. Knowing the risks, discounting appropriately and having a large enough bankroll to be wrong more oft
en than average is key.
‘In other words, the car where you know damn well exactly what you’re getting into. Which is a car that has been wrecked hard enough that repair costs exceed 40% of it’s value.’
In some cases >> 40% of value is just a stolen catalytic converter. That’s an easy enough fix if you have the parts.
Thanks! I enjoy your articles.
Why does reading about other people’s horrible choices make me feel better about my merely-bad life choices?
Does that make me a bad person?
Wait, maybe I just appreciate a good cautionary tale?
Yeah, that’s it! I’m totally a nice person… really.
It’s also important to note that the sourcing of cars at auctions can be heavily influenced by local business. We have one auctioneer that handles all the surplus equipment for a big utility company. Well maintained and clearly selling on a set schedule based on age more than use.
Our localish car auction is what the state police uses to dispose of all seized vehicles from their drug task force. That has given one very memorable set of Chrysler 300s. Apparently the previous owner(s) were trying to be “fleet” and had 5 of them in different colors. All looked very nice until you got to #5, which had bullet holes and the bumper ripped off. Guess that seizure was done the hard way.
Everyone likes to slag on used car dealers too. But the customers that sell or trade the cars that end up at these dealers are as untrustworthy as anyone.
Then again, even friends can be oblivious to real car problems.
Lots of the little BHPH dealers get their cars at… auction.
The auction lot I check a lot tends to end up having to post there are problems with vehicles well into auctions, likely because someone will go check out the vehicle and tell them. And I was running some VINs on things and told them that one had a branded title for theft. They said the title was taken care of. It remained listed as a clean title.
Gotta be really careful of the auctions. But, hey, you might get a government Explorer with the better cargo space in place of the third row or something.
As someone who has sold a car and a boat at auction, yeah — don’t buy a vehicle at an auction.
Friend of mine just sent his Fusion to auction. The Ecoboost in it has a failed head gasket. The car still drives, but smokes badly on start-up and will need a replacement engine; bar-none.
Naturally the auction site has it listed as “normal wear” and “runs and drives”.
Perhaps a small codicil…Some auctions handle cars donated to charities.
I’ve seen some legit nice cars go through the Manheim Auction in Denver
Good message to share, especially in these times. Like you said, there’s a reason cars get sent to auction, whether it’s from a dealer, an individual, or something in between. IF you still want to buy a car from an auction, do it with the understanding that there is likely something wrong with it and it WILL probably need work right away. At the very least, a lot of deferred maintenance but, just as likely, a big ticket repair. If you know your way around a car or can swing wrench or maybe “know a guy” who can do both, giddyup. Otherwise, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.
Glad to see you back Andrea
And is that the first time we’ve had Sally Torchinsky credited on something? Neat!
I’ve got a couple friends that make a solid percentage of their money by flipping cars from auctions. Usually they go with something that has body damage and don’t bother with anything that is mechanically funky.
Probably part of a good lesson in that.
I’ve noticed Sally has done a couple of graphics… cool to have more people from the families included (thinking Sheryl, as well). How long until Otto contributes?
Otto has been the comedic hero of a couple stories. He’s definitely pulling his weight.
I’m waiting for Otto to become the voice of sanity around here.
I was hatched in a lab experiment so don’t have a family.
Family is what you choose to surround yourself with- maybe your Ferrari can contribute.
My track record with Italian women in my life is……not great.
But the food was spectacular.