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How to buy cars at auction

If you carry out a little research first, you may find car auctions an enjoyable way of securing a used car for a lower price tag. If you’re able to keep your head in the fast-paced environment of the auction house, can stay focused on what you want and are prepared to run a comprehensive vehicle history check on the prize you’re after, then a bargain-priced car could well be yours for the taking.

It’s worth remembering if you’re planning on purchasing a cheap car at a dealership, via private seller or online that most auto traders gather their stock from used car auctions. Purchasing your own car at auction effectively cuts out this extra party and avoids any additional cost this may accrue.

However, you must be confident in your knowledge about cars and know what you’re buying to be successful at a car auction. If this doesn’t sound like you but you’d still like to bid, make sure you take along a trusted friend with the auto knowledge you don’t possess. It’s also good advice to visit at least four car auctions before you ever take part, simply to get a feel for the event, understand exactly how it all works and familiarise yourself with the rapid-fire bidding.

Read on to find all you need to know on the topic of how to buy cars at auction:

How to buy cars at auction

It’s advised that you attend a few local auctions so that you understand the process before taking part. Once you’re comfortable, set a budget and make sure you stay inside this limit. While bidding starts low, it can rise quickly and soon become expensive. Prior to a sale, don’t hesitate to ask auction staff about anything you’re not sure of. Always keep a clear head and don’t give in to impulse bidding and buying. Research the prices of similar vehicles and have a budget that you stick to.

Arrive early on auction day so you’ve got a chance to inspect the vehicle you want to bid on. While no test drive will be possible, examining a car that takes your fancy before the sale will allow you the chance to check it out. You’ll be able to look inside and read any included documentation, and the auction staff may even start the engine for you upon request. Listen for any suspicious noises and study the exhaust for white or blue smoke, as these are strong signs of problems.

Take a good look at the vehicle’s bodywork from a variety of angles, especially down the side to ensure it’s straight. Examine the bodywork found below doors, commonly called sills. These should be completely free from signs of structural damage such as dents.

It’s always a smart idea to conduct a thorough vehicle history check for your desired used car, and this is especially important at auction. Organisations such as HPI will charge just £20 to run a check on a vehicle’s history, and if you’re checking more than one car they’ll sometimes offer discounts. Running this check should give you the peace of mind that your intended purchase hasn’t been part of a serious traffic accident or has some outstanding finance agreement attached to it. A car check of this kind should also give you a rough estimate of the vehicle’s worth.

All cars that come to auction will each have a detailed description drafted by the auctioneers. It’s important that you read these carefully, as the description contains vital information, such as disclaimers and additional conditions. If you don’t see these terms, you’ll limit your chance to dispute and obtain compensation if you purchase a vehicle with such disclaimers, commonly known as a Category D write-off. The reserve price for the car should also be listed – this price is the minimum sum for which the seller is prepared to auction their car.

Each car for auction, called a “lot”, will be driven inside the auction room in the order according to its placement in the auction house catalogue. If you didn’t manage to arrive for an early inspection, listen to how it sounds when driving into the hall, but be quick if you’re keen to bid.

Remember, the auctioneer’s purpose is to sell vehicles for the highest price possible, as the auction house will enjoy a percentage of the profits on every car sold. They’ll invite those attending to make bids and while they begin low, they’ll be placed at an alarming rate. Keen hearing and a fast hand are vital to keep the pace.

If you’re sure you want to make a bid, decisively, clearly and quickly raise your auction catalogue, numbered paddle or hand to announce your interest. If possible, catch the eye of the auctioneer while you do this.

If the car manages to reach the reserve price placed on it, it will be successfully sold to the person with the highest bid. Largely just for the sake of tradition, a gavel will be banged at this point and the car will be classed as sold.

If you’ve successfully won your auction, all you need to do is make your payment to the auction house. A deposit of either £500 or 20% of the auction price is payable instantly - usually whichever figure is greater. The balance can then be paid either by debit card or bank transfer. Other methods, such as cash and credit cards, can carry an additional admin fee from the auction house.

Can anyone go to a car auction?

There are plenty of car auctions open to the general public to attend, but due to the popularity of auction-style sales, there are some auto auctions you may be prohibited from joining.

As a direct result of this increased popularity, some auction houses will hold auctions that are open only for trade participants. To be allowed into such auctions you’ll need to be registered for VAT. These auctions are designed specifically for both used car traders and garages to make certain they have a continuous stream of cheap vehicles to sell. Auction houses and used car dealers are mindful to make sure this arrangement is maintained as the bidding of private sellers from the general public at an auction can raise prices, making the business model no longer beneficial or economically viable.

Do you need a licence to buy cars at auction?

While you won’t require a special licence to buy a car at auction, some auction house may require buyers to prove their identity, so bringing your driver’s licence is always advised even if you’re not driving your newly purchased car from auction.

If you plan on driving your new vehicle away on auction day, it’ll be your responsibility to make certain the car is legal to drive. This includes road tax, insurance, and MOT, although auction houses can often arrange delivery to your address for a fee.

Where can I find car auctions near me?

Used cars are being sold online in real-time as well as in physical auctions all over the UK. While Manheim and BCA (British Car Auctions) are a couple of the UKs leading companies operating auctions, a quick Google search will find results of all the auto auctions happening around your area, typically displayed through a map that identifies the different sites nearby which you can attend.

It’s always a good policy for convenience to select an auction house close to home. As we mentioned, some of the larger auction houses will deliver your purchased vehicle for a fee, but the closer, the better when it comes to getting the most for your money.

How much is the buyer’s fee at British car auctions?

While buyer’s fees may vary for vehicles, an estimate for the two largest auction houses - BCA and Manheim - shows that for a car bought at auction for between £1,000 to £1,500, you’ll be looking at a fee of around £265. For more specific details on buyer’s fees, always contact the actual auction house before the day. You can also register online free of charge and ask for a quote.

How to register for a car auction

While you can just turn up at an auction and start bidding right away, if you’d like more information before attending, you can register online. Leading organisation Manheim enables free registration for the general public online and allows you to access the full details of the auction, including fees. If you’re an auto trader or dealer in used cars and wish to attend a trade-only event, you’ll need to supply your VAT registration to take part.

What do I need to go to a car auction?

We’ve already mentioned that it’s best to bring your driver’s licence, and If you’re looking to buy a car at auction, it’s also wise to bring a second form of ID including photograph identification and proof of address.

Since credit cards or cash will carry additional charges if used, always bring your debit card and a way to access your bank online if you’d like to use bank transfers as a method of payment.

Physical items aside, you should come fully equipped with thorough research on the vehicles you’re interested in. You can download the monthly issue of the sales guide beforehand, or make use of the full catalogue that will usually be made available to you on the day.