Updated May 13, 2022
Finding a steal at an auto auction is a thrill – but it’s also a skill. Read on to find our top auto auction tips and tricks to find a great deal.
Whether you’re a connoisseur of the classics or a bargain hunter on the prowl, an auto auction is like a mecca for like-minded folks who are all eager to win the same prize.
Auto auctions, like the vehicles they peddle, come in all shapes and sizes. Smaller, niche auctions commonly feature one-of-a-kind collector classics, while larger, commercial auctions focus on daily drivers that simply need a new owner.
No matter which type of auction you attend, coming prepared with the resources and knowledge to navigate the process is crucial. The more familiar you are with the process and best practices, the more likely you are to come away with a prize to be proud of. To help you out, we’ve put together a list of our best tactics.
Top Five Auto Auction Tips and Tricks:
1. Fortune favors the prepared
Every auction is different, but in general, much of the information you’re going to need is available ahead of time. Take the time to research which vehicles will be up for auction, determine which you’re interested in, and get very familiar with that vehicle. It’s a good idea to research common issues with the vehicle to check for during inspection.
Additionally, research the auction itself to understand the ins and outs of its processes. Every auction operates differently, even those in the same categories. Be sure to understand how bidding works, what access you’ll have to the vehicles before the show, and what specific issues sellers are required to disclose.
Auctions are fast-paced and high-pressure. It’s important that you understand the stake of what you’re bidding on, even in the rush of the moment. Most auctions have very specific rules regarding the lights above the auctioneer, which can signal things like a car having over 100,000 miles, or many other important details. By the same measure, be sure you understand the rules of the auction. Some auctions allow for outside bidders to participate, and some allow the auctioneer to reference false bids to drive the selling price up. None of these should be a red flag, but understanding how it works will help you better navigate your purchase. Keep in mind, if you only follow one of these tips for auto auction hunting, this is the one to stick to.
2. Inspect the merchandise
Before the auction, you can inspect the vehicle(s) you’re interested in to see what you’re really comfortable paying. If possible, get inside the vehicle and switch the ignition on. Test out features, switches and lights to detect things that might cost you later in repairs. It seems like an obvious step, but it’s the best way to avoid an obvious lemon.
Carefully inspect the paintwork for rough patches or uneven texture. You can bring a paint meter along to test paint thickness, which could be camouflaging undisclosed repairs.
Finally, if you’re serious about buying, do as much of the paperwork as possible beforehand. It can help streamline the process and get you out the door much faster than waiting to complete all the paperwork along with all the other buyers after you’ve won.
3. Plan to spend on repairs
Typically, you know pretty well what you’re getting when you purchase from an auction. Of course, with varying disclosure rules between auctions, issues that can’t be obviously identified, or underlying problems, you may run into trouble. The best way to prepare for this is to expect to invest in repairs for the vehicle. The amount you should be prepared to spend depends heavily on the vehicle at hand, but you should always budget in the cost of a full inspection and detail at the very least.
4. Bid in odd increments
This auto auction tip is as old as time: If you’re participating in an online, blind or silent auction, it’s a good idea to increase your bid by uneven amounts. In these situations, you’re often encouraged to increase your bid by relatively large amounts ($100 is common) but you don’t always need to increase your bid this much. If everyone seems to be bidding in obvious increments, consider offering an odd number above the top offer. If everyone else is jumping $100 with every offer, you may just be in luck by offering a few bucks above that thanks to automatic bids and maximums.
5. Set a budget – and stick to it
It’s a story all too common – a bidder sees the vehicle they’ve been eyeing go up on the block and all bets are off. The objective shifts from getting a great deal to simply winning the auction. It’s a good idea to have a cap on how much the vehicle is worth to you and not let yourself bid above it, regardless of how the auction is going. Remember that a great deal is only a great deal for as long as it saves you money. Once prices go above what you’re comfortable paying, it’s time to walk away instead of double down.
Now that you know the tactics for a successful day at the auction, check out our guide on shipping your new vehicle home from an auction.