auctionYou’ve probably heard about the bargains to be had at car auctions. Tread carefully; it’s a minefield in there.

My mate Joe has been attending the auctions for years. He’s a professional car detailer and picks up work from the dealers and wholesalers who make up the regular customer base. He sees the people he calls the wood ducks making errors all the time.

“They forget they’re up against buyers who have been coming for years,” Joe said. “I’ve seen beginners getting excited when they figure a car will be a bargain because the professional buyers aren’t bidding. It doesn’t occur to them that there’s a reason these guys aren’t interested.”

So what are the traps?

“What’s hardest to get used to is how fast it happens,” Joe said. “On average a car takes 90 seconds to sell, some take less than a minute. You have to be fast; if you’re not the auctioneer will knock it down to a regular.

“Go on a weekday, not a Saturday. The professionals tend not to come on Saturdays and auctioneers often start the bidding $1000 higher than weekdays.

“At the really big ones, like Mannheim-Fowles, there can be three auction lines going at once and this gets tricky. You may think you’re bidding for the car in the first line but find your bid is being taken for the car in the second.

“The key is to know what you want and how much you’re going to pay, and stick to it. If the car you want goes over your budget come back next week. You have to be as cold and efficient as the regulars,” he said.

The cars are mostly from government fleets or car dealers who have taken them as unwanted trade-ins. While the service history is usually available (you may have to ask to see it prior to the auction) and a brief history of the car is displayed, you don’t get a test drive. At best you’ll be allowed to start the engine.

The engine bay has usually been steam cleaned, the car is washed and the interior vacuumed, but it’s seldom a thorough job.

“You’re mostly looking for repaired damage,” Joe said. “Check the dipstick for sludge in the oil. If the radiator has water rather than coolant forget it. Check the tyres and make sure the registration is current. Look for exhaust smoke.”

He likes ex-government cars (‘even though they’re white’) especially high mileage ones from the country that have done most of their travels with a thoroughly warmed-up motor.

So how many auctions does he think you should attend before buying?

“I’ve been going to them all my life and I wouldn’t do it, I can’t think fast enough,” Joe said. “If I want a car I find a wholesaler to bid for me and sling him $100.”

Published February 2014