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How to buy a car at an auction
You could score a great deal - but without conducting a thorough inspection, you might get stuck with a lemon.
Looking for a bargain on your next used vehicle? At car auctions, you bid against other buyers instead of negotiating with dealers. Unlike shopping at a dealership, you usually can’t get a refund on cars bought at an auction and you often won’t get a vehicle warranty either. Make sure you thoroughly check the condition of any car before bidding on to avoid ending up with a raw deal. With some background homework and some good luck on your side, you could end up driving home a steal.
Is buying a car from an auction a good idea?
Buying a car from an auction can yield mixed results. In some cases, you could drive off with the best steal at the auction, securing a rare vehicle at a great price, or you could end up inheriting a lemon that needs constant repairs.
How well you will fare at buying a car from an auction depends on you doing your homework before buying and, well, a bit of luck.
Here are some key factors to keep in mind when deciding on buying a car at auction:
- The car is sold exactly as is. Unlike at the dealership, there isn’t room for negotiations when it comes to model, make and customizations. When you’re buying a used car at an auction, you’re purchasing the vehicle exactly as it is on the lot. You’ll need to have a careful look at it and take it for a test drive before committing to the purchase.
- The car may not be in great condition. Depending on the type of auction you’re at, you could be buying a used car on its last legs or a nearly new vehicle that was repossessed simply because its owner couldn’t keep up with their bills. Ask questions and carefully check on the mileage and wear and tear on the car. Consider the type of auction that you’re at. A salvage auction may have cars that aren’t of much value to dealers or insurance companies, while estate auctions could have high-end sports cars. Factor in the extra costs you may incur to make repairs and insure your car if it needs some TLC.
- You may need to buy with cash. If you’re attending a live auction, you may need to pay for your car purchase upfront in cash. Your job is to check with the auction house ahead of time to see how payment works, and whether they accept cash, credit, debit card or money order, for example. If you need to ahead of time, you can apply for a personal loan to finance your purchase.
- You may come across classic cars or second-hand performance cars. If you’re shopping for a car that’s a rare breed, auctions may be the best way to find what you’re after. Depending on the auction, you could come across rare vintage cars or performance cars sold at a fraction of the cost.
How does the auction process work?
Auction houses access used cars from a variety of sources, such as ex-police or government cars, cars repossessed by finance companies and former rental cars that are due for replacement. You can find auctions that only deal with specific types of vehicles like classic cars, as well as more general auctions.
Here are the steps you can expect to go through when buying a car at auction:
1. Research car auctions near you
Search online for auctions in your area. After you find one you’re interested in, check to see if there’s a catalog available of the vehicles that will be auctioned. This typically provides information on each car’s model, ownership history and potential costs for maintenance and repairs.
You also might want to consider visiting a few auctions in advance to get a better understanding of how they work.
2. Register in advance
You’ll likely need to register for the auction and provide identification in advance. You may also be required to prove you have enough money to pay for a car at auction, so have a bank statement, credit card statement or loan pre-approval offer on hand just in case. When you get to the auction, the auctioneer will give you an identifying marker like a numbered car or paddle which you can then use to make bids.
3. Compare the different cars available
Don’t rush to bid on the first car you see. Look at each vehicle to compare builds and see which one you’re interested in most. If the seller is at the auction, ask them why they’re choosing to sell the vehicle and if there was any repair work that was done. If you have any questions or concerns about a vehicle, raise them before the auction rather than after it commences.
4. Inspect the vehicle
If possible, look thoroughly at the interior and exterior of the car to check for defects, such as signs of previous accidents, rust or broken parts. Check for registration papers as well as the vehicle identification number (VIN).
The VIN can typically be found on the dashboard, driver’s side door and in front of the engine — make sure the numbers match, otherwise the car might be stolen. You can then use the car’s VIN to look up the vehicle history report, which verifies ownership history, accidents and repairs.
5. Start bidding
This is when you’re facing off against other people interested in purchasing the same car as you. Vehicles typically come with a reserve price, which is the lowest bid that will be accepted. If no bid reaches the reserve price, the seller can choose not to sell the car. But if a bid is above the reserve price, the seller must accept it.
If you have the highest bid at or above the reserve price, you’re required to complete the sale. For whichever car you’re interested in buying, keep the market value in mind to determine if you’re actually getting a good deal.
6. Negotiate with the owner if the car doesn’t sell.
You can try doing this if a car failed to reach the reserve price. You can possibly get the seller’s details from the auctioneer to negotiate with them directly.
7. Pay for the car and transfer the title
If you’ve bid successfully, you’ll generally be asked to make a down payment of around 10% at the end of the auction. This is why it’s a good idea to have a pre-approval offer from a few different lenders to prove you have the funds available to pay for the vehicle.
Compare car loans to buy a used car at an auction
How do I inspect the vehicle?
Always give the car a thorough inspection before buying. Try following this checklist to make it easier.:
1. Check the exterior
- Look for any signs of a previous accident.
- Check for any rust or corrosion — it may indicate more extensive damage.
- Examine for hail damage, dents and panel irregularities.
- Ensure the door and boot seals are intact.
- Look for chips or variations in the paint.
- Check the engine exterior for any damage or abnormalities.
- Check the engine oil and radiator coolant.
2. Go over the interior
- Check the condition of upholstery and interior paneling.
- Look for any signs of wear and tear on the seat belts.
- Find out whether the electronics — like air conditioning, power windows and the audio system — are functional.
3. Start the car, if possible
- Check for functioning of interior lights and all exterior lights.
- See that dials and electronics such as air conditioning and audio are working as expected.
- Listen for unusual engine noises.
4. Check the documentation
- Transfer of ownership documents (eg. certificate of title, vehicle bill of sale).
- Registration papers.
- Vehicle history report.
How can I pay for a car I bought at an auction?
You have a few options when it comes to financing a car you bought at auction:
- Used car loan. You can take out a loan through a bank, credit union or online provider. Check out our guide to used car loans to learn more about the differences between secured and unsecured loans, interest rates and terms.
- Unsecured personal loan. This type of loan generally doesn’t require you to put up any collateral, although they typically come with higher rates.
- Cash. If you have enough money saved up, it might be a good idea to pay for the vehicle directly with cash. At some auctions, this can be the only option to pay.
Although buying a car at auction can be cheaper than getting one at a dealership, the costs can be unpredictable. You may not only need to pay for the car itself, but also taxes, buyer’s premium, registration fees and any repairs that need to be made. Adding up these extra expenses can help you figure out how much you’ll need to borrow.
If you opt for a car loan or personal loan, you may want to consider getting preapproved from a few providers so you know how much you have to spend. This can also give you an idea of what rates and terms you qualify for so that you can find the best deal available to you.
Can I get financing directly from the auction house?
Generally, no. Most auctions require you to have some form of payment ready with you before bidding. Though some online car auctions provide financing, you should still have a backup form of payment ready, just in case.
What you should know about buying a car at an auction
Ready to start bidding? Here are a few pointers to help ensure your car auction experience goes smoothly:
- Check the car’s certifications before buying. Some vehicles might be sold with a certificate of title or pink slip, while others may not. You should add the cost of registration to the cost of the vehicle for an idea of total expenses.
- Expect to pay a buyer’s fee. If you’ve bid successfully you will generally need to make a payment of $500 at the end of the auction.
- Consider market value before you bid. This will give you a good idea of the vehicle’s price before you start the auction. Check resources like the Canadian Black Book or autoTrader.ca to zero in on a fair price.
- Know the competition. It can help to know whether you’re bidding against dealers or the general public. Dealers tend to look for discounted cars and usually avoid bidding too high, making it easier to get a bargain.
- Ask questions. If you have any questions or concerns about a vehicle, raise them before the auction rather than after it commences.
- Bring a friend. If you don’t know enough about cars to inspect it properly, it’ll be worth bringing along someone who does. That way, you can have someone you trust guide you through what questions to ask and what to watch out for.
- Try before you bid. If you’re unfamiliar with car auctions it can help to attend a few first without buying anything. They can be fast paced, so a good understanding of the processes can help you bid smarter.
It’s easy to get caught up in the quick-moving energy of a car auction. But beware of the following points:
- Appearances can be deceiving. Cars that look good on the outside might not be so great under the hood. Don’t let looks deceive you and pay attention to the overall health of the car, including wear and tear, need for repairs and how much mileage its already cropped up.
- Sellers won’t be upfront. Auctions are designed to give sellers a quick way to dispose of unwanted property and make up for financial losses. There’s not much incentive for them to level with you about a vehicle’s defects.
- You can lose without a plan. If you don’t know beforehand which vehicle features are non-negotiable for you and what your spending limit is, you could be driven by impulse and end up with a bad deal.
- Quality vehicles are buried among a lot of junkers. Buying anything at an auction, including cars, takes patience. Many cars meet the end of the road at vehicle auctions. You’ll have to wade through many questionable prospects to find the ones worth bidding on.
- Plan to spend more than you think. Between repairs, shipping and buyer’s fees, you’re likely to incur more costs that you realize. Factor in the total cost of your purchase, including these extra expenses after your auction purchase, and make sure you have enough in your budget to afford your new car.
Representative example: Ben buys a used car from an auction
Ben, a resident of Ontario, wants to attend a car auction to find a cheap, used vehicle he can use to drive to work.
Because of his strong credit history, Ben’s bank approves him for a $8,000.00 unsecured personal loan. To participate in the auction, he’ll have to bring a bank statement with him to prove he has the money to back his bids.
Ben wins a $5,500.00 bid for a black 2013 Hyundai Elantra GL with 126,000 kilometres on it. He pays the price as well as a buyer’s fee of 15% ($825.00) and 13% HST. The title is transferred to his name, and the car is now his.
He registers the vehicle with the provincial government for $150.00, which includes the cost of a license plate sticker and vehicle permit (he can reuse his old plates, so he doesn’t need to buy new ones). After having the vehicle inspected, he ends up paying an additional $800 in repairs.
Between the bidding price, buyer’s fee, HST, repairs and registration costs, Ben pays around $8,100.00 total for his car ($100.00 of which had to come out of his savings). Models similar to Ben’s can sell for up to $8,000.00 before repairs and registration fees, so he seems to have gotten a good deal. However, if he had placed a higher bid, or if repairs had been more expensive, he could have ended up spending more than if he had simply bought from a dealership or a private seller.
|Cost of used car||$6,325.00 ($5,500.00 bid price + $825.00 buyer’s fee)|
|Loan type||Auto loan (term loan)|
|Interest rate (APR)||7.90%|
|Loan term||3 years|
|Additional fees||4.00% origination fee ($320.00)|
$0.00 application fee (waived by lender)
|Payment||$250.32 monthly or $115.35 biweekly|
|Total loan cost||$9,011.52 with monthly payments or $8,997.30 with biweekly payments|
*The information in this example, including rates, fees and terms, is provided as a representative transaction. The actual cost of the product may vary depending on the retailer, the product specs and other factors.
How do I prepare for a car auction?
If you’re new to the auction game, preparation is key to helping you get a good deal. Here’s what you can do to set yourself up for success:
- Do your recon in advance. Before heading to the auction, comb through the vehicle listings so you can zero in on the cars of interest to you. The auction should provide details like cars’ vehicle identification number, or VIN. You can do a background check on the car with this information to see how many previous owners it had, and if it has any major accidents or damage, or if the manufacturer made any recalls. With the make and model of the car in hand, you can even check on the car’s current market value, so you’ll have a rough estimate of how much it’s worth.
- Keep an open mind. Expect the unexpected at auctions, from getting outbid or showing up only to find the car you set your sights on isn’t there. Try not to focus on a single listing at an auction. Instead, list the features that are most important to you in a vehicle and you may come across multiple options that fit the bill.
- Get familiar with the rules. Every auction has its own set of guidelines to follow, from when and how to pay to registration and bidding. Get acquainted with these rules so you know precisely how to bid and secure your purchase. You may need to pay with cash upfront, or the auctioneer may accept credit, debit or a cheque.
- Stick to your budget. Things can get pretty hectic at an auction, so you’ll need to head in with a clear game plan on how much you can afford to spend and what you’re willing to buy. If your heart is set on a specific car, but multiple bidders are driving up its cost, you need to draw a line on how much you’re willing to spend so you don’t get carried away. Keep in mind, you will have to pay for insurance, maintenance, repairs and other expenses after your initial purchase. If you lose out on the car, there are always more auctions and cars, so it’s alright to walk away empty-handed.
- Arrive at the auction early. If you’re heading to an in-person auction, get there ahead of time to scope out the vehicles you’re interested in. In some cases, you can test drive the vehicle, bring in a mechanic to have a look at the car’s nuts and bolts, or at the very least, you can pop the hood, check the oil and look under the car for any red flags. You don’t want to have your close-up look at the car in a busy crowd, so it pays off to show up earlier.
Are there online car auctions?
Yes, you can buy a car at an online auction. In some cases, the virtual route may be a better choice for first-timers because in-person auctions can be pretty intense.
Online auctions operate in a similar way to in-person ones. You’ll need to register ahead of time and you can search through the listings so you can home in on the vehicles you’re most interested in. The auction should list important information, such as the model of the car, the year of its make, its mileage, condition, fuel and transmission.
You can also control your search parameters with online auctions so you’re only shown cars within your price point or other desired features. If you set a budget, the auction platform won’t show you any vehicles priced above your maximum allowance.
Bidding is done virtually and held over a set period of time. This gives you time to research the car, check out its specs, and watch for competitors bids. If you place the winning bid, the car is yours.
Do your homework on auction fees and guidelines on payment, so you are prepared to make your purchase. You should also make sure you’re joining a legitimate auction that vets its vendors carefully.
You may be able to save thousands on a new-to-you car by heading to an auction instead of the dealership. But like with any used car purchases, you’ll need to thoroughly inspect the car and vehicle history report to ensure you don’t end up with a lemon.
Not sure whether you should buy a used vehicle at auction or a new vehicle from a dealership? Check out our guide to learn more about new versus used vehicles, so you can decide which choice is right for you.
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