Should I buy my next car from a public auction?

In the quest to answer the question ‘Should I buy my next car from a public auction?’ The best starting place should be to establish what these mildly mysterious places are all about. Whether it is lack of access, interest or underlying fear, many of us have heard all about them but haven’t actually been to one. This week we will try and give some idea to the uninitiated what to expect.
The car auction differs from the idea of an auction that most people have in their heads. It’s very unlike attending a laborious and slow moving property sale auction or maybe the sleepy country antique auction or even the hush, plush politeness of Sotheby’s. The public car auction is a different animal altogether.

It all starts in the car park which, if you get there any time after the auction has commenced, will be mobbed. People involved in the motor trade generally have very little regard for cars so you will find a wide variety of vehicles from the exotic to the knackered that have been arranged in a way to look like they have been dropped from the sky. The basic rules which most of us abide by when attempting to park in a car park are rarely obeyed, and it’s unfortunate to see that the disabled bays are usually the ones that are occupied first by perfectly able bodied oiks.

On entering the main entrance don’t look for the cheery old fellow handing out pamphlets and a paddle for you to wave as he won’t be there. Instead, if you’re a member of the public at most car auctions you will have to go and register your interest by giving £500 to the cashier behind the glass and steel partition. You then pay for your catalogue and head to the area where there’s loads of noise. You will then enter the auction hall itself which is typically big and full of cars. This is of course what your there for but it’s difficult not to dwell on what else is there, as everyone is welcome at the car auction and it seems everyone has turned up.

For me as a professional buyer and amateur voyeur, apart from the cars there is another interesting aspect to attending car auctions. For whatever reason, they do attract a far reaching cross-section of the population and offer the most curious examples of human behaviour. There is surely no other place in the world where two 20 stone men can be seen casually using the back of a £40k Audi as a breakfast table, spitting pieces of sausage and mayo all over the paintwork as they shout with their mouths full and groups of blokes that look like pirates, who all seem to know each other and break into laughter and push each other about. As you can probably guess the whole attendance is generally male dominated. This and more will greet you well before you’ve got to the area where actual transactions take place, which you will hear blaring out above all else, sounding like the poorly amplified ramblings of a mad man with nasal issues .With this heady mix of incoherent noise, cars, big blokes and general confusion, it’s not surprising that I witness many new visitors promptly u-turn and head for the shiny white lights of the main dealer next door. We’re all adults after all and can make our own choices and they’re often made at this critical point where many a potential auction car buyer is transported back to being an 11 year old but this time has the option of going home on the first morning at big school.

For the naturally brave there are rewards but there is a lot more to do. To start with, unless you have a particular lot in mind you will have to first have a look and choose a car on offer. Walking the aisles also offers a momentary respite from the scary activity at the sharp end.

There are some small independent car auctions but the typical mid-size to large auction we are discussing here will have 400 to 500 cars on offer that day. These will be displayed in rows and each car will have a lot number that should coincide with the catalogue. Depending on the auction policy most cars will have a sheet glued to the screen which will give a brief outline of make, model, age mileage etc. Some cars will have more details such as service history and engineers report others will be blank in this section or will have no sheet at all. There will be typically 5-10 sections each one containing between 5 and 200 cars. Each section will be from one vendor group, you may have a company that has entered 150 cars or a main dealer that has entered 10 cars or vice verse. If you are in any way familiar with the larger motor groups and dealers you may recognise some names such as Lex or Inchcape. There will also be more ambiguously named groups such as A-Line and Multi Source.

There are a great number of cars in one place and it can be daunting to think that they are all going to be offered up and will potentially find buyers within the next few hours. It is easy to get a bit of tunnel vision with so many makes and models all looking unnaturally shiny under the glaring halogen lights.

Most of the cars will have been valeted before they go through the auction and on that point; there is a favourite ‘top tip’ that is often administered regarding not buying a car at auction that has been ‘tonced up’.

There is a difference between a car that has been ‘valeted’ and one that has been ‘tonced up’ the definition of which we will cover in more detail at a later stage. Most large auction houses have their own huge in-house valet sections that work 24 hours to get just about every car looking as clean as possible. Why does this happen? Well for the trade buyers its simple, the cleaner the cars, the easier it is for them to see what they’re buying. For the public it’s a bit more complex and we delve a little bit into the psychology of car sales. Auction houses despite their seemingly user unfriendly approach do want some public or ‘retail’ business. It helps with attendance ratings and can drive the end prices up, which in turn pleases their vendors. The rule on retail sales is that cars that have been cleaned sell, ones that haven’t sell for less or don’t sell at all. It’s not so much being able to see the reflection of your face in the bonnet or the sickly interior aroma of sweetened Canadian pine that makes people buy, the secret is eradicating all evidence of the previous owner and lulling the new owner into feeling that he or she is in fact the first person to step into this vehicle. And it doesn’t take much to spoil that illusion even in a valeted car, one twix wrapper or sight of an old plastic coffee lid immediately transports the potential buyer in to the world of the previous owner who up until that point did not exist. So it’s as important in the auction house as in any car sale that the car is as clean as clean can be.

Ok so now I’ve just reminded you that there are things that have been done to make you buy, I can feel you tensing up. Take a breather at this point and head for the auction cafe. Sausage in a roll is de rigueur but you may order a tuna salad on brown if there are no pirates within earshot.
To be continued…

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