Inside the auction – beware of the dark side

It’s getting closer towards what historically has been the best time of year to buy a used car and never more so than this Winter. The spectacularly chaotic mess that our fiscal brethren are dealing with is really having a weird affect on the used car market. The shifts in prices are like nothing seen before and the general stop/start trade buying patterns has led to it being very difficult to place a value on anything.
Stock control nerves are being severely tested in the car supermarkets, many of the biggest players in the business are under threat as car values drop at the quickest rate ever seen, while the seasonal heavy flow of customers becomes a mere trickle. Many mid-size to large dealers (unless they have been smart enough to cut their losses and fire sell over age stock) are also burning in a depreciation hell.
On the other hand the dealers that have cleansed their forecourts are enjoying the fruits of buying and selling the staggeringly cheap cars that have become abundant. There may well be fewer customers around but the ones that are out and about can be easily sold to, as in some cases the car that cost the price of a medium sized house in Leeds when new can now be snapped up for just 3 months mortgage arrears payments.
So what a near perfect time to buy a car at auction, for this is the starting point for many professional buyers and there is a stack of new cars becoming available, as well as a glut of unsold existing stock. I checked this morning and the largest auction group in the country has over 13,000 vehicles being offered for auction over the next couple of weeks. Try and imagine that many cars and then think that most of them will have to have had buyers found for them by this time next month. This huge influx of cars in these difficult times will bring some great bargains, the trick if you are buying for living is to make your bid realistic enough to compete with other buyers but low enough to tantalise the small number of available customers, whilst of course dealing with a number of other dynamics that will all be occurring in the hall at the same time. This is digressing into professional buying which we will look at further down the line but for the moment we will assume that you are not a budding car trader but just someone that wants a to buy one good car at wholesale price.
The sections of cars we’ve looked at so far; ex-fleet company cars, rentals, main dealer part exchanges but there are also a number of authorities that use the auctions for disposal, the MOD, Fire service, NHS and of course the Police. A general rule of thumb? Worn out and abused. There are exceptions, for instance not all Police cars are used as pursuit vehicles and yes its true they really do maintain them well but be prepared for bits missing and gaping holes left by complex communication equipment.
At auction recently we bought a batch of 5 Toyota Prius all identical and previously owned by the ministry of defence. These were some form of surveillance vehicles with ultra low mileage and some cool spyware stuff left inside-well they were only really LED interior lights on bendy arms and some wires in the glove box but made a great story to the eventual owners. These particular cars were an example of the exception, clean, unworn and really perfectly maintained. A far cry from the selection of cheap and truly battered white Fiestas on offer from the local health trust, they may have low mileage but its all been done in first gear by bitter underpaid men wearing high visibility jackets. And beware of purchasing the likes of the plain clothes Police Astra patrol car that looks squeaky clean on the outside, the unmarked paintwork will hold less appeal when you get in it for the first time to discover the distinct and irreversible stench of death.
For the novice its best to look elsewhere. There will be a section in every car auction where trade entered vehicles may catch your eye, which again for the novice buyer is best avoided. Unlike the police vehicles that will have a clear ‘ex-police’ sticker on them or the Lex Leasing cars that will have (yes you guessed it) ‘Lex Leasing’ stickers on, these cars will have more ambiguous section names such as “A-line” or “Budget Section”.
I suggested the fleet/company car section as being the place to buy from that carries the least risk, well this section carries the most risk as it is the dark side. It’s not all about the actual cars in this section, although they will be mainly absolute garbage that has been polished to look like it has been re-sprayed with a particularly glossy nail varnish. Some will have motorway width coach-lines that have been strategically stretched over dents and unsubtle and very unconvincing ‘alloy wheel look’ plastic wheel trims framed with creosote thick tyre wall paint. There are some OK cars amongst them but most of them will have something seriously wrong or at best will be “not quite right”, telling them apart without driving them is impossible, even for me.
Some will have just enough coolant to get them through the auction hall before the bonnet melts and other will be swiftly switched off as they enter the hall so the sound of the oil starved valves doesn’t echo round the walls. Yes these cars are in the dark side for a reason and that reason is because they were cheap for the trader to buy (sometimes from the same auction house just a few days before) and why were they cheap? Because they were rubbish, the only difference now is that they are highly polished (“tonced up”) rubbish.
It is more important to consider the people who have entered them. There used to be many more of this type and they are a bit of a dying breed as auction houses are now lifting their profiles successfully. They do still exist though and can still earn well and legally, a lot of time out of other people’s misery. They are the small time local traders who work the nearest auction; they will prepare these cars themselves on site ready for the unsuspecting public to be wooed by these unfeasibly shiny death traps. Auction days for them are a chance for them to take to the stage as they mingle amongst their own cars and single out potential novice buyers posing as interested parties, dropping all sorts of positive remarks well within earshot of anyone who looks vaguely unsure of what they’re doing. This performance carries on into the hall where if you’re not careful you will find yourself in a bidding war with the trader or one of his friends as they and the auctioneer collude to draw you into auction fever and take you way beyond your set budget.
That’s the last section of cars and with the preceding articles we have covered all sections within most public car auctions, hopefully now you should have some idea on how the layout works and may feel confident enough to pay a visit. So what other skills do you need to bring with you? Well the auction itself moves quickly and is a very visual experience, good eyesight is just as useful and important as insight and next time we will talk about a few things to look for on a car before it goes into the hall. We’ll talk about pre-auction etiquette and how not to stand out and then beyond that we’ll explain how not to pay more than you should. Ultimately should you manage to convince yourself that buying your next car from auction is a good idea there is a way to buy one car in a way that makes you appear as though you buy 20 cars week, to the auctioneers and the 100 odd people that will be watching you.

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2 Responses to Inside the auction – beware of the dark side

  1. mARK rOBBINS November 5, 2008 at 11:53 pm #

    Don”t know which Auctions you attend, but the ones we frequent are nothing like your description? Death Traps? tonced up rubbish? as for not paying more than you should, if the vehicle in the hall is the right spec, the right colour, and the right owners and mileage, then it is highly unlikely that any private buyer will get to own it at a knock down price, we know its true value, note the word true here! thats what being in the business 26yrs and paying £350 per annum for a proper guide, along with knowing which vehicles make over book money and those that dont!

    One other thing, as professional dealers we often say to each other, “A private punter wont get it if we want it badly enough” thats the thing with the private buyer, you don’t get to learn this trade from magazines and Television shows, it takes years and years to know how to bid correctly. Be careful with the “Death Trap” comments as well, a responsible dealer wouldn’t be seen dead in one. excuse the pun!

  2. admin November 6, 2008 at 12:12 pm #

    Thankyou for your comments, feedback from the trade is always appreciated. The article you have read is part of a series, if you read the preceding articles you will see that we are not suggesting all cars from auctions are poor, this episode has looked at the poor element of which there is at most auctions throughout the country.
    While we welcome all readers this series is not really advice for the trade, the points discussed are directed towards private buyers who are considering buying from auction as opposed to buying from a dealer. We are looking to outline both the positive and negative sides of buying in this way in order to help a potential buyer make a more informed choice.

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