How to buy a car at auction

How to buy a car at auction

Our how-to guide to purchasing your next collector car this week at the Arizona auctions

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part guide to buying and selling a vehicle at a collector car auction. The second segment covers buying.)

You have attended a few classic car auctions and are thinking it’s time to experience what it’s like to buy a car at one.

Auctions can be a great place to buy, and for a number of reasons:

First, you can often find cars at auction that you cannot find elsewhere. Special cars, cars with storied history, and many top-tier collector cars are sold at auction more than they are sold in the standard person-to-person market or even at by top-tier collector car dealers.

Second, auctions have a large number of cars all offered at the same time, giving you a greater breadth and depth of classic car offerings than you are likely to find by searching websites.

A third reason for buying at auction is that it can be a lot of fun. The process of bidding and hoping to be the final and winning bidder can be as exciting as it is nerve wracking.

Finally, you can sometimes find an amazing deal at an auction, especially if it is the wrong car at the wrong auction, such as a 1977 Porsche Euro Carrera at an auction that primarily sells muscle cars.

But there are some things to consider before buying at auction, which can be a successful adventure if you do your homework — and a disaster if you don’t.

Following is a list of tips to consider when buying at auction.

Before you bid:

  1. First and foremost I would not ever recommend buying at auction if you have never attended a classic car auction before. There is a lot to know and it is very easy for a first-time auction attendee to get excited and bid more for a car than it is worth.
  2. Pre-register for the auction. Information and various forms usually are available through an auction company’s website. You not only need to purchase a bidder’s number but provide proof that you can pay for your purchases. Pre-registering can save time and sometimes even money (some auction companies charge less for bidder pre-registration). Doing so also gives you more time to examine the car or cars you are considering instead of waiting in a long registration line at the auction site.
  3. Be sure that an auction is the correct place to buy the car you are considering. If you are looking for an MGB, Porsche 944 or other entry-level classic car, buying at auction is not likely to be the place to find the best car for the best price. More common classic cars can sell for much more than they are worth at classic car auctions, so if you are looking for a more common car, consider ads on and other classified sites. As a rule of thumb, cars costing less than $20,000 are generally not the right cars to buy at an auction.
  4. When thinking about buying at auction, be sure to research the cars before the auction. Go to the auction website and read every part of the description thoroughly. While reading, look as much for what you do not see in the description as for what you do see. If the catalog does not explicitly state that it is a matching-numbers car, there is a good chance that it is not. However, this is not always the case. If in doubt, ask; oftentimes people assume a car is not a matching-number example because they do not do the research beforehand, and such cars can end up being a good deal.
  5. Do even more research on the car beyond the description from the auction company. If you are looking at, say, an Alfa Romeo race car and the description is short, go to the Alfa community and find out the rest of the story. My friend Lars saw a 1957 Alfa Giulietta spider race car at an RM auction years ago and we found out that it was a factory-build race car. This data was nowhere in the description and he ended up stealing it at the auction for less than half of its value.
  6. Define the value of the car or cars you are considering buying. Use online tools such as the Hagerty price guide and Sports Car Market magazine’s Platinum Database while also searching for similar model cars for sale on, eBay and Craigslist.
    After figuring out what the car is worth, set a maximum price that you are willing to pay. When doing this, do not forget to figure auction fees, sales tax, transport fees and cost of attending the auction as these costs can add up quickly.

During the auction:

  1. When you go to the auction, bring a car collector friend with you. Have that person look at the car and ask them to point out any flaws they see.
  2. If you know an expert on the specific car in question, see if you can have them come to the auction and examine the car. There are a number of people who do this and having a specialist independent of the auction company go over the car can save you time and grief later.
  3. Do not fall in love with the car at first sight. Take a hard look at the car you are thinking about buying. Look at everything. This means getting on hands and knees to see what the underside.
  4. Locate an auction company specialist to show you the details of the car including opening the doors, hood and trunk. It is bad form to do this without a specialist present. You will see other people do this, but be the guy who asks for assistance. That way there is no issue with you in any way damaging the car.
  5. Find out from the specialist if the owner is present and, if so, have a conversation about the car. The key here is to listen more than you speak as owners will often disclose a lot more info about a car if you simply let them tell you about it. Think short questions from you and long answers from them. No question is off limits and while it might be uncomfortable to ask harder questions about things you and your friend see, it is completely in bounds to ask if a car has ever been hit or if it is the correct color. Remember this is an auction and not a car show, you are a buyer and the owner is effectively a car salesman.
  6. Ask the auction company specialist if there is any documentation for the car you are considering. Often there is a file on the car that can provide more information than the description in the catalog. You can often find information in the files that should have been in the description but was forgotten or not seen. This information can drastically affect the value of a car, often in your favor.
  7. During bidding, do not get excited and be the first bidder on the car. Wait and watch the room and then bid after the initial excitement of the car diminishes. Remember, it is the last bidder that buys the car, not the first.
  8. While bidding, ask the friend you brought to spot anyone you are bidding against. This can help you get a read on the room and your competitors for the car.
  9. Finally, have a method of transportation ready ahead of time so you can get the car home. An out-of-town auction will charge local sales tax for a car that is taken by the owner with no transporter involved and you can end up paying sales tax twice. It sounds crazy, but people have done this by mistake.
  10. If you are the winning bidder, remember that there will be a buyer’s fee, often around 10 percent, added to your high bid. But when you buy at or below your price threshold, be sure to celebrate.

If you have gotten the idea that buying at auction is complex, you are correct. But the process for buying a car at auction is not much different from what you should do when buying one from a dealer or private party.

If you follow these steps and do your homework, buying at an auction can be a fun and rewarding experience.

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