Used car auctions - your complete guide

You can save hundreds by buying your next car at an auction. Our step-by-step guide tells you everything you need to know...

Used car auctions - your complete guide

The word ‘auction’ brings to mind David Dickinson in Bargain Hunt, cheering on teams to get the best price for antiques. In the real (non-TV) world, auctioneers deal in everything from watches to mansions – and you could save a fortune by getting your next car at one.

Why? Well, when you buy a car from an auction house, you’re cutting out the dealer, who will mark up the price to make a profit on the sale. In fact, many of the used cars on dealers’ forecourts came from vehicle auctions.

Some UK auction houses will only sell to buyers working in the motor trade, but there are plenty that let members of the public bid too. You can do that by turning up in person on the day of an auction or (more commonly at the moment) by placing bids online.

Used car auctions – your complete guide

Before you go

Before you attend your first auction with the intention of bidding, it’s worth going along to at least one – either in person or virtually – to see how it works. That means you won’t be intimidated by the proceedings when you’re focused on buying a car.

Most auction houses have websites that let you browse the current stock available. It’s a good idea to compile an early list of the cars you might be interested in bidding on, noting down any pertinent details, such as the car’s mileage and estimated value.

Whichever auction provider you end up choosing, make sure you do your research. They each have their own rules covering how much deposit you’ll need to pay if you are the winning bidder on a car, and when the full balance of your purchase is due.

Online car buying research

Be prepared to show proof of identity whenever you sign up to attend an auction or create an account online. If you’re going in person, it’s a good idea to take your driving licence and a recent utility bill.

It’s worth remembering that if you do make a purchase, it’s up to you to make sure your new car has a valid MOT test certificate, as well as road tax and insurance. If you can’t arrange this in advance, you should pay to have the car delivered to you instead.

The age of any cars you’ll find at auction can vary wildly, ranging from classic cars to vehicles that are only a couple of years old. Indeed, our research found plenty of 2019 and 2020-registered models up for auction, all with less than 20,000 miles on the clock. If a dealer that specialises in a particular make of car takes a model from a different manufacturer in part-exchange, they usually use an auction house to sell it on.

Man inspecting used cars at auction

When you're there

If your auction is a virtual one, you’ll simply click a link to join (assuming you’ve already created an account) and place your bid. The closest you’ll get to the car will be looking at the photographs provided by the seller.

If you’re attending an auction in person, you can inspect the cars before they go under the hammer. For that reason, it’s a good idea to arrive early and head straight for the vehicles you’ve singled out during your research.

You won’t be able to give them a thorough mechanical inspection, but the auction house will, at the very least, have done a basic history check on any car that’s put up for sale. This will show that it hasn’t been stolen, isn’t classified as an insurance write-off and doesn’t have any outstanding finance. Some auction houses offer a short-term insurance policy (for as little as 30 minutes) so buyers can take a quick test drive to check for faults.

Man looking under bonnet of used Volkswagen Golf

Cars sometimes have a mileage figure that’s described as ‘warranted’, which means it has been checked and is genuine. If a mileage isn’t warranted, it might not be accurate.

When a car you’re thinking of bidding on is driven into the auction hall, note how easily it starts, how it sounds and whether the exhaust emits any smoke. Also, take a close look at its condition and specification. Remember, it’s up to you to spot any problems, and most cars are sold without a guarantee or warranty (unless the manufacturer warranty is still valid).

Audi A4 driving into auction hall

If you’re buying as part of an online auction, you’ll be able to click on the website to make a bid. Some sites allow you set a maximum bid and let the system keep bidding for you until the price hits that amount. To bid at an auction you’re attending in person, raise your arm clearly to signify a bid and make sure the auctioneer has seen you. Have a good idea of how much you’re prepared to pay, and don’t get carried away in the heat of the moment.

The price the car goes for when the hammer falls isn’t the final total you’ll pay; there will be VAT and auction fees, so factor those in too.

After the auction

If you’re successful in placing the winning bid on a car, you’ll probably have to pay a deposit to secure it. That’s usually 10% of the car’s value or £500, whichever is greater. Again, though, all auction houses have their own rules covering when you’ll need to pay the full balance.

Car auction slips

Auction jargon buster

Auctioneers describe cars (‘lots’) using terms that can be confusing to a newcomer. Here are some key phrases to look out for, according to British Car Auctions.

No major mechanical faults The vehicle should not have any serious faults in the engine, gearbox, clutch, brakes or steering.

Specified faults Defects that have been declared by the seller (the auctioneer will read these out).

Sold as seen The vehicle is for sale as it is, with no warranties and with all its faults, if any.

Without warranty Means exactly the same as ‘Sold as seen’.

On an engineer’s report The vehicle has been examined by an engineer and is sold based on the description in their report.

What Car? says

You need to do a lot more research if you plan to buy a car at auction than you would if you were visiting a dealer, and there’s less support if something goes wrong – but if you do take the plunge, you could get a real bargain.

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Read more: Top 10 economical used cars for less than £5000 >>