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

We're used to seeing antiques, artwork and even houses appear at auction houses across the country, and plenty of cars go under the hammer as well.

As a private buyer, you stand to save hundreds of pounds compared with buying at a dealership if you go to a car auction. Chances are that if you're buying a used car from a dealer, it will have come from an auction in the first instance anyway.

Dealers will mark-up the car to make a profit on the sale, so by buying direct from the auction house you cut out the middle man and save money.

In the past, the vast majority of people who bought cars at auction were trade buyers - people who worked in the motor trade - but in recent times they've begun to attract a growing percentage of savvy private buyers too.

If buying a car at auction is a new experience for you, the prospect can be daunting. To help, we've collated this step-by-step guide to buying a car at auction, including what you need to do before going, what you need to take with you and what sort of cars you can expect to find.


Car auctions - a step-by-step guide

Part 1 - before you go

Most modern auction houses will have a website where you can browse the cars coming up for sale. This is a good opportunity to pick the cars you might be interested in, and see basic details including a description of the car, its mileage and its estimated value.

Although there are many different auction houses out there, we'd recommend sticking with big outfits like Manheim and British Car Auctions.

You may need to show proof of your identity, so it's a good idea to take along your photo driving licence and a recent utility bill showing your address. Remember, too, that if you buy a car at auction it is your responsibility to make sure it can be legally driven on the road, and that includes making sure the vehicle has road tax, an MOT and insurance. If this can't be arranged in advance, you should be able to pay for the car to be delivered instead.

It's also a good idea to do thorough research on the auction house you're attending, as most will have their own rules around deposits and when the full balance needs to be paid.

You'll find a variety of cars at car auctions. These can range from classics to almost new vehicles. If a dealer takes in another make as a part-exchange, for example, then they'll use a car auction to sell the vehicle on.

If buying at auction is new to you, we'd recommend attending at least one auction without buying anything, so you can see how it runs.


Part 2 - before the auction

Remember that you can inspect any car before it goes under the hammer, so it's a good idea to arrive early and give yourself time to look at any cars you're interested in buying. Remember, though, that you won't be able to give the car a thorough mechanical inspection or test drive.

Auction houses will, at the very least, do a basic history check on the car, so you can be sure it isn't stolen, has been an insurance write-off, or has outstanding finance.

The car's mileage may be stated as warranted, meaning it has been checked and is accurate. If the car's mileage isn't warranted, then it can't be relied on. It is often possible to look under the bonnet of a car while it's waiting to go into the auction hall. This is the time to look for crash damage or obvious engine issues.

When the car enters the auction hall, take note of how easily it starts, whether the exhaust smokes and how it sounds. You should also make sure you're satisfied with the condition and specification of the vehicle.

Remember, it's up to you to spot any failings with the car. The model will usually come with no guarantee or warranty, other than any remaining period on the manufacturer's warranty.


Part 3 - during the auction

It's important to be clear when bidding at an auction, as the atmosphere is likely to be fast-paced and lively. Raise your arm to signify your bid, and make sure the auctioneer has seen you.

This is where your previous research will pay off, too, as you'll know the condition, mileage and guide valuation for the car you're bidding on. Make sure you know how much you're prepared to pay, and don't get carried away and exceed that amount.

Auctioneers will often describe the cars, or 'lots', using different terms, and these are the key phrases to watch out for, according to British Car Auctions.

Car auction key terms

  • No major mechanical faults - the vehicle should not have any major faults in the engine, gearbox, clutch, brakes, steering or transmission.
  • Specified faults - the auctioneer reads out particular defects notified by the seller.
  • Sold as seen (and with all its faults if any) - the vehicle is for sale as it is, with no warranties whatsoever by the seller. Without Warranty means exactly the same.
  • On an engineer's report - the vehicle has been examined by an engineer and is sold on the description contained in the report.

Once you reach your maximum bid, stop and let the car go - that's better than later discovering you could have paid less on a forecourt.

Also remember that the 'hammer' price won't be the final price you'll pay, there will be VAT and auction fees to add on.


Part 4 - after the auction

Bidding will continue until there are no more bids, at which point the hammer will fall and the highest bidder will have won providing the seller's minimum price has been reached. You'll typically have to pay a deposit to secure the car, which is usually 10% of the car's value or £500, whichever is greater. As we've said above, all auction houses have their own rules on when you'll need to pay the full balance.

Buying a car at auction - our top 5 tips

  1. Do your homework - know what cars you're interested in and set a budget for each one.
  2. Inspect the stock - arrive early to give yourself time to look at the cars listed for sale.
  3. Spot the damage - it's up to you to recognise a good car from a bad one. It may be worth bringing along a friend who can give you advice.
  4. Stick to your budget - remember not to get caught up in the excitement of the auction and bid over the odds.
  5. Be prepared to walk away - you don't have to buy a car on that day. It's worth waiting for the right car at the right price.