The Guide to Buying a Car at Auction

Buying a Used Car From Auction?


Some top tips on how to buy a bargain at an auction house


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For the average person, buying a car at an auction house is a risky business. It is so easy to make mistakes and get caught up in the buzz and excitement of bidding and buying. You need to take extreme caution and set firm boundaries as to how much you plan to spend on any particular vehicle.

For those that don’t know a great deal about cars, and how car auctions work, I strongly recommend that you buy from a dealer or privately. For the small amount of money you could save, it’s hard to see the benefits outweighing the risks.

This article will give you some insider tips when buying a car at auction. I will also talk through the hazard and the benefits.


buy a car from auction picture


Things to consider:

  • It’s fast paced
  • You cannot take a test drive
  • A final bid is a buy (unless it’s a provisional bid whereby the bid hasn’t reached its reserve)
  • There are significant buying fees involved, dependent on the price of the car
  • Some cars have major mechanical faults that are NOT declared
  • Some auctioneers will increase the price of the car without your knowledge (known as taking bids from the wall. More on that later)

If auction buying is going to work for you and bring the outcome you want (a quality used car at a cheap price), you’ll need to invest some time into the process. It’s best to visit your local auction house and get a feel for the surroundings before you actually go along to buy.

Let’s start off with some key benefits to buying yourself a car at auction



You can buy a car at auction for significantly less than you might at a dealer or perhaps privately too. As we know, dealers buy the majority of their cars from auction houses, make any necessary repairs, clean them up and sell them for a profit.

But beyond the price, there are really no other benefits the private person can gain from purchasing at the auction.


A simple step by step guide, to buying at auction

We’ll assume you know the type of car you’re planning to buy and your maximum budget.

I strongly recommend that you don’t buy a car at auction that’s price is likely to be less that £2000. Generally, cars under 2k will be privately entered and are often there because they have some major fault, and the car is sold as seen. This means you cannot take it back if you find a problem after purchase.

Having chosen an auction house it’s important to spend a little time there before you go and bid on a car. On your visit be sure to get a feel for the place. Sit in the ring (where the cars are bid upon) and watch the bidding process to see exactly how it works. Notice how quickly a car’s price increases from its starting bid to the final bid. It’s a fast-paced, loud and busy atmosphere. It can be a little hard to concentrate and focus on one particular thing. This provides a real boundary to buying the car you want for a cheap price. You’ll need to find a way of blocking out all of the distractions so you can learn the most. Spending time in the auction is the best way of doing this.

But don’t just sit in the auction house. Walk around the cars for sale and understand which ones are being entered on sale day. There are often thousands of cars parked all around so you need have your wits about you.

Each auction day will have a group of cars being entered for that day. Cars are split into categories by group name.

Example: One group of cars may be entered by “Lizzards” another by “Motability”, another by “Cowleys” and there’s a final section that has been entered “privately” (entered into auction by private car owners, dealers etc.).  Each group can have anything from 20 cars up to 350. You’ll know each group by the vendor slips on the windscreen of each car with an accompanying “lot number.”


buying a used car at an auction house


On auction days you can pick up a free program that lists all of the cars for sale. The programs aren’t particularly informative and can actually be a little confusing. If you’re in any doubts as to which cars are being entered on the day simply ask one of the members of staff that drive the cars through the auction ring.

Cars are locked until just a few minutes before going through the ring. This gives you very limited time to make some important checks. You’ll also be jostling between other people that are trying to check out the condition of the car. You need to be assertive, confident and direct. There’s no time for niceties. Jump in quickly and find out what you need to know.


Once you’ve spend an hour or two at the auction I recommend that you leave and reflect on your experience. Ask yourself if auction buying is right for you.


If you’re confident you can achieve your goals of buying a quality used car at a cheap price, it’s time to do a little research and find the car you want to buy on the auctions website.

The more common auction houses are BCA (British Car Auctions) and Manheim. Both these firms are national and have plenty of car auctions across the UK. There are smaller independent auction houses in local areas that you might want to consider. Generally, the smaller auctions have less choice but they don’t tend to be as busy.

BCA and Manheim have pretty decent websites that give lots of information about a vehicle. You will need to register to get access to the upcoming cars for sale.

Once you’ve found the car you’re interested in buying, take all of the information provided about the car.

Most importantly you’ll want to know the group from which the car has been entered. In particular, you need to know if the car is a “privately entered vehicle”.


Privately Entered Cars


If a car is privately entered do NOT bid or buy the vehicle under any circumstances.


Privately entered cars tend to be ignored by the trade because they know there is usually something wrong with the car that’s led it to be entered in the first place.

Remember that you can’t test drive a car at auction. This is a major drawback and it severely limits your ability to see what the car is really like. This is an important reason why I don’t recommend auction buying to the general public.

So be sure the car is categorised as a “fleet vehicle” such as Cowley’s, Motability etc. (there are many different fleet companies.)

Online, ensure the car is 1 owner from new and has been fully serviced under contract by the main dealers or relevant service departments. Check the “additional information” section of the car, making sure it’s not being sold with any “major faults.” If there are major faults don’t bid or buy that car.

Is the car being “sold as seen?” “Sold as seen” means that you buy the vehicle with all of its faults, with no deviations. You bid, you buy and the car becomes your sole responsibility.


Double check:

  • Is the car entered by a company as a fleet vehicle?
  • Does the car have a full-service history?
  • Is the car one company owner from new?
  • Is the car sold without major mechanic faults?
  • If you can answer YES to these four questions it’s safe to view the car on auction day.


Auction Day

Arrive early at the auction and find the car you want to bid on.

Be sure you have your payment method with you. If you bid and buy you’ll need to pay at least a £500 deposit right after bidding or usually 20% of the vehicles price, whichever is greater (terms and conditions will vary from one auction to another.) Payments are made by cash or all major debit cards. Credit cards are generally not accepted.



Beware that there are considerable buying fees that you’ll need to add on top of your final price. Fees vary from one auction to another so get familiar with them before auction day. BCA_Standard_Buyers_Fees_January_2015

Take your car guide (click here to buy my definitive car guide) with you and check out the car. Find out the time when your cars group will be going through the auction. Watch out for any time changes as well as there’s a chance the groups will be moved forward or backwards.

Although the car will be locked until just 10 minutes before it goes through the ring you can still take full advantage of checking the outside of the vehicle. Go over the car with a fine tooth comb using the guide. Check everything you possibly can. Also, check out the information provided on the vendor slip and compare it with the info you gathered from the website. Make sure it all checks out.



How much are you going to bid on this vehicle? What is your ceiling price? Be confident and stick to your top price without going £50 over. This is very important.

When your car is finally unlocked proceed and check out every single item you can. Hear when the car is first started from stone cold and go through the essential checks I’ve listed in the guide.



Important: You’d never know this but some auctioneers take “bids of the wall.” This means they will increase the price of the car by creating imaginary bids. It’s illegal to do but surprisingly common. You need to try and spot if an auctioneer is pulling bids off of the wall. As an unknown face, you are more susceptible to fake bids.

Listen carefully to the auctioneer, who will read out the details of the vehicle before starting the bidding. Double check the selling description:


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 a BCA engineer and is sold on the description contained in the report, which is placed on the windscreen before the sale.

Once the auctioneer has read out the cars description it’s on to bidding.


Bidding is thick and fast.

I recommend that you bid very late. If the car hasn’t reached your ceiling price I’d recommend coming in just £200 under your top price. Sit high up in the seating area so you’ve got a full view of the ring. When the car is £200 under your price it’s time to bid. Make yourself visible and wave your hand or program in the air and mime the word “fifty.” This means you want to make a £50 bid. Be very clear and very obvious.


Bid up to your limit and no further.

If you were the final bidder head over to the rostrum and pay your deposit.

I hope you’ve found this auction buying guide helpful and useful.


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