Buying a car at auction

Buying a car at auction: Tips and insights

Last updated September 14th, 2023

If you want to buy a used car, attending a car auction could help you find a great motor at a bargain price. However, if you’re unfamiliar with how auctions work, this may seem like a daunting prospect.

You’ll be parting with a large sum of money, so it’s understandable that you’ll want to feel confident in your decision before committing.

In this guide, we will explain the process to follow when buying a car at an auction – and provide valuable tips and insights to help you get the best out of your experience. We’ll also explain how to find the right car auction in your area, the additional fees that may apply – and what to expect at an online car auction.

Read on to learn about the advantages of buying at auction – and the various pitfalls you should avoid.

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Is it better to buy a car from an auction?

If you’re looking to snap up a bargain, car auctions are an avenue that is well worth exploring. You can often buy a great car for less than what you’d pay to a private seller or car dealership.

Alternatively, if you’re keen to buy a rare or collectable car at a favourable price, you may find what you’re looking for at a classic car auction.

Why should I buy from a car auction?

  • A wide variety of vehicles on display in one place.
  • A fast bidding and buying process.
  • A lack of sales pressure.
  • An exciting atmosphere and an opportunity to meet fellow car enthusiasts.

What are the drawbacks around buying from auction?

  • You will not have the option to test drive vehicles.
  • You will not benefit from the same level of legal protection as you would when buying from a car dealer. Cars at auctions are sold on an ‘as seen’ basis.
  • You won’t usually get a car warranty (unless the car is still in its manufacturer warranty period).
  • There is no cooling off period. Once you have bought the car, it’s yours.

Are cars cheaper at auctions?

Car auctions are very unpredictable – a vehicle’s final selling price could be anything from £100 to more than £50,000.

Although the make, age and condition of a car will affect the auction’s estimate and starting bid, the final selling price will depend on how competitive the bidding gets – and how much attendees are prepared to pay for the vehicle.

In short, you have a good chance of finding a bargain at a car auction, although this is by no means guaranteed.

How to buy a car from an auction

Whichever car auction you visit, the buying process is generally the same:

  • You’ll be given the opportunity to take a closer look at any cars you wish to bid on. It’s best to get to the auction in plenty of time, before bidding begins, so that you aren’t in a rush. Be sure to take a good look at the bodywork, check under the bonnet for leaks - and if permitted, start the engine to check for issues such as a smoky exhaust or spluttering noises.

  • Each car will be given a ‘lot’ number, indicating where it appears in the running order for the auction. Take note of the lot numbers for any vehicles you wish to bid on so that you will be ready when they are called up.

  • Once your lot is called up, the auctioneer will announce a starting price and bidding will begin. You can usually make a bid by simply raising your hand. The asking price will increase with each successive bid. Once there are no more bids, the car will be awarded to the highest bidder.

  • If you bid successfully, you’ll be directed to the cash office to finalise the paperwork and pay for the vehicle. You will almost always be expected to pay in full on the day of the auction.

  • You must make sure that the car is taxed and a has a valid MOT before you can drive it away from the auction house. Run the registration through our car tax check and MOT check tools. (You will also need to update your car insurance policy so that you are covered to drive the car you have just purchased.)

Tips for buying a car at auction

  • Make sure you know which car(s) you intend to bid on before you arrive. You’ll be able to learn about the cars going under the hammer by checking out the auction operator’s website.

  • Check which payment methods are accepted at the auction house in advance. If you bid successfully but can’t make payment in full, your bid may be considered invalid - and the car will either go back to auction or to the next highest bidder.

  • Pay close attention when your lot is called, as the auctioneer may provide important information about the vehicle’s service history, mileage and MOT status before bidding begins.

  • Sit or stand in full view of the auctioneer so that they don’t miss any of your bids.

  • Always bring photo ID and proof of address, as you may need these to bid.

  • If you realise that a vehicle you liked is not what it seemed to be, don’t buy it. It’s far better to walk away than to unwittingly buy a car that needs costly repairs.

Can anybody buy a car at auction?

Some prominent auction houses – such as British Car Auctions (BCA) are accessible only to trade buyers. However, there are many others that are open to the public.

If you are interested in a car auction, you should check whether you are eligible to attend to avoid disappointment.

What happens at a car auction in the UK?

  • Once the car auction opens, you’ll be asked to register and pay a deposit (generally between £200 and £500) before being assigned a bidder’s number so that you can take part.
  • You should then have an opportunity to inspect any cars that you are interested in. Make sure you arrive in good time so that you have ample time to check out any cars that have caught your eye.
  • Once the auction begins, the cars (referred to as ‘lots’) will be driven into the auction hall to be sold.
  • The auctioneer will announce a starting bid for each lot, then accept increasing bids until the highest bid has been made.

Can I attend a car auction online?

  • Many car auctions allow prospective buyers to attend online rather than in person.
  • As an online bidder, you can watch a live stream of the auction. You’ll see the details of each vehicle presented during the sale.
  • Once bidding begins, you can bid virtually, using a click-to-bid system. (Some auction houses also allow you to place automatic bids before the auction, which can be helpful if you will be busy whilst the auction takes place.)
  • You will be asked to set your maximum bid - and once the auction begins, the system will bid for you until the bidding reaches this figure (or you win the vehicle).

Where can I find a car auction near me?

A simple online search should reveal a list of upcoming car auctions in your area. Try searching for ‘car auctions near me’ or ‘classic car auctions near me’ to find some auctions that are relevant to you.

Are there any additional fees?

  • If you make a successful bid on a vehicle, you’ll be charged a buyer’s fee. Buyer’s fees vary between auctions and are usually decided based on the value of the winning bid (usually between 4-12% of the total price).
  • Your initial entry deposit will also be returned to you unless you are a winning bidder (in which case, it will be put towards the cost of the car).
  • You’ll lose your deposit if you back out of a sale or cannot pay for the vehicle on the day for whatever reason.

Do car auctions take a percentage?

Most car auctions do not take a percentage in addition to the buyer’s fees. This isn’t always the case, of course – fees vary between auction houses. Therefore, if in doubt, check the auction operator’s website.