Hammer Time: Is It Worth It?

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang
hammer time is it worth it

Some folks will blow five grand on a cruise. Others will take it to Vegas. The adventurous among us may even decide go to Central America during the off season and find that the country they’re visiting is now under martial law. Some freak out. Others buy a nice drink at a cafe and people watch. We all have risk tolerances when it comes to life’s pleasures, and cars are no different. The question with buying any car though is not whether you want to get some bang for the buck. But whether you’re willing to get the ‘education’ that comes with it.

An education always costs money… or time. I once spent over a year working at one public auction before I was willing to buy one of their vehicles. Why? Everything seemed like junk and when the big seller told me that most of his rides came straight from the tow and impound lots, I decided to bide my time. Eventually I found a late-80’s Subaru wagon for $425 that had a cleaner interior and nicer tires than the rest of the junk. One water pump later and it became the official beer car for my Hashers group. Those little wagons could hold a lot of brew and I always came home with a surplus. A few months later I sold it to a stockbroker. Made money. Spent money. Had fun. An easy life.

But these days life is a bit more serious. Wife, kids, bills… and a lot less free time than years past. The cars I buy now can have an immediate impact on the long-term bottom line. Thankfully, over the course of the last decade I have probably inspected and appraised at least 50,000 vehicles. That helps out an awful lot. But still it’s not a perfect world. Buying cars at auctions is full of risk and the public ones tend to have the worst inventory. So where should you start?

For the inquisitive and mechanically inclined, I would start with two different types of vehicles. the government owned mule and the new car trade-in. Why? Well back in the good old days you could get records straight from the dealership or glovebox. I would sometimes pull out a brickload of maintenance records that would tell me an awful lot of the prior owner’s priorities. These days there are privacy concerns which means no more bricks… but not so with a government vehicle. Virtually all of them are fleet maintained and contrary to myth, not every car is an abused police interceptor. One friendly call to the local ‘maintenance department’ and you can usually discover who had it, what had been done, and what will be needed.

I’ve bought many a Crown Vic, Lumina and Taurus from public auctions that had far more money sunk in recent repair work than the final auction purchase price. A dent here or a stained seat there, and most public buyers (and dealers) sniff their nose at that mechanically sound sled. They don’t bother to open the hood and find the recent tranny replacement or the rebuilt front suspension. County and city auctions can command a price premium depending on where you are. But when these vehicles are sent to the local public auction, they are blended in with hundreds of less viable vehicles with a final selling price to match.

In the next installment I’ll cover new car trades. Like the government vehicles, you can still learn an awful lot about their past. But the tricks that can be played here are far more sophisticated.

Join the conversation
2 of 14 comments
  • Benders Benders on Sep 14, 2010

    You hash? Sadly, I discovered it immediately after I left Milwaukee for a town bereft on any hashers so haven't had the opportunity to join.

  • Roundel Roundel on Sep 15, 2010

    About a year ago a family friend was looking for a cheap car for their teenage son. I reccomened a local dealership who has plenty of ex govt fleet cars. Must buy them by the dozens. At that time they had a plethora of used "classics" and one 03 Olds Alero. They wanted way too much money for it. Were were able to bring it down. But the car was in such great shape it was worth it. The think had little over 23,000 miles on it, and still had the new car smell. Was on an army base in Virginia and probably didn't even leave base.

  • FifaCup Loving both Interior and exterior designs.
  • FifaCup This is not good for the auto industry
  • Jeff S This would be a good commuter vehicle especially for those working in a large metropolitan area. The only thing is that by the time you put airbags, backup cameras, and a few of the other required safety features this car would no longer be simple and the price would be not much cheaper than a subcompact. I like the idea but I doubt a car like this would get marketed in anyplace besides Europe and the 3rd World.
  • ScarecrowRepair That's what I came to say!
  • Inside Looking Out " the plastic reinforced with cotton waste used on select garbage vehicles assembled by the Soviet Union. "Wrong. The car you are talking about was the product German engineering, East German. It's name was Trabant.