Hammer Time: If You Want A Deal, You Have To Pay For It

hammer time if you want a deal you have to pay for it

BCA Auctions in Derby, UK; Courtesy of Zimbio.com

I get a lot of emails from auto enthusiasts. About 60% of what I get comes down to this question.

“Can you get me a high demand vehicle at a disgustingly low price at the auctions?”

The short answer is no. Just as an athlete can’t contradict the laws of physics, I can’t control the free market aspect of a dealer auction. In my world a car is bid on by dozens of professionals until the last man pays the most. If you want a Toyonda or the latest and greatest wheels that are based on yet another ‘”Fast & Furious” ripoff, then you have to pay the premium.

As for unpopular cars, they are a different story.

I usually put unpopular cars into five distinct categories.

1) The Dented

Let’s say you have a nice large dent right where the hood, front bumper and quarter panel meet. We’re talking about an impact that pierces the paint and damages the body to the point where no pdr guy (paintless dent repair) can salvage those parts.

That hit will usually be a lot more expensive to repair than one where the driver’s door gets bashed in a good four inches and can’t even open. Why? Because doors are kept in strong supply at most junkyards. On the other hand good quarter panels and hoods aren’t always easy to find. Even if you choose to go aftermarket, the costs are far more than what you would expect.

In many cases you may be looking at between $600 to $1500 for a complete repair job on what may seem to be minor damage. Heck, even a hood alone with a repaint is going to run around $400. On the other hand doors can be bought for $75 to $200 and then re-sprayed for $100.

When it comes to damaged cars at the auctions, the question isn’t what. It’s where and to what extent.

In light of that you can sometimes get a deal on a good running car that got into a fight… and lost.

2) The Old

The definition of old has changed a lot over the past four years.

Back in 2008, any vehicle over 10 years was considered old. Now it’s closer to 15 years, and if it has good miles and is in good overall condition, you still get plenty of competition for it.

I have seen 15 year old Nissan Maxima’s with low miles sell for over $3000. Then again. A 1996 Olds Cutlass Ciera with similar miles will more than likely get only a third of the Maxima’s price.

Can you buy a good cheap popular old car at a dealer auction? No.

Can you buy a good cheap ‘unpopular’ old car? You bet!

3) The Walmart Car

Cheap cars with cheap interiors. Tauruses, Stratuses, Windstars, older Galants and 626’s. They are good enough to get you back and forth wherever you need to go; so long as you choose the right powertrain. But they are also complete plasticized cost cutting commuters with no joy in their drive.

They’re also not cheap anymore.

When the buy-here pay-here dealer is looking a vehicle that they can finance for $700 down and $250 to $350 a month, they are looking squarely at the Walmart cars. Why? Because they cost thousands less at the auctions and replacement parts are usually cheap. Junkyards and aftermarket parts suppliers see to that.

The Walmart Car used to be a sweet spot at the auctions. Now they still can be found with rental and fleet companies. But you’re likely to get a better deal off a Walmart car that is a repo or one with an off color. Than to get a nice silver one from Avis that can be financed by JD Byrider at $300 a month for 60 months.

4) The ‘Issue’ Car

Branded titles. True miles unknown. Frame damage. Previous Canadian history. Repos. Salvage Titles. Miles exempt.

All the things that make the general public recoil in horror may represent an excellent buying opportunity for those willing to do a bit of digging. I’ll give you a recent example.

I bought a 2003 Buick LeSabre with 45,000 miles for $3800 (plus auction fee) at a Carmax sale. It was announced on the block, “Branded Title”. Most dealers when they hear those two words automatically assume the worst. Flood damage. Salvage/Rebuilt. Things of that nature.

The issue with this car was, “Exceeds Mechanical Limits”. This notation is usually reserved for those vehicles with five digit odometers. Except the LeSabre has a six digit odometer. So why was it put on the title?

Because the DMV screwed up. It even said so in the Carfax history. Delaers at this sale are offered free Autochecks. A good provider of history as well… which is why I always use both services. The two services used in concert can help resolve a lot of issues.

I’ve managed to buy low mileage ‘true miles unknown’ cars that simply had the first two numbers on their odometer switched on a new title. ‘Frame Damage’ cars that only needed a front quarter panel replaced. Repos that had been dealer maintained until the last new owner kept it for three months and 1500 miles.

Issue cars take time to find. But if you’re willing to do the research, they can be absolute steals.

5) The Ugly Body

Who wants a minivan? An old-school luxury coupe? Or a base model wagon with 27 dings and a stickshift?

Okay, the last one is a TTAC special. But in most cases the unfashionable car simply does not sell at a dealer lot. It sits or gets driven by the dealer out of pure pity.

Consumers buy with their eyes… and the same is true with dealers. While the consumer is buying their version of great transportation, most dealers are pondering two questions whenever a car goes on the auction block.

1) How much can I sell it for?

2) How long will this thing stay on my lot?

The key to success in selling retail goods is turnover and profit. Ugly cost money in the retail world on both sides of that ledger.

So if you can stomach the bass faced fascia on a Buick Riviera, it’s all you! Or in the case of my recent Christmas buys, it was just me. I got a supercharged version for only $815.

Now I just have to sell it. Anyone interested? Anyone? Anyone? Beuller?

Questions about used cars? Feel free to email me at steven.lang@alumni.duke.edu . It may take a day or two (or five) but I always make it a point to write back.

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2 of 37 comments
  • Lost Lost on Jan 18, 2012

    My auction guy recommends Cadillacs and high-dollar cars that are highly discounted at 2 years old. Big savings and he makes a better dime, especially becuase I've bought a couple of low-miles tauras' from him. Research, give a price that I will not pay a dime over, but is a darn good price, and let him work the auction. These guys help each other get good deals.

  • Tedward Tedward on Jan 19, 2012

    My crazy neighbor specializes in salvage title asian cars. He's "that guy" for sure. Now, I'd be hesitant to buy some of the cars he's flipped from our parking lot (based on extent of original damage), but they always leave looking cherry and some of them are just clearly great values. Example: He bought a low miles 2009 Honda Fit for less than $2k, needing front bumper, hood, quarter panel replacement and minor under hood work, radiator is fine. I'd own that car, and no matter how he gets the work done he'll make a bucket of money on it.

  • 2ACL What tickles me is that the Bronco looks the business with virtually none of the black plastic cladding many less capable crossovers use.
  • IBx1 For all this time with the hellcat engine, everything they made was pathetic automatic scum save for the Challenger. A manual Durango, Grand Cherokee, Charger, 300C, et al would have been the real last gasp for driving enthusiasts. As it is, the party is long over.
  • MaintenanceCosts The sweet spot of this generation isn't made anymore: the SRT 392. The Scat Pack is more or less filling the same space but it lacks a lot of the goodies, including SRT suspension, brakes, and seats. The Hellcat is too much and isn't available with a manual anymore.
  • Arthur Dailey I am normally a fan of Exner's designs but by this time the front end on the Stutz like most of the rest of the vehicle is a laughable monstrosity of gauche. The interior finishes suit the rest of the vehicle. Corey please put this series out of its misery. This is one vehicle manufacturer best left on the scrap heap of history.
  • Art Vandelay I always thought what my Challenger really needed was a convertible top to make it heavier and make visability worse.