By on March 9, 2012

A little over 12 years ago I got married. It was a bargain basement wedding that overlooked a beautiful lake on one side, and my mother-in-law’s house on the other. At that time I was all of three months into the free market free-for-all that is the auto auction business.

No bid calling at that point. No buying of vehicles on the side. Not even some grandiose plan to turn my auction and automotive interests into an enduring career. I just went for auctioneering tryouts at the sales and, with enough recommendations from friends in the business, hoped for the best.

My first job was to be the ringman. The guy who says, “Yep!” while pointing to a professional car buyer at the auctions. For two to three hours I took my two degrees at Emory and put them towards their most relevant use at the sales… “Yep!!!”

My daily performances may not have been Hamlet on Broadway at that time. But it was a living and a surprisingly lucrative one that has now spanned nearly 2,000 auctions and over 100,000 vehicles.

Now my life has come full circle. I have been a bid caller. A remarketing manager. A car dealer, and even a partner of an auto auction. I have been on top of the world. Down and out. Back in the game. Even built lifelong friendships and been stabbed in the back along the way. Heck, sometimes the handshakes and backstabs were from the same source on the same day.

Through it all I have learned an awful lot about human nature and the way folks react to the auction process. The 140 decibel chant. The excitement. The enthusiasm. Even the deception and the games that are played to create the urgency to buy.

It’s very hard to impart all the information folks should know when visiting an auto auction. Especially since these operations survive solely on the power of persuasion. Do I recommend that everyday folks buy a car from a public auction ? No!

But if you are among the mechanically gifted and rightly skeptical, there is a road map now. I wrote this article recently  and hopefully it will add some perspective to a business that is as chaotic and freedom oriented as any you can ever imagine.

Enjoy… and keep your hands in your pockets!

 

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22 Comments on “Hammer Time: Confessions Of An Auto Auctioneer...”


  • avatar
    ciddyguy

    Steve,

    Love these series of articles as it’s a very interesting glimpse into the car buying market, especially the used market.

    Though I never aspire to do the auctions (buy that is), I have been with my Dad when he used to attend the US Gov’t GSA auctions when MUCH younger. I think my first GSA was in 1979 while in Jr High when he went to find a suitable car for my oldest sister and her first husband. We came home with a very solid rust/copper brown ’74 Chevy Nova 4 door sedan. It was bare bones, rubber flooring, parchment vinyl bench seats, 250 inline 6/3spd autobox and not much else. it has something like 50-70K miles on it and we cleaned it up, touched up the paint in a few spots, gave it fresh oil, plugs etc and my Mom and maternal grandmother drove it to Nashota Wisconsin where my sister and her hubby lived.

    That car would be mine by 1983 and I drove it until the spring of ’85 when I bought a 78 Nova from a private party seller.

    Over the years, my Dad bought a ’71 Ford Custom, a 75 Plymouth Gran Fury (with the 360 no less) from a local Gov’t auction, supposedly an undercover cruiser, a ’78 GSA auction Ford Fairmont and finally, his ’83 Citation with the 2800 V6, auto, AC and that was in 1987 and his last GSA auction was in 1990, 91 when he bought a 1987 Plymouth Reliant, sans AC for my middle sister as she needed reliable wheels during the final throws of her first marriage before divorce. By then, the cars were not the bargains they once were in his estimation.

    Good times going with him to see if we’d come home with a car.

    • 0 avatar

      sounds like great father-son bonding.

      • 0 avatar
        ciddyguy

        It was actually and my Mom sometimes joined us. She picked out the Nova we took to my sister and her first hubby in the fall of ’79.

        I’ve been to two others that involved others, a good family friend when he bought a ’73 or so Ford Torino 4 door and my BIL Bob when they got a ’76 Dodge Dart to drive across country when they got transferred (Army Rangers) to I think NC.

        The car lasted until they got there but crapped out soon after. I think they replaced it with a VW Bus.

        But yeah, it was a great experience and he taught me what I know about car maintenance, including the brakes (front and rear), oil changes etc.

  • avatar
    Lokki

    To be honest, I’m scared to death of auctions for a couple of conflicting reasons:

    1. I’m cynical and skeptical. I like to think I’m smart enough to remember that there’s ALWAYS a reason that a used car is for sale…. and it’s usually not because the owner got tired of the color.

    2. On the other hand I have fallen prey to the fever a good auctioneer can generate a few times and come home proudly clutching an expensive chrome-plated duck’s foot or something similar, which I later realized I neither needed or wanted. The auctioneer had just made me want to be part of the action.

    So, it’s kind of like being a recovering alcoholic – I know the outcome is likely to be bad for me, and I also know that if given the slightest hint of temptation I’ll go for it with both hands.

    • 0 avatar
      28-cars-later

      Generally speaking, most used cars are trades. Why do people trade? Leasing, traditional 5/7/10 years out of it, change of life events, upgrading models, and I think most common lately, fuel economy. Sure there’s the old saying ‘you buy someone else’s problems’ and to a point that can be true. Fiscally speaking however, a used car generally makes much more sense than a new one. Trouble right now in the used market is there is/was an artificial shortfall in the amount of supply, and wholesale pricing went up on avg 15-20% in a year between 2010 and 2011. This was the result of the economic problems in 2008-9, which led to fewer new cars being purchased, resulting in fewer trades, and the Clunkers program taking thousands of decent used cars off the road permanently. So between that and a tighter credit market, for a while new car buying seemed much more attractive. Personally given the new iffy technology being offered in new cars makes me want to stick with used until everything is panned out… i.e. Volt fires, CVT’s blowing up before 100K, nine speed automatics (yeah, that will work), long term costs of hybrid batteries, etc.

  • avatar
    Secret Hi5

    “A little over 12 years ago I got married. It was a bargain basement wedding that overlooked a beautiful lake on one side, and my mother-in-law’s house on the other.”

    –Is there anyone who does NOT regret spending a sizable chunk of the family fortune on a fancy wedding?

    • 0 avatar
      ezeolla

      I am about to spend a sizable chunk of cash on my wedding and if it were up to me (which obviously it isn’t), I would rather get married at the court house and take all of that cash that her parents are going to spend along with all of the cash that I am going to spend and put close to 30% down on a house.

      • 0 avatar
        dima

        12 years ago, I offered my soon to be wife to go to Vegas and get married there, She agreed, but her and mine parents did not.
        I feel your pain. Also it is not just the money, we spend way too much time, energy and nerves on preparation for that event.

    • 0 avatar
      Patrickj

      @Secret
      We spent $10K on our wedding 17 years ago; had a hell of a party for 100 people with good friends, a live band, good food and drink, and quality pictures.

      It was a good price for what we did, and no regrets!

  • avatar
    Junebug

    Amen to that! Had a nice simple one and most of her family pitched in to help with it, her uncle was a preacher so that helped too. Still married – 21 years……….funny, I don’t remember breaking 3 mirrors!

  • avatar
    EAM3

    In 1989 we bought a couple of BMW 325s at an auction, a 5 speed 1987 and and an auto 1988 – both had around 68K miles. We paid less than $25k for both. We shipped the ’87 to my sister (who was living out of the country and sold her ’86 325 for a nice profit when the ’87 arrived) and kept the ’88 for what was supposed to be a little while. For the next 12 years that little 325 served the family well until we finally sold it to a friend, who still has it today and is her DD. At well over 300k miles that cheap little auction purchase has been one of the best purchases my family ever made.

  • avatar
    nickeled&dimed

    In about 2000 I was in high school and went with my dad to a rolling stock auction… not an auto auction, per se, because it was heavy equipment as well as cars and trucks. I remember seeing a 70’s Silver Shadow that had a perfectly shredded interior and looked like it’d been stored in a barn for years – it must have been one of the last things that sold, because we were long gone before it came up. There were also beat Fredrickburg / VA State vehicles, trucks, sedans, stripped cruisers, etc… but it’s amazing how rough a shape some of those older cars are in. Any vehicle that could start was started, but nobody could drive one. The crowd followed the auctioneer’s truck from car to car on foot.

    We’d picked out about five vehicles that we were going to bid on – a Saturn SL2, a few other sedans, a Mazda, and a Volvo 740 Turbo… The Saturn started at $750 for some odd reason and was already out of our range, some of the other sedans we were in the bidding until the last bid – I think our max was $400 or so. The Volvo we’d jumped earlier but didn’t start when the auctioneer arrived, plus had 1987 and 256,825 written in auction crayon on the windshield. We got into it and ended up going just over the top at $500. New battery and a few other odds and ends and it ended up lasting 4 years and thirty thousand miles, until I was caught tooling down the road at 33mph over the (65) limit, and I ended up selling it to a friend for $475 to help pay for the court fees… might as well, since that cost me my license for a while.

    I think we got lucky on that one. We returned a year or after my Volvo purchase to look for a minivan for my grandmother. We ended up with an Olds Silhouette for $200 that was OK on cosmetics and started just fine, but being unable to drive it we just rocked it back and forth in its space… fine, but when we tried to get it going down the road the transmission was slipping terribly and we had to trailer it back… it spent a while as a project until my grandmother got herself a MPV, and then got towed to the junkyard.

    It’s funny, but I seem to remember the non-runners going for about $50 each… I guess scrap steel was less lucrative in the early 2000’s.

  • avatar
    Philosophil

    I must confess that I’ve never been to a car auction, but I love auctions in general (bought a lot of our furniture that way). You can get some decent deals if you’re patient and careful, but I’ve found that you have to be very disciplined and never exceed the high mark that you set for yourself (though actioneers can be very good at tempting you otherwise).

  • avatar
    monomille

    I too had a great informal wedding but now I’m prepping a toast for a daughter getting ready for the same event. One of the quotes about marriage that I found was automotive in nature – “… would you drive to Fresno in a car with a 50% chance of breaking down?”

  • avatar
    redmondjp

    In my area we used to have a public auto sale and auction yard which took cars from the public on consignment for sale, where they would go to auction if not sold within a certain period of time (at which point the owner could bid on them I think, not sure exactly how this worked).

    They had weekly auctions and they were a HOOT! I would go sometimes just for entertainment purposes. The auctioneer was superb at whipping the crowd into a frenzy, banging upon his homemade plywood podium with his gavel with such force that showers of slivers would sometimes rain down on the ringman standing below (I remember him wincing as the gavel unexpectedly came slamming down right above his head)!

    The auctioneer would start out at $300 on a car, get no bids, then yell out, “Come ON, people, the WHEELS alone on this car are worth more than that!” Then he would pause, get a disgusted look on his face, and say, “OK then, one dollar, who’s got a dollar, this car has GOT to be worth a dollar, right?” and the crowd would go crazy. It was great fun.

    I learned to keep my emotions in check (and my hand down) at an auction the hard way, after riding home from a police auction as a teen on a $75 10-speed that I didn’t really want and had decided that I only was going to pay up to $50 for before the bidding started. But there was ONE OTHER GUY who wanted that bike too, and darnit, I was going not going to let him have it! Life lesson, well learned, and cheap too, only cost me $75.

  • avatar
    bolhuijo

    I went to a police auction just once as a poor college kid looking for some cheap stereo stuff. They had piles of it. All dusty and iffy-looking, but OK for bargain basement prices I thought. Then the bidding started and I watched open-mouthed as the group of people bid the stuff up to near-retail levels. I sank back out of the crowd a little dejected, but still amazed at the process.
    I still wonder if some of it was being bid up by the former owners because they knew there was a bag of weed taped inside it or something. I couldn’t think of any other explanation for the prices.

  • avatar
    nickoo

    I would prefer one of those nice little torquey VM Italian diesels from the parent company, and preferably a truck that’s “right sized” instead of a land barge, but this is a good step in the right direction. Model year 2014 is going to be huge for CGLLC, maybe I’ll get my wish then.

  • avatar
    tonykaz

    Thank you Mr.Lang ,
    I retired from General Motors and have always driven new cars , I’ve never had any idea about any part of the Used-Car Industry until I read your entire series of TTAC Hammer Time Articles . I feel amazed from the ‘view thru your eyes’ of this fascinating industry and can easily understand your commitment to this exciting career .
    Thank you for taking the time to educate us interested and curious citizens , you are raising the esteem level of the Used Car Industry and building confidence by shining some light on what most of us think-of as a murky world .
    We citizens in the USA buy about 50,000 new cars per day . Manufactures realize that consumers rarely maintain any of these cars and they’ll only live 11 years as the result hence a car is considered an 11 year durable good .
    You “Spotlight” the “Other side of the Coin” when you highlight the proper maintenance of cars that achieve 300,000 mile Odometer life-spans . I might suggest that cars can live far beyond 300k if properly maintained ( Chrysler mini-vans in Taxi fleets commonly go beyond 450k ) which prompts me to write to you about your position on Depreciation .
    Depreciation is a contributer to actual Car Cost but “deferred maintenance” will kill a car in the first third of it’s useful life-span making it the most expensive way to own cars .
    Auto Manufactures have never encouraged “Preventive Maintenance” , Dealers like the profit from their Service Departments but they too fall short in this area . Auto Journals like C&D , R&T , MT etc. never step up to supporting the “Proper Maintenance” side of Car ownership .
    After reading your entire contribution to TTAC I discover that you may be the only voice being heard on the subject . I congratulate you for addressing this important aspect of the Auto Industry and encourage your Editorial Staff to further support your efforts . Perhaps , somewhere out there , someone will contribute a Series profiling Cars that have achieved long lives including the “Service Regimen” their owners subscribed to . We have 240,000,000 cars on the road , the Truth is they all need proper maintenance which is significantly less expensive than Depreciation and Replacement Costs .
    My very best and warmest regards ,
    Tony

  • avatar
    DavidB

    My experience at estate auctions is that something will sell for .10¢ on the dollar or double retail, and there’s no way to know which until after the bidding begins…

  • avatar
    TheHammer

    First auction I ever attended I was confident i would be able to keep cool and make some smart purchases. I left the sale bewildered. I didn’t understand a single word from the auctioneer and I certainly couldn’t keep up with the frantic pace. Add to that the high decibel level and the exhaust smell too. Luckily, I was accompanied by an experienced buyer and by my third attempt I was good to go.

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