Auto Auction Advice For The Non-Dealer

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang
auto auction advice for the non dealer

Everyone around me is talking at 100 miles an hour. Sometimes it seems like I can’t even get from one place to another without running into a familiar face.

Am I at an auction? Nope. I am at home on a Saturday morning talking on the phone with NPR member-station reporter David Pitman about public auctions. While my wife and kids get ready for the day in their own noisy way, I am given questions that range from the instructive helper type to, “Oh boy. If I answer this one the Georgia Auto Dealers Association is going to put me right up there with Ralph Nader!” Then again, I am not a member of that group so the pressure on those questions was minimal.

Here is a link to the story on Morning Edition. For those who want to simply read the text of the interview feel free to do so after the jump.

For the last few months, new car sales have been on the rise. And that has led to more used cars coming onto the market. Despite the greater supply, used car prices are not coming down. That might tempt some used car shoppers to try to get a good deal at an auto auction. But for most people — auctions are not the answer.

An expert in automotive sales says the biggest myth surrounding public auto auctions is that they’re a great place for people who aren’t car dealers to get a sweet bargain.

“If you don’t have the ability and tools to deal with fixing a car, then you should not be at a public auto auction.”

That’s Steve Lang. He’s a columnist at The Truth About He’s also a contributor to the automotive consumer website He runs a small used car dealership about an hour northwest of Atlanta, Georgia. And every year, he buys about a thousand cars at auction. Most of those he wholesales to other dealers. Lang says the number of non-dealers showing up at the auctions he attends has tripled in the last five years.

“It used to be that the only type of people we would get at these events were immigrants, or people who are very knowledgeable about specific types of vehicles. That has changed dramatically.”

Lang says many of these newer auction shoppers are clearly out of their element.

“The two biggest questions are ‘what’s going on?’ and ‘how much is he asking?’ You get a sense that they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Lang says there are three key reasons why public auto auctions are not the same as buying from a dealer or individual seller. One, there’s little, if any, opportunity for buyers to inspect or test drive vehicles. Two, the inventory typically consists of cars that other dealers can’t sell, because of their age and mileage. And, three, Lang says auctioneers are pros at manipulating buyers.

“They try to buy a vehicle and they get caught up in the energy, the excitement, the enthusiasm of the auction. All the sudden, they now think ‘you know what? Everyone else is bidding more money for this vehicle.’ The laws of economics don’t change at an auction. But peoples’ minds definitely do.”

Lang says the best defense against getting caught up in the auction frenzy is education. And that education begins before stepping onto the lot. Many auction houses will provide a list of cars they hope to move at the next public event. Those lists will include vehicle identification numbers, allowing shoppers to look up information on AutoCheck or Carfax.

“That can be a good start, because if you can find out if the vehicle was duly maintained for a large period of time, then you’re probably looking at a car that was better overall condition than a vehicle that wasn’t.”

Which, Lang says, is important, since most sales at auction are “as-is”. The exceptions to the no return or refund policy generally include frame damage, flood damage, or title problems. Lang says most people should stay as far away from a public auto auction as Mercury is from Pluto. But he adds that shoppers do stand a better chance at auctions of government vehicles, which are much more likely to have been well-maintained.

Note: Special thanks to David Pitman for making my first radio interview on a mass medium far less fearful than I thought it would be. Also thanks to the folks at Edmunds and, as always, the wonderful people at TTAC who have given me as much joy over these last five years than I could have ever imagined back in the day. Click here if you want to see my longer list of folks that deserve honorable mention… well actually it’s just a funny radio sketch.

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2 of 28 comments
  • Colin42 Colin42 on Apr 26, 2012

    So if public auction prices are so high how would one go about selling their own car, sounds like a low hassle quick process from a sellers POV

  • Lumbergh21 Lumbergh21 on Apr 26, 2012

    Government vehicles are well maintained? Not in my experience. At least not if the vehicle was in a field office away from the main garage, typically in the state capital. So now we're looking at a questionably maintained vehicle that was driven like it was a rental. That's a recipe for disaster.

  • Philip This raises two questions for me:[list=1][*]What happens to all of the chargepoint that we have installed at our homes? Do those all have to be replaced?[/*][*]What happens to all of the billions of dollars from the federal government being spent on non-tesla ports at wal-marts and pilot service centers? [/*][/list=1]
  • FreedMike I didn't know the 318 was made in anything but that ugly hatchback style.
  • Jkross22 Good for the seller selling at the right time. I don't see 7 grand here for a 30 year old 318i, but as the late John Candy said, "You don't make any calls, you don't make any sales."
  • Analoggrotto For Tesla owns the entire universe, General Motors is allowed to have part of the heavens on earth, but only true Tesla owners, the first and true followers of Elon Musk will see the purest of Elysium.
  • Probert The only extra port I see happening is a V2G outlet. I don't think the Tesla port supports this. To have both CCS and Tesla would involve masses of cabling and expense that would be absurd in a game of nickels and dimes.