Buy & Sell: Bid Safely


Story By Andy Reid

The Arizona auctions week marks the beginning of the classic car buying season, and prices, are strong for most cars. Some of these prices were market correct, but others were simply ridiculous, bought either by uneducated buyers, people looking for time in the limelight, or those who just needed to “win” in order to feed their egos.

These are all poor reasons to buy a car at auction. Remember, when you overpay for a car, only the seller and the auction company “win.”

This year, I had the pleasure of assisting a number of readers in buying their first cars at an auction. Doing this reminded me that many people do not know how to make a proper purchase at auction, so I wanted to share a quick primer on the subject. “Properly” buying a car means getting one you actually want for the best possible price. Here are my hard and fast rules for buying at auction:

1. Only Bid on a Car You Really Want: This is an obvious statement, but you cannot believe how many people go to an auction with no plan and simply bid on a whim. This can be a very dangerous thing to do. I see many people bid on a car just because it looks nice, knowing nothing at all about the ownership hurdles. Only buy a car that you love, not one that just happens to catch your eye.

2. Do Your Research Before the Auction: This goes hand in hand with the rule above. If you’ve always wanted a Sunbeam Tiger and an upcoming auction has one listed, get the chassis and engine number and do your research beforehand.

This research should start with a call to the auction company and a conversation with a specialist. Ask questions about the car’s condition as well as its service, restoration and ownership history. Also, make sure that the paperwork backs up the story—it’s okay to ask the specialist to scan the paperwork and send you PDF documents.

Next, search online for the car by make, model and chassis number. Often, you can find out even more info than the auction company has on the car to fill in gaps in its history.

3. Never Bid Alone: I never go to an auction by myself if I’m planning on bidding. I always take a friend and let that friend know what I’m looking at and how much I’m willing to pay.

That friend should also know cars—ideally, the one you’re looking at. After the two of you view the car, get your friend’s opinion first. People tend to be more candid before they know that you’ve fallen in love. No one likes to be the voice of reason, but this friend may well save you a lot of money.

4. Look for an Expert While at the Sale: If you’re looking at an Enzo-era Ferrari, for example, introduce yourself to the expert on hand during the preview. Explain that you’re interested in the car and want an opinion on the one for sale. The expert will often be more than happy to point out any issues with the car and how that will affect its value, again saving you from making a bad decision.

5. Consider Hiring Your Own Expert: If you can’t find an expert at the sale or don’t have a friend to assist you with the bidding and evaluation, consider working with an independent auction expert. I do this quite a lot for friends and clients; Dave Kinney and Donald Osborne do it as well. What you get is an impartial evaluation as well as experienced assistance and strategy when you’re bidding. This isn’t a tip just for new bidders, as experienced ones hire experts as well.

6. Inspect the Car Thoroughly: Be sure to inspect the car thoroughly at the sale. If the car passes the initial inspection, get with a specialist at the company to see if you can test-drive the car.

At the very least, have the specialist start the car. While it’s running, thoroughly test every switch and control to see that they all function correctly. Also, sit in the car and make sure it’s comfortable. Do you like the way you feel behind the wheel? If you don’t fit in the car, you’re guaranteed not to enjoy it.

7. Be in the Room at the Auction: Yes, I know a lot of people phone bid, but there is no substitute for being in the room while an auction is going on. What you get is a feel for the room and where the prices are trending.

Plus, you’ll have some idea as to whom you’re actually bidding against. If you notice that the person constantly raising you is Ralph Lauren, then you can be pretty certain that you won’t get a deal on the car and should probably stop bidding. This is something you’d never know if you were bidding online or via telephone.

8. Set Your Price and Stick to It: While the idea of winning something at an auction is a romantic one, you’re actually just buying a car. Unless you have a very large bankroll and are bidding on an extremely rare car, there is no reason to spend more than you’d planned.

If you pay too much, you’ll always have a bit of a bad feeling about the car—no matter what the market does. Also, remember that there’s an auction fee as well as shipping and taxes. None of these fees is included in the amount you initially bid for the car.

I hope these tips assist you at your next auction, whether it’s your first or not. And if you see me at a sale, please feel free to ask questions. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone who can help.

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