Step-By-Step Guide to Buying Cars at Auction

Buying Cars at Auction

Most average car customers have never purchased a vehicle at a car auction only at a car dealer. There are many more people, though, who have considered purchasing a vehicle at a car auction.

One of the problems is that the process of buying a car at an auction seems overwhelming and stressful. Do you have to be a car dealer to buy at an auto auction? Who handles all of the cars and bids? Are all of the cars considered auto salvage?

We have worked to take all of the mystery out of purchasing a car at an auction so you can bid confidently and save tons of money. Read on to get up to speed on how things work.

Salvage Vehicles or Used Cars?

The whole appeal of auctions is that you are able to purchase cheap cars and trucks that would normally cost much more at a dealer. One of the things you have to consider is whether you are looking for a salvage car to repair and drive or a used car that does not need much, if any, work and has been traded in to a dealer. 

Salvage Cars

Salvage cars are ones that an auto insurance company, like Direct Auto, has declared a “total loss.” That means that the insurance company has determined that it would either cost more money to repair the car than what the car is worth or the car could never be in the same condition as it was before the damage. Copart and IAAI are companies that many insurance companies use to auction salvage cars and motorcycles that have been branded as salvage. 

Used Cars

When customers trade in a used car as part of a new car purchase, many auto stores will send them off to be auctioned rather than selling them on their own lot. Typically, these cars do not need as much repair to be driveable but might require a little more capital to purchase than salvage cars. The benefit here is that the car will not have a blemish on the title labeling it as salvaged. Some auctions, like Mecum and Barret Jackson, even focus on classic and collectible used cars.

Step By Step Guide

Check Auction Requirements

The first thing you need to do is some research on auctions that you think you might purchase from. The biggest thing here is to find out if the auction is available to the public or only dealers.

Some auctions like Manheim also require registration before you can look at which cars are available.

Do Research on the Cars You are Interested In

All auctions have a list of vehicles that will be sold at their auctions. Do your research beforehand to run a VIN (vehicle identification number) check and look at the cars’ resale value of any vehicles you are interested in.

Make Sure You are Flexible

Go into the auction with several vehicles that fit your requirements. Do not zero in on just one car and not research any others available at the auction. If you only focus on one particular listing, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment if you do not win that car.

Follow the Rules

Make sure you know what the rules are for the auction you are hoping to purchase from. Some auctions have very specific payment rules, timelines, and participation rules. You also need to check the rules about vehicle storage if you cannot get transportation for the vehicle immediately after the auction.

Do research before you show up at the auction so you know exactly what is expected of you.

Get There Early

If you are attending an in-person auction, arrive early so you can see the vehicles before they are put up for auction. Sometimes, you can even start the car or have a mechanic look it over. Regardless, you will be able to visually inspect the vehicle for issues.

If Possible, Bring Someone with You

It is nice to have an objective person with you when you are bidding either online or in person. They will help take the emotions out of the bidding or help you stay focused on the facts.

Make a Budget and Stick to It

Sometimes it is easy to get carried away when your dream car is on the auction block and you can bid on it. That could land you in financial trouble if you bid more than you can really afford. Come up with how much you can spend on a vehicle, especially after budgeting for all of the other expenses that will add up after the auction is over, and stick to that budget.

Where Can You Buy Cars at an Auction?

Now that you have a plan of attack, where can you buy cars at an auction? Here are some auctions that have a great reputation.

Norwalk Auto Auction

Norwalk Auto Auction is in Norwalk, CA and holds two auctions every week. They hold public sales as well as dealer sales, so make sure you look into requirements for upcoming auctions.


Having 300,000+ vehicles for auction means tons of selection. If you are looking for a car, truck, or SUV, ABB has you covered. While some of the listings may be junk cars, only suitable for parts, there are also some awesome vehicles with manageable damage.

BSC America Bel Air Auto Auction

Located in Belcamp, MD, BSC America offers a weekly auto auction with mostly late model cars. Each car has an extensive report managed by Manheim that will help you do research ahead of the auction. They have both a public and dealer auction.

Fairway Auto Auction

Fairway Auto Auction in Edgerton, WI holds in-person and online auctions. You must have a Wisconsin dealer’s license to be able to purchase here, so you would have to find a dealer willing to be the go-between for you. Only registered users can see run lists.


With some research and preparation, you can buy a car at an auto auction and score a great deal. Use our guide to get ready and, before you know it, you will be ready to bid on some great vehicles.