12 essential tips for buying and selling a car at auction

Drew russo and steele

Buying or selling a car at any auction can be daunting, deceiving, and downright disturbing. Vast sums of money trades hands during sales that play out quickly. Winning requires no small amount of research, vetting, insight and, yes, sobriety -- and selling is no easier. Hagerty understands the challenge and can help. During auction week in Arizona last month, we asked a panel of experts to provide sage advice for first-timers and veterans alike.

Our cast of auction all-stars included TV personality Wayne Carini, Hagerty marketplace director Colin Comer, Hagerty Price Guide publisher Dave Kinney, and Autosport Designs owner Tom Papadopoulos. Members of Hagerty Drivers Club joined us or watched online during Scottsdale auction week. Now, we bring their guidance to the hoi polloi; armed with these 12 tips, you will be one step closer to auction mastery.

A consultant can help

“Auctions are shark-infested waters,” said Comer. Hiring a consultant to guide you through them is money well spent. A pro can lead rookies toward deals and smart decisions while helping them avoid the pitfalls. After all, not everything coated in dust is a barn find. Working with an expert also can ensure sellers find the right company, venue, and time for the listing.

Do the research

hagerty valuation seminar
Sunnie Schwartz

No, really, do your research. Google the serial number to make sure everything matches. Hire an expert to thoroughly inspect the car. Find the seller and ask why he’s selling. Doing your due diligence before the car of your dreams rolls across the block is key. Carini once found two different serial numbers on the same car -- days after winning it. Avoid this headache by doing your homework.

First-timers, be patient

“Deals are like trains, there’s one coming the next hour,” said Kinney. They are a common occurrence in classic car auctions. First-time attendees should observe the landscape of the auction, meet key players, and get a feeling for the auction style. Don’t be so eager to bid on the first car that seems appealing. Asking questions frequently doesn’t hurt either.

Set your limit, and stick to it

hagerty valuation seminar porsche
Sunnie Schwartz

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of bidding, especially when the car you’ve wanted since childhood hits the block. That makes setting a price within your comfort level essential. Sticking to it can prevent you from making an emotional decision and paying too much. Our experts suggest determining a value long before the sale. It doesn’t hurt to write it on your hand with a big ol’ Sharpie as a reminder.

Keep your eyes wide open

Auctions are a lot like marriages—what goes unsaid is at least as important as what is said. Watch the auctioneer closely for tells in demeanor and voice. His cadence may waiver or his hand signals vary. An open hand from a ringman may indicate a real bid, while a closed hand may reveal a chandelier, or bogus, bid. Deciphering the code lets you discern genuine offers and bluffs used to hit the reserve. A consultant can help here, too. (Seeing a trend?)

Drive the car

toyota land cruiser for sale
Brandan Gillogly

Inspecting a car instead of relying upon the word of a seller or consultant is essential, because so much about a car is subjective. “Everyone’s interpretation of perfect is different” says Papadopoulos. Most owners will let you take a test drive. Take them up on it. Comer recently checked out a Lamborghini Miura for a client. After thoroughly inspecting the exterior and being told the car was “perfect,” he wriggled behind the wheel and discovered that the clutch pedal fell straight to the floor. Oof.

Read the fine print

“Auction catalog copywriters are not there to talk you out of buying a car,” says Comer. The people who write auction catalogs carefully craft the text to minimize, if not hide, a car’s flaws. And the fact the car you’re eying was the only one painted Oxford blue on a Tuesday does not make it a significant “one-of-one.” Also, keep in mind, after commission and taxes, you will always pay more than your winning bid. Auction house charge 10-12 percent in commission alone. Budget for the additional fees.

Let it simmer

Gooding and Company cobra
Matt Lewis

Comer said a wise man once told him, “the guy who throws the first bid is the guy who wants the car the most.” If you don’t want to be marked as that guy, Colin advises letting others bid first and letting bids work slowly toward the reserve, if there is one. Bidding toward the end of the auction goes a long way toward preventing emotional decisions and keeping everyone from knowing how much you want the car.

Don’t drink and bid

“[Auction juice] is really good if you’re selling a car, but if you’re buying, avoid it at all costs,” says Carini. Sellers, make sure the room is liquored up. Buyers, make sure you can pass a breathalyzer test.

Eliminate, don’t add

russo and steele booth scottsdale
Sabrina Hyde

Go into the auction with a list of cars you’re interested in, then thoroughly vet every one of them. Use test drives, owner interviews, and due diligence to eliminate those that don’t meet your criteria. Your list should grow shorter, not longer, as you get closer to placing bids.  

Choose the correct venue

Sellers, carefully choose the company and venue for your car. Different auction houses specialize in different cars, different eras, and different audiences. “Select your auction house, just as you would pick a Realtor that’s best to sell your home,” says Papadopoulos. Carini agrees. “I would not take a 1925 Stutz to Barrett-Jackson.” You also want to find an auction house that’s excited about selling your car, because enthusiasm is contagious.

There are minimal options for recourse

hagerty value seminar balcony
Sunnie Schwartz

Bid wisely, because once you’ve bought the car, it’s yours. The odds you’ll be allowed to rescind a bid or walk away are slim at best unless the consignor committed fraud. If you’re on the fence, walk away and do what Papadopoulos does — snap a photo of the car and hang it on your wall.