Selling on BaT? Pack your patience
Let me just say it: I’m not a fan of Bring A Trailer (BaT) in its current form. Don’t get me wrong—it isn’t bad. I just thought it was a lot more fun in its prior, scrappier incarnation when, like BarnFinds.com, it reposted ads for interesting cars from Craigslist and eBay. Now it’s a self-styled top-shelf auction site, which is not nearly as much fun.
I’m certainly not someone who cruises BaT and drools over cars that I can never afford, with mileage so low that I wouldn’t want to drive them even if I could. I don’t enjoy watching the site as people bid these cars up to nosebleed-high values. I’ve sold my last few cars either through word of mouth or by floating them on my Facebook page. Could I have gotten more money on BaT? Probably. But the sales were fast and flawless, plus the cars went to great homes.
That having been said, I just sold a car on BaT for a friend. It worked out well, and—bottom line—I’d do it again. But I found the process a bit maddening. I thought I’d explain why and encapsulate the experience, both the good and the bad, since if you choose to do it yourself there are some things you really need to know.
About six years ago, I helped my friend Mike buy a pair of round-taillight BMW 2002tiis on eBay. He really wanted an Inka (deep orange) tii. We couldn’t find one, but a car that was repainted an unusual (but very pretty) metallic robin’s egg blue came up and he bought it. Of course, a few months later, a Colorado (pale orange) car became available, and he bought that one too. Even I, who agonizes over every automotive decision, was envious of his risk-taking, but Mike was philosophical. “Sometimes, it just averages out.” And he was right. The blue tii was much worse than expected, requiring weeks of my time to sort out, while the Colorado tii was much better than expected—ran and drove great, not a rust hole anywhere, and it was very pretty (but with a few quirks). He decided to keep the Colorado one and have me sell the blue one.
I didn’t see Mike or his cars for nearly six years after that. Then, a couple of months ago in early October, Mike reached out and said it was time to sell the Colorado 2002tii. He asked for my help and offered me a piece of the action. Knowing that I was facing a winter storage crunch, I asked for neither a percentage nor a flat fee, but instead for two over-the-winter spaces in his ample garage. Although it was a little early for me to stash my 1973 BMW 3.0CSi, it made sense to do it, so I drove the 40-ish miles to Mike’s house and swapped it for the tii.
When I arrived, Mike pulled the orange tii out into the sun. As he did, it all came back to me. It was a very pretty car, having had outer body and interior work done in 2013. It had the desirable combination of air conditioning, a sunroof, and a retrofitted five-speed gearbox. Also, for the nitpickers, it had a numbers-matching engine and the correct tii “no snorkel” nose. (Carbureted 2002s have a circular opening or “snorkel” on the right side of the nose where a fresh air hose is connected to the air cleaner. The fuel-injected tii never had this opening, so a tii wearing a “snorkel nose” is a sign that the car was hit and the nose was replaced with a standard 2002 nose, which, after a while, was all that was available from BMW.)
But the car’s quirks came back to me as well. The quality of the body restoration wasn’t great. The upper seams where the front fenders attach to the nose are supposed to be filled, and these weren’t. The lower seams were a bit sloppy as well. The hood hadn’t been aligned correctly, and the hood supports hit the tops of the fenders. The amount of orange overspray in the engine compartment and trunk was substantial.
The interior, though very pretty, was a bit odd, with the seats and door cards having been reupholstered in a non-stock fabric. The doors sported contrasting black armrests. Plus, the car was a bit of a Franken2002 (one containing bits of other cars). The biggest error was that the back of the car had two BMW emblems on it—the standard one on the rear clip and a second one in the center of the rear edge of the trunk lid, indicating that the trunk lid had been taken from a 1974–76 big-bumpered 2002, as was also the case with the car’s one-piece padded dashboard.
Mike asked which auction site was the best place to sell it: eBay, or Bring A Trailer? So I listed the pros and cons. Both site produce a winning bidder and charge about $90 per listing, but that’s where the similarities end.
BaT is a “curated” site where you must apply and see if your car is accepted. Plus, BaT writes the description, not you—and in a consistent but somewhat bland “house voice” (in my opinion) that starts with, “This [insert year and model of car.]” Further, BaT is essentially a social media site where readers can comment on auctions. It promotes this as a strength, as the crowdsourcing of expertise can reveal when a seller is incorrect, or worse, is intentionally misrepresenting a car. While I freely agree that this can have a lot of value if you’re a buyer who isn’t familiar with a particular model, it’s counterbalanced by nitpicking and time-consuming questions from people with no skin in the game. The other big difference is that eBay auctions end at a specific time, whereas BaT adds two minutes to the clock whenever a new last-minute bid comes in, effectively encouraging bidders to continue so they don’t lose the car over the last five hundred bucks.
I advised Mike that the cars that tend to bring the most money on BaT are those that present themselves as fully-executed wholes, whether that means a bone-stock survivor, an open-checkbook correct restoration, or even something customized if the workmanship looks impeccable. This car was none of those things. However, despite its flaws, it was an essentially rust-free round taillight 2002tii in a highly desirable color with a bunch of highly desirable options and mods. I thought it had enough going for it that Bring A Trailer might be best, if the site would take it. But I warned that we’d need to inoculate ourselves against the sniping from the peanut gallery by fully disclosing its flaws and foibles. Also, truth be told, this would be a chance for me to test-drive the BaT process on a car that wasn’t my own. Mike agreed with the approach.
We had a brief conversation in which we agreed on two over-winter garage spaces in exchange for my handling the sale. If the car needed any pre-sale work, it would be negotiated separately. Then we elbow-bumped a substitute COVID-safe handshake. I left my 3.0CSi in Mike’s Garage Mahal and drove home in the pretty Colorado-orange tii. Mike mentioned that the car pulled to the right, but a quick stop to air up the tires cured that. The only other driving issue I found was a snotty metallic rattle at idle that turned out to be a loose A/C tensioner pulley bracket. With no other apparent work needed, I gave the car a light cleaning, then set about preparing to advertise it.
When you go and check out a car in person, if you know that make and model well you can usually tell in the first 15 seconds if you’re interested in buying it. The next three minutes are spent confirming those first 15 seconds, and the next 20 minutes are for calibrating the dollar value of an offer. I take a great deal of pride in writing ads that convey that same level of information remotely. You take at least a hundred photographs outside, inside, and underneath. You shoot walk-around, cold start, and driving videos. Then you write up a description in which you disclose absolutely everything. The reason for this isn’t only so you can pat yourself on the back for your honesty—there’s also enlightened self-interest in it. By disclosing what the car actually is, you remove the risk to potential buyers about what it might be, and with that reduction of risk comes higher offers. It’s really pretty simple. In one of life’s odd twists, nine years ago, before BaT was an auction site, it recognized this and linked to a BMW 3.0CS I was selling on eBay, saying, “If you ever plan to buy an E9 coupe, right click and save these photos, because this listing walks you through a very expensive pre-purchase inspection at no cost. Bravo to this seller.”
I put Mike’s car up on my mid-rise lift, reacquainted myself with its undercarriage, verified that my memory of not being able to find a rust hole anywhere on the car was still accurate. Then I photographed it and shot a full undercarriage video walk-through, including showing some cringe-worthy work in the attachment of the right front fender. I shot the obligatory cold start and driving videos, then took the car to a sunny, well-lit parking lot to photograph the exterior and interior.
As I said, BaT writes the listing, but A) I didn’t know whether or not it would accept the car, and B) even if it did, I assumed that it would be useful to have all the detail collected in one document so I could pull from it to supply the information to BaT. So I wrote up my customary lengthy candid description. I listed the plusses, such as it being a factory Colorado orange car (I’d sent the car’s VIN to BMW Archives to verify this) on which I could not find a single rust hole or even a rust bubble, the paint and chrome being eye-poppingly pretty and shiny, and the car having the correct nose and numbers-matching engine, five-speed, sunroof, A/C, and that it ran and drove great. I included the short eBay description from when Mike bought the car, which described it as an Arizona/California car with an engine rebuild in the 1990s and a body and interior restoration in 2013. I very candidly discussed the fender and hood attachment, the lightly customized interior, the Franken-bits, and a few other things. I also listed all known mechanical issues, which included the odometer having been rebuilt and thus the mileage probably being off by a few thousand miles, the blower motor not working, the missing driver’s side door bracket/brake, the car being equipped with an air-fuel mixture (AFM) gauge that wasn’t working, the doors not being keyed the same as the ignition, and the fact that the pedal bucket was missing its foam cover.
On October 5, I sat down and worked my way through the BaT submittal process, which is fairly straightforward. I entered the basic information about the car, uploaded the photos and videos, then stepped through the description template, filling in the fields for vehicle history, modifications, recent maintenance, known problems, and a few other things. I copied and pasted from my own description wherever I could. The FAQ on BaT’s website says, “It usually takes about two weeks to go from submission to live on the site.”
The next day, I received an email from BaT telling me that the car had been accepted. It also said, “This is a very busy time at BaT, and as a result there will be a waiting period before your auction can begin. It can take up to three weeks before you are assigned to a dedicated Auction Specialist, who will work with you to create a high-quality listing and will be on hand throughout the remainder of the process to help ensure you get the best auction result for your car. We understand that the news about the wait times might be frustrating, and so I would like to waive your listing fee altogether.”
A month later (November 5), I received an email from my assigned “Auction Specialist.” He gave me positive feedback on the text, photos, and videos I’d supplied, and asked if I had any questions. I said that I was anxious to see the draft “house voice” description as soon as possible so we could begin the process of iterating it if necessary. He said, “You’re correct about the in-house writing style, but you are, of course, welcome (and encouraged!) to provide additional backstory and details in your own voice once the listing goes live.”
On November 10, I was told that the draft description had been sent to the editing team and that I should see it soon. The next day, November 11—a little over five weeks after BaT accepted the car—I was finally emailed the draft.
Unfortunately, after waiting five weeks, what BaT sent me was very disappointing. And I wasn’t simply reacting to the bland house voice. The description was poorly written and amateurish. It actually said, “Equipment includes air conditioning, round taillights, and dual side mirrors.” (I replied as professionally as possible, pointing out that every BMW 2002 made between 1968 and 1973 had “round taillights”—that is, they weren’t an option like air conditioning. What I wanted to say was, “You lose as much credibility with your audience as Christie’s would if it said, “This Van Gogh painting includes raised brush strokes.” I have learned such restraint with age.) In addition, the description made it sound like the Colorado orange repaint was a color change when it wasn’t; it contained errors, such as referring to “an auxiliary gauge cluster” when there wasn’t one; it repeated things unnecessarily; and it omitted aspects of my upfront description of the less-than-perfect body restoration.
I contacted a friend of mine, one who has bought and sold a number of $50,000-ish cars on BaT, to get his perspective. He said that his experience was that BaT does things its way and was unlikely to budge, particularly on issues where it could be sued or it was wrong, such as unequivocally stating that a car was an original color.
“I have the email from BMW Archive saying they verified the color in their records for the car’s VIN,” I protested.
“Yeah,” he said, “but BaT doesn’t have it, and even if they did, it could be faked, or wrong.”
As we spoke, I realized that BaT’s “curated” listings are a double-edged sword, but it tries to use both edges in its favor. That is, it uses the submittal/approval process and the catalog-style descriptions to create the impression that it’s a best-of-the-best auction site with vetted merchandise, but at the same time, it sure seems like it wants to limit liability by keeping the descriptions free of anything that’s opinion. And even with that, the descriptions are peppered liberally with language like “reportedly” or “the seller states.” On the one hand, it’s pretty clever, but after the long wait, I was profoundly unimpressed.
Then my BaT-savvy friend said something that changed everything: “You can still offer to send your original full description to anyone who wants it. Even better, you can take your own description, or a shortened portion of it, and as soon as the auction goes live, post it as the very first comment, so if there’s a particular slant you want people to see, they’ll see it.”
Knowing that, I contacted BaT with a list of recommended changes to the description, and they were pretty accommodating, correcting the factual errors, removing the redundancies, taking me up on my request to include more of the car’s shortcomings (I’m probably the only seller who lobbied to put “the bad stuff” up front), and slightly modifying the language about the car’s color while still stopping short of claiming that it was original. It seemed silly and wasteful of both my time and that of the BaT staff to go through this back-and-forth when I could’ve gotten it right without assistance, but in an evening, it was done. I then took my original lengthy description, whittled it down, used it to craft an introduction to the car, and prepared to post it as the first comment when the auction went live.
I was more than a little surprised when, rather than BaT telling me telling me in advance when the auction would go live, I received an email on November 16—six weeks after acceptance—saying that the auction had gone live. I scrambled to get my synopsis in as the first comment. The auction can be seen here. If you hit the “view more comments” and scroll all the way to the bottom, you can see how I used it to frame the car.
Basically, it worked. Someone commented, “The most honest seller’s description in BaT history.” Another wrote, “Take a note, Bring A Trailer, this will go down as one of the most honestly-written and complete auction descriptions written thus far.” I answered several questions and complied with a request to do a compression test, but there was none of the screeching like Donald Sutherland does at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers over things like the fender seams and the extra rear emblem, because I’d candidly disclosed them up front. After nearly 14,000-page views and with over 1200 people watching, the car sold for $38,750, which, considering its caveats, was a hefty number. Mike was thrilled with the result, and when the car was delivered, the buyer said it looked even better to him in person than he expected from the photos.
So, if you’re thinking about listing a car with BaT, and if the sale is time-critical, understand that the lead time can be substantial, so get the photography done and the car submitted as early as possible. And understand that, to do what I did, you should think of the task as requiring four separate descriptions:
- The lengthy “warts and all” description you’ll write initially to get everything in one place, and then, once the auction is live, offer to send to interested buyers.
- The BaT description template you’ll fill out during the submittal process.
- The draft description BaT will send you weeks later, which you’ll work to correct and edit.
- The punchy framing description that you’ll write and submit as the first comment when the auction goes live. This will contain the offer to send the full description to interested buyers.
Now, the big question: Would I use BaT again? Absolutely. It really sticks in my craw that its business model requires you to do all this upfront work only to have a writer, for liability reasons, ignore much of it in their description and then encourage you to put it all in in the comments section so you’re making the claims instead of them, but the results speak for themselves. I’ll probably submit my 48,000-mile survivor 2002 to BaT in the spring. Assuming, that is, they don’t blacklist me.
If the listing reads, “This 1973 BMW 2002 has round tail lights,” however, I swear I’ll go medieval—on the curated description, of course.
Rob Siegel has been writing a column (The Hack Mechanic™) for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 34 years and is the author of seven automotive books. His new book, The Lotus Chronicles: One man’s sordid tale of passion and madness resurrecting a 40-year-dead Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special, is now available on Amazon (as are his other books), or you can order personally-inscribed copies from Rob’s website, robsiegel.com.