Online car auction tips and tricks


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Tom can't resist an L322 in his favourite spec : credit: © Alisdair Cusick
LRM's market expert guides you through modern car auctions. They don't do them like they used...

My kids will start to roll their eyes when I say how hard things used to be ‘in the old days’, but car traders used to have to work hard to find a bargain.

When I was a kid doing a paper round, the only other people waiting by the door at 6.00am for the newsagents to open were the car dealers, anxious to get inky fingers as they scanned fresh editions of Auto Trader, Exchange & Mart and Loot. They’d sit in the café opposite with a mug of tea and a bacon sarnie comparing the prices to a well-thumbed copy of Glass’s Guide.

If they had no luck there, then they’d head to the auctions to breathe in exhaust fumes and hope to assess a car’s mechanical and structural integrity in the two minutes between it being started and entering the ring to be sold.

The modern way is laughably easy in comparison. As I write this, I have two auction pages open, showing me the stock of Land Rovers in upcoming sales at different ends of the country. There are mechanical reports and very detailed descriptions and pictures of every tiny cosmetic defect. Rather than needing a paper guide book and calculator to work to the trade value, it is helpfully displayed in the listing itself.

You have to pay for it, of course – the auction fees are now nearer £300 rather than the £25 it used to be a few decades ago. But it makes it much easier to find cars for sale, and you are competing against buyers across the country. If you can’t be bothered to get on a train or drive a transporter over to collect your purchase, someone will even deliver it for you.

Once you’ve paid for all that there is still scope to make a profit, of course, although it means there are fewer bargains. But they do still exist if you know what to look for and play the system.

Mmmm. Cream leather and cherry wood interior. What's not to like?...

The first trick is to look for inspector’s paranoia, or simple errors. For example, there’s a 60,000-mile L322 Range Rover which is currently distracting me as it is my favourite spec – an early 2004 4.4 petrol V8, green, cream leather, cherry wood, 19s and clear (rather than privacy) rear glass.

It’s at an auction near me so the delivery would be cheap, but there are a couple of things in the summary which would make me scroll on if I wasn’t so mesmerised by the perfection of the specification. First, it’s listed as a left-hand drive. Then there are three red exclamation marks in the mechanical check report.

Scrolling off the first page to look closer at the pictures will quickly reveal the steering wheel is actually on the right side of the car, in all senses of the word. Click on the mechanical report and the flags are for nearside mirror which doesn’t move on the buttons, low oil level and the ‘usual’ warning for non-working air suspension.

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That could be enough to scare off the people who made it past the LHD part, especially the air suspension. But there are so many experts these days and repair kits for pumps and pipes that it needn’t be a disaster. The trade value is £2325 for ‘average’ condition, but I’m hoping other buyers will be scared off and £1750 will be enough to take it.

While the Range Rover has a clear history, there are plenty of other Land Rovers which have an insurance write-off marker on them. This kills the value of course, with one auction house telling me they instantly halve the value for anything they list as a total loss. Most traders will just scroll on by.

Not that I blame them. I would certainly baulk at the thought of the worst case scenario – a heavily damaged car which might have been rebuilt badly using stolen parts – but many of these cars are being put through the mainstream and salvage auctions with little more than a parking knock. So what’s going on?

According to people I’ve spoken to in the trade, the problem is the backlog in bodyshops caused by parts shortages. It means that owners might have to wait weeks to get their car repaired. While they wait, they expect to have a courtesy car.

Understandably, if someone has scraped the door on your Range Rover you won’t want a Corsa for a month, so the insurance company will have to rent you an equivalent car. That could be a brand-new Range Rover or they might hope you’ll accept a BMW X5 or similar. That’s likely to cost more than £400 per day.

Even over the course of a fortnight that adds up pretty quickly, so if the damaged car is worth less than £15,000 it is often cheaper for the insurance company to write the car off and offer a settlement sum speedily so it can avoid the hire costs.

That means there’s a glut of nice Land Rovers with nothing more than a scuff or a scrape selling for little more than half price. If you willing to wield the T-Cut or don’t mind a dent, that’s more than tempting.


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