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Auction Tips

Selling a Car at Auction: Full Guide and Tips

Regina Minton
Auto Blogger
Last Updated 02.02.23

The days have long passed when the only way to get a car sold was to trade it in or stick a “For Sale” sign on the window and hope for the best. Technology has opened many doors for those of us selling cars, trucks, or SUVs. 

One approach more and more car owners are taking is to sell through auctions. There’s less hassle than dealing with individual buyers, and the auction house takes care of the administrative details and paperwork. Let’s explore what’s involved with auctioning a car; more is required than just dropping off your ride and hoping it sells.

How to Sell a Used Car at an Auction

Before jumping in to sell your car, there are some basic steps to take.

#1 Value the Vehicle

Most people will first go online to gather a rough idea of what their vehicle is worth. You can start with resources like Edmunds and KBB. But you’ll also want to explore online listing marketplaces such as CarGurus or Autotrader

Also, check out auction sites to note what similar cars are selling for. If your automobile is unique or if it isn’t in normal condition, you’ll want to review specialty auction platforms. For instance, Bring a Trailer focuses on classic and collector cars, while A Better Bid offers many salvage title vehicles. 

The valuations you’ll pull together may not be what your car sells for at auction, but you’ll have a rough idea of what to expect. Many auction companies will help you with pricing when the time comes.

#2 Choose an Auction Company

Take note of the phrase “the right car at the right auction.” What this means is that selecting the best auction service is crucial to maximizing how much buyers will pay for your car. 

This involves choosing an auction house that matches the vehicle you’re selling. For example, trying to sell a Toyota Camry at a Mecum Auctions event (known for high-end collector cars) wouldn’t fly. You’ll want an online auction or a physical auction that focuses on mainstream vehicles instead. 

The second half of this equation involves choosing an auction to bring the right buyers to the table (another key factor for getting the most money when selling cars). An auction is no good to a seller if there are no interested bidders. So seek out an auction company with a successful history selling your type of car.

#3 Understand the Fees and Rules

Part of the search process involves reviewing how much auctions charge for selling a car. This can include an entry fee and service charges. You’ll want to review any requirements as well. If an auction company asks for a dealer’s license, for example, it wants to sell cars from those in the automotive trade only. In this case, move on to an auction that accepts vehicles from individual owners.

Whether dealing with a physical or online auction, you’ll need to present the vehicle title to confirm the car is yours. The auction company will also review your identification as part of the process.

#4 Make a Sale and No-Sale Plan

In most cases, the auction company will help you determine what amount to sell your car for, including a reserve (the lowest amount you’ll accept). Your research plus input from the auctioneer will determine a good price to start bidding and an estimate for a fair market value. 

It’s not guaranteed that a car will sell at an auction; this is when having a “no-sale plan” matters. It’s common for an unsuccessful bidder to contact the auctioneer about working out a purchase deal. Keeping in mind an absolute bottom-line number can speed the process along.

How to Auction a Car Online

Online auctions combine the traditional approach of competitive bidding with the convenience of the Internet. This means that it doesn’t matter where your car and the winning bidder are. Here are the primary steps needed to auction a vehicle online.

  • Prepare Your Car for Auction: Unless you’re selling a salvage car, the vehicle must present well to get the best price. Clean things up, inside and out, or have the car detailed. This is also a good time to perform any needed repairs or maintenance.
  • Secure the Title: The transfer of vehicle owners can’t happen without a vehicle title. Many online auction providers will want to see this documentation before setting up an auction, so having the title on hand is essential. If there’s still a loan on the car, check with the auction company to see if they’ll take cars with a lien (some auction firms will only handle vehicles with a free and clear title).
  • Select an Auction Company: There are numerous auction platforms, so you’ll want to choose one with rates you’re comfortable paying, that is well-suited for the type of car you’re selling, and that has rules and requirements you agree with. Some platforms operate solely via a website, while others may rely on a smartphone app.
  • Setup and Start the Auction: Each auction house has its own policies, but most will require you to submit a detailed description of the car and numerous photos. Some may need an in-person or virtual inspection to confirm the car’s condition and equipment. You’ll also have an opportunity to confirm pricing, including the opening bid amount and the reserve price. Once all the specifics are verified, the auction can be scheduled. 
  • Observe the Bidding: The auction may occur over a few minutes or hours, or last for several days. Regardless of the length, a seller should keep abreast of the bidding. Such attention will help if there are technical issues or problems like slow bidding. Some auctions facilitate contact between bidders and the seller to answer any questions. If your auction has this feature, be alert. Fast responses put bidders at ease and promote higher bids. A bidding war (where two or more buyers have a back-and-forth bidding exchange) can easily happen when bidders are comfortable with the seller and their car.
  • Finalize the Transaction: Assuming the auction is successful, the auction company will handle the paperwork and advise on the final steps. This might involve a few signatures and coordinating transportation of the vehicle (or working with the winner to schedule delivery)

How Do Car Auctions Work?

How Do Car Auctions Work?

Let’s look at the stages of the car auction process from the seller’s perspective.

  • Accept the Car for Auction: The auction starts with the auction company accepting a vehicle for sale and verifying it meets any sale conditions. These cars may come from dealers, wholesalers, private sellers, insurance companies, government agencies, or other entities, depending on the type of auction. Physical auctions will take possession of the car (as will some online auctions), while online auctions will perform virtual and digital verifications instead.
  • Make the Car Available for Inspection: Each auction house and online auction platform is different, but they all allow a vehicle inspection period before bidding. Depending on the auction, inspections can be in-person or virtual, and some online assessments may involve a review of only photos and videos. In contrast, others allow engine starting and test drives. Depending on the auction, inspection access may be available only hours before bidding or days before the auction starts (typical with online auctions). 
  • Conduct the Auction: The auctioneer manages the in-person auction by announcing the opening bid, acknowledging bids, and coaxing bidders to maximize the sale price, ensuring a smooth process. Online bids are managed through software that takes the place of the auctioneer. Often, an online auction will continue if the bidding gets active and will end once the bidding stops. Some auctions may combine an auctioneer-led format with online and phone bidding.
  • Complete the Transaction: Once bidding is over, it’s time to finish the transactions or return unsold vehicles to their owners (or hold them over for another auction). Auction firms expect sold cars to be paid for immediately or within a business day. Once payment is complete, winning bidders are expected to pick up the vehicle or arrange shipment within a few days. Once the funds are collected, the previous owner (you) gets paid based on the terms of the auction, usually within a few weeks.

Is It Better to Auction or Sell a Car Privately?

Is It Better to Auction or Sell a Car Privately?

Going the auction route instead of selling a car privately has pros and cons. Here’s what you need to consider if you decide to choose to sell your car through an auction.

Tips for Selling at Auction

Tips for Selling at Auction

Experienced auction sellers take specific measures to help ensure a quick sale and create a smooth experience for everyone involved.

Establish a Reserve Price

Establishing a reserve price, the lowest amount you’ll accept for an auction sale, is an insurance policy that guarantees you’ll get at least the minimum asking price. Otherwise, the car could sell far below what you’re hoping people will pay.

Keep It Clean

Your car should be as clean as possible to convey a good impression and attract the right buyer. Not only does a tidy vehicle show well (and invite more bidders), but it signals that the car is well cared for (a significant money motivator at an auction).

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

When it comes to an auction (especially online), there’s no substitute for photos. Clear and well-defined images help sell the car because they remove the mystery from what you’re selling. It makes it easier for a buyer to decide and become the highest bidder. Depending on the value and condition of your car, it may be worthwhile to hire a professional photography service (one with car experience).

Be Upfront

While you don’t have to note every minor scratch and nick, being honest about the car’s condition is the right thing to do. Also, being upfront will avoid any unpleasantness after the sale.

Be Realistic

Set a realistic expectation for how much you hope the car sells at auction. Your research should help with the process, and don’t be afraid to postpone a sale if you decide pricing isn’t favorable. For example, auctioning a convertible in the winter in a northern state may not yield the best results or enough buyers.

Final Thoughts: How to Sell a Used Car at Auction

With the right preparations, selling your car at an auction can make more money than trading it in or selling it privately. Take the time to research your car’s value and the best auction option for a successful sale.

Frequently Asked Questions: How to Sell a Used Car at an Auction

Frequently Asked Questions: How to Sell a Used Car at an Auction

What car sells for the most at auction?

The most in-demand car gets the highest price at an auction; it can be a car, truck, or SUV. Multiple bidders seeking the same vehicle will keep the auctioneer busy with the hopes of walking away with the highest bid.

Why would a car be sold at an auction?

Auctions offer a unique way of concentrating buyers (bidders) in a single place to help sell many cars in a short period. Often, car auction sellers want a quick sale and can’t wait for the time it would take to sell vehicles via one-on-one transactions. Auction sellers include dealers getting rid of excess inventory, governments off-loading surplus vehicles, and private individuals looking to skip the trade-in process and maximize their cars’ selling prices.

Can you sell items to an auction house?

In general, auction houses are in the business of facilitating transactions between sellers and interested bidders and not buying things. However, in certain instances involving very rare and sought-after items (like artwork) that are sure to sell, an auction house may be willing to pay for something if the seller can’t wait for an auction.

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