An expert in automotive sales says the biggest myth surrounding public auto auctions is that they're a great place for people who aren't car dealers to get a sweet bargain.
"If you don't have the ability and tools to deal with fixing a car, then you should not be at a public auto auction."
That's Steve Lang. He's a columnist at The Truth About Cars.com. He's also a contributor to the automotive consumer website Edmunds.com. He runs a small used car dealership about an hour northwest of Atlanta, Georgia. And every year, he buys about a thousand cars at auction. Most of those he wholesales to other dealers. Lang says the number of non-dealers showing up at the auctions he attends has tripled in the last five years.
"It used to be that the only type of people we would get at these events were immigrants, or people who are very knowledgeable about specific types of vehicles. That has changed dramatically."
Lang says many of these newer auction shoppers are clearly out of their element.
"The two biggest questions are 'what's going on?' and 'how much is he asking?' You get a sense that they don't know what they’re doing."
Lang says there are three key reasons why public auto auctions are not the same as buying from a dealer or individual seller. One, there's little, if any, opportunity for buyers to inspect or test drive vehicles. Two, the inventory typically consists of cars that other dealers can't sell, because of their age and mileage. And, three, Lang says auctioneers are pros at manipulating buyers.
"They try to buy a vehicle and they get caught up in the energy, the excitement, the enthusiasm of the auction. All the sudden, they now think 'you know what? Everyone else is bidding more money for this vehicle.' The laws of economics don't change at an auction. But peoples' minds definitely do."
Lang says the best defense against getting caught up in the auction frenzy is education. And that education begins before stepping onto the lot. Many auction houses will provide a list of cars they hope to move at the next public event. Those lists will include vehicle identification numbers, allowing shoppers to look up information on AutoCheck or Carfax.
"That can be a good start, because if you can find out if the vehicle was duly maintained for a large period of time, then you're probably looking at a car that was better overall condition than a vehicle that wasn't."
Which, Lang says, is important, since most sales at auction are "as-is". The exceptions to the no return or refund policy generally include frame damage, flood damage, or title problems. Lang says most people should stay as far away from a public auto auction as Mercury is from Pluto. But he adds that shoppers do stand a better chance at auctions of government vehicles, which are much more likely to have been well-maintained.