How To Bid At Public Car Auctions Like A Pro

The automotive industry continues to witness continuous growth each passing year. Notably, used cars are now competing for market share as cheaper alternatives to customers unable to acquire more expensive new vehicles.

According to Statista, global annual car sales increased as of 2021, reaching USD$66.7 million. And with the increased demand for vehicles, sales are expected to increase over the next few years.

One of the most popular selling methods is car auctions. Usually, a wide range of vehicles are put on sale in car auctions, and buyers compete for them by placing bids. The car is eventually sold to the highest bidder.

Public Car Auctions

However, bidding can be a competitive process and can drive up prices. You may have a malfunctioning vehicle if you don’t do your due diligence, like inspecting it for defects. So, before bidding at public car auctions, you should learn every trick to balance your risks against potential savings. Here are five tips to consider:

public car auctions

1. Browse the cars available for sale early

Time is of great significance when it comes to bidding at car auctions. Ideally, you should know what you want beforehand to avoid getting confused, wasting time, and losing bids. Register early and start reviewing the cars available for sale in the auction’s inventory.

Luckily, most auctioneers list the cars on their websites for interested buyers to view their options in preparation for bidding. It’s best to check out various car models early and do your homework about the pros and cons of each particular type.

2. Have a bid list of your potential choices

After reviewing the vehicle types, you should narrow down your choices and have a more manageable list. For instance, you can research car values and prices online and select the vehicles that fall within your budget range.

Data shows that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for used vehicles in the US surged 41% between January 2021 and January 2022. Therefore, it’s best to know what to expect in terms of prices, so you know the affordable car choices. This will allow you to determine your bidding range and plan your finances early.

3. Do due diligence on the cars on your bid list

Most cars at a public auction are sold in “as is” condition, meaning there are no warranties or assurance of exceptional quality. So, you must do your due diligence to ensure you bid on a functional vehicle, especially if it’s a used car.

While most car auction houses may not allow a test drive, you can still inspect the vehicle to spot any signs of mechanical faults. Most sellers usually allow for pre-auction inspections before actual bidding. Head to the venue early, so you’ll have adequate time and space to do an in-person visual inspection.

Some issues to check out include deflated tires, mismatching bodywork panels, low-quality repaints, musty smells, engine issues, and other structural defects. If you spot a series of malfunctions, it’s best to consider another alternative to avoid the high hidden costs of repairs in the long run. And if you’re not car-savvy, bring a friend who understands the ins and outs of vehicle inspection, preferably a professional mechanic. They’ll help you identify value-for-money vehicles.

Many auctioneers usually provide a detailed report about a car’s condition and services online or at the auction site. Reconsider your options if the condition report is missing or the service history is patchy.

4. Know the surroundings

It’s vital to learn how the whole bidding process works. For example, you should understand the spotlight system the auctioneer uses during bidding and what each color represents: Usually, they use the following colors:

  • Green light: The vehicle has no mechanical defects and is subject to arbitration if undiscovered issues arise.
  • Red light: The car is available for sale as is.
  • Yellow light: The vehicle has known faults but is not subject to arbitration.

Note that public car auctions involve multiple vehicles moving across the auction block in various lanes. So, it’s easy not to spot the car you were eyeing. In that case, you need to be extra careful and send the auctioneer a signal the moment you’re interested so as not to lose bids. If you’re a first-timer, go to a few public car auctions to familiarize yourself with the process and the players before participating in an actual auction.

5. Don’t get carried away

It’s easy to get caught up in the heat of auction bidding, especially if you have all your attention on one car. Come up with a spending plan and stick to it throughout the bidding exercise.

You should also closely follow up the process and observe other bidders for any suspicious actions. For instance, some bidders may be overly active in an attempt to inflate prices. In such situations, stick to your bidding limit. It’s best to walk away rather than spend more money than a car is worth.


Car auctions have presented better opportunities for buyers to shop for great vehicles at the best possible price by maximizing their bargaining power. As you plan for a public car auction, keep these tips in mind to get the best deal. Before spending real money, remember to familiarize yourself with the bidding process and how bidders behave.

Jasper has been an enthusiast of the automotive and IT industries since the age of 16. He independently writes on the auto industry's recent happenings.