The Ultimate Used Car Checklist for Public Car Auctions

There are many reasons to consider a car auction instead of a showroom or dealer for your next vehicle. Used cars found at auction tend to be below average retail selling prices. But on the flip side, “buyer beware” is the name of the game at auctions. If you find any hidden issues after purchasing the car, the cost of repairs will have to come from your pocket! 

Having a proper checklist of things to watch out for can help you avoid that predicament and buy the car of your dreams. We have compiled a list of used car factors that matter in the context of an auction. Before we get to the car information, let’s start off with some basic tips for rookies attending their first auction:

1. Avoid bidding at your first car auction

For starters, avoid bidding at all costs if this is your “first rodeo.” Public car auctions have a unique atmosphere, customs, and practices. Take some time to acclimatize yourself with this environment. 

Make it a point to watch other buyers – auctions attract a lot of seasoned bidders. Watch them closely, both during the vehicle inspection stage and during the auctions. Look out for cars that attract their attention, and try to figure out why they avoid specific cars. 

All this can be overwhelming if you are on your own. It helps if you have a good understanding about cars in general. If not, it is highly recommended that you bring along a friend or relative who knows a thing or two about fixing cars. 

Once you have been to a few auctions and have become familiar with the bidding process, it is safe to place your first bid. And don’t worry about losing out on a great car – auctions are like airports or train stations – if you miss one, there are countless others on the way! 

2. Create a shortlist of cars you are interested in

Auctions are considered as a great source of cheap cars. But if you are not careful and disciplined in your approach, you can end up spending a lot of cash. Since these auctions attract a wide variety of vehicles, always keep a shortlist of cars you want to bid on before you attend an auction. At Impact Auto Auctions all vehicles are available online to help you narrow down your search and build a watchlist.  You can also create saved searches to save you time to find the vehicles that you’re interested in. Other helpful tools available on vehicles listing are 10 images in HD, damaged areas of the vehicle and repair estimate at the time of appraisal if available. Finally, you can always head over to the auction site during pre-view day and check over the vehicles in person. Best to check the pre-view day/time in advance as it varies by location.

In some instances, folks head to auctions in search of a specific model/year – a classic car or make of vehicle with a nostalgia factor. If you don’t belong to this category, it makes sense to create a list of target vehicles. 

A lot depends on your intended use for the car – do you want to use it as your daily driver, a second family car, one for a learner driver, or even repair/renovate it and flip it quickly? These are all common scenarios for which a used car from the auction would be ideal. 

The type of car is also incredibly important. For instance, a sports car like the Mustang or Corvette is best suited for enthusiasts. For small families, a full-size or mid-size sedan like the Avalon or Corolla is best. Larger crossovers and SUVs are also great options if you want a car to fit the entire family. 

Buy sedate and stable compact or midsize sedans if you are buying the car for a student driver. The Prius or Yaris are dependable models commonly found in the Canadian market. Pickups like the Tacoma and F150 are situational – do you need that kind of load-carrying capacity in your car? 

3. Look for cars with the best resale value

The ideal shortlist in these cases should contain cars with the best resale value. A car’s resale value is often an indicator of certain desirable qualities. These include:

  • Excellent durability and reliability
  • Good drive quality
  • Safety features
  • Easy availability to parts
  • Easy maintenance and cheap repairs

Often, the cars with the best resale value tend to be popular models that routinely rank high on the annual sales charts year in year out. For the North American market, Toyota is the brand to look for if you want a car that holds its value for years. 

Other manufacturers worth a look include Ford, Chevrolet, Jeep, Lexus, and Porsche, to name a few. Cars from these brands routinely find a place on the annual list of Canadian Black Book (CBB) “Best Retained Value” awards

Another source to reference specific to Alberta:

For 2019, the following cars have earned a reputation for high resale value:

  • Compact/Sub-compact – Toyota Prius, Toyota Yaris
  • Pickups – Toyota Tacoma, Toyota Tundra
  • SUVs – Jeep Wrangler, Chevrolet Tahoe, Toyota 4Runner
  • Luxury – Audi A7, Porsche Macan, Porsche Panamera
  • Sports Car – Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Corvette
  • Vans – Chevrolet City Express, Toyota Sienna, Mercedes Benz Sprinter 2500

If your choice vehicle is not on this list, you can check its valuation using services like Kelley’s Blue Book, Auto Trader, and the NADA Blue Book. Just head to any of these sites, select the vehicle model, make, year, condition and check the price others are paying for it! 

4. How to identify problem cars at the auction site

One of the biggest disadvantages of a public car auction is the lack of a test drive facility. This is simply impractical, given a large number of vehicles and buyers. Instead, you are given some time to make a close inspection of the vehicle before the auction. 

You can actually find a lot about a car if you use your eyes, nose, and ears well during the inspection. Look for telltale signs like these:

  • Dents on the body, paint overspray, different color panels, unusual gaps between panels, missing trim pieces – all signs of possible collision damage and repairs
  • Rusted interior, signs of water damage, changed carpeting, stale or musty smell – could be a flood-damaged car
  • Look for potential leaks of coolant or engine oil at the bottom as they could be signs of significant damage under the hood. 
  • Check the quality of the engine oil with a dipstick if possible – the cleaner it is the better. Black gooey texture, dirt, and metal flakes are all signs of trouble. 

Since you cannot take a test drive of the car, the next best thing is to take a close look at the vehicle when it is driven from the lot to the auction stage. Try to get a look at it from the moment of the cold start – if the engine has any serious damage, you will hear the sounds and see the smoke! 

5. Check the background of the car

Gone are the days when you had no way to check the provenance of any vehicle with 100% certainty. These days, you can find all the important information regarding a vehicle online. The key here is finding the vehicle identification number of the car (VIN) during the inspection. 

The VIN of a car will usually be on its driver-side dash, on the front engine block, and the driver-side door jamb. Using this number, you can find the car insurance and accident history, warranty claims, thefts (if any) and more. Online portals like CARFAX, autoDNA, Insurance Bureau of Canada and Kelley’s Blue Book all provide this service in the North American market.