Buying a Car at Auction — Life With a $5,000 Vehicle

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As I reported a few weeks ago, I bought a 2005 Volvo wagon at public auction for under my budget of $5,000.  That’s a pretty darn good buy one would think, but I wasn’t going to rely on my opinion only so the first stop was at a trusted mechanic.

The report wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.  In fact, it wasn’t even as bad as I thought it would be!

Will it pass a mechanic’s inspection?

Just because the car I purchased had been presented as ‘inspected’ by the auction and fully ‘road-worthy,’ hopping in the car and driving it as a ‘new’ car seemed like a bad idea.  And that’s the first lesson here:  You’re not buying a new car at public auctions.  You are more than likely buying a car that, at a minimum, needs regular servicing.

The Volvo I bought needed an oil change and air filter and that was about it.  The CV joints (part of the drive-line on a front wheel drive vehicle) have boots that will need replacement within the next 10,000 miles and there was some unexplained oil on the underside of the car.  Where it came from is anyone’s guess because the car does not leak and fluids.

All told, the inspection and servicing cost just under $170.

So, that was enough for me to press the wagon into service as my daily driver.  From what I’d been told, I’d be okay.

DIY fixes for cosmetic auto damage

When I first saw the car, I noticed that a large portion of the roof was covered in baked on adhesives from tape and glue — from what I suspect had been a leaky sunroof.  The rest of the exterior was pretty good, but dinged and had light scratches.  The upper part of the tailgate was flaking paint and looked pretty rough.  I was pretty sure that these cosmetic issues were a large part of the reason this particular car was at auction.

The worst-case scenario would be that that adhesive would not come off and that I’d have to just live with the car looking shabby.  Not to be discouraged, 4 hours later that 5 square feet of roof that had been covered in a hard, baked-on mess was clean and looking rather good.  A little trim paint on the top of the tailgate and that car was looking very presentable.

Being able to fix a majority of the cosmetic issues with the car certainly brought it up from looking like an auction vehicle. But that doesn’t mean much if you’re not going anywhere.

Where the rubber meets the road…and a suprisingly simple solution

I started driving the car on a daily basis for all of my driving.  That was actually a pretty tough thing for do.  Having a variety of well-maintained and very reliable cars to drive on a regular basis, there was a certain fear that came up whenever a strange noise made its presence known. 


Being a high mileage vehicle didn’t help much either, so there where clunks from the suspension on rough roads and the headliner trim rattled from a poor repair job brought about by the sunroof leak.  Despite those, getting from Point A to Point B was surprisingly reliable and easy.

All was fine until the third day when the transmission refused to go into park.  That was particularly concerning because that could have meant the transmission was bad or that the device preventing a car from being shifted to or from park without the brake being depressed could be bad.  That’s not nearly as expensive as a transmission, but still a costly repair.

It took only a few minutes to notice that a broken piece of plastic was preventing the movement of the shift lever.  One minute later with the help of a pair of vice-grips, I was able to move the shifter freely!

This is a prime example of how frightening it is to buy an auction vehicle.  Had transmission been bad, that would likely be the end of the road for this particular car.  It is also very likely that, had this happened to someone less mechanically inclined, this simple problem could have resulted in an unnecessary towing and repair costs.

Other than that experience, there has been little else needed other than a new battery and I’ve been pleased to see that, despite it’s age, it is still a relatively efficient car in terms of gas consumption.

I’m 2,000 miles into this experiment and I have a reliable car that’s now worth considerably more than I paid for it.  It gets great mileage and is very comfortable and every last accessory on the car works.  I actually like the car.  But, I don’t trust it yet.

6 tips to remember if you want to buy an auction vehicle

If you think this is something that you would like to try, there are several things that must be true before I’d ever suggest doing so.  They are:

  • Be very mechanically inclined and savvy in regards to automobiles or have someone who is trusted in that regard with you.
  • Decide what you want before you go and set a budget remembering to figure in buyer’s fees and tax/tag/title
  • If previews are online, look at them closely.   Many times VINs are included so you can run a CarFax or AutoCheck well in advance.
  • Inspect the cars you decide to bid on by showing up at the auction a few hours early.
  • Bid sanely.  Decide what the maximum is that you would pay for each of the cars you decide to bid on.
  • Understand that you are buying a car that will likely need, at very least, a complete servicin.

As it stands right now, I do like what I bought.  I’m keeping it though I have been offered as much as $7,000 for the car if I trade it in.  That’s a nice position to be in.

If you are in a position where damaged credit has you ready to deal with the Buy Here/Pay Here folks, you are far better off saving enough to go to the auction because, in the long run, you’re getting the same quality of car for significantly less money and trouble.

About the author: David Lardner is a volunteer at Team Clark Howard’s Consumer Action Center.

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