Growing up poor meant that the adults in my life had to be creative with money. And being in the midwest meant that having no car was a non-option, since public transportation is a sick joke out here. Public car auctions were one of the ways that my parents and friends stretched their dollars, sometimes lucking into cheap cars that were far nicer than the price they paid for ’em.
Many cars end up being auctioned wholesale at huge events which are only accessible to people with car dealer licenses. But others, like the event I went to a few months ago, are open to anybody.
I’ve got a car-flippin’ friend who swears by public auctions as a solid way to get his flip cars. I tend to stay back, I don’t like competition, and seeing people bid on things that I want doesn’t do anything but induce anxiety for me. My very first flip was purchased at an auction – I got too competitive with another bidder and accidentally bought a completely wrecked Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight. Whoops. Anyways, over the winter I figured I’d take a gander at my local public auction. My friend was looking for a flip car, and I had some extra money burning a hole in my pocket, so why not?
Volunteers of America is a nonprofit organization that focuses on helping low-income people get housing, jobs, and other stuff too. It funds its work with grants, donations, and profits from thrift stores, kind of like Goodwill thrift stores and their associated philanthropic work. Like Goodwill, Volunteers of America has an auto auction. Like how you’d donate a pair of old acid-washed jeans, some people also donate an old car they don’t want to deal with disposing of or selling.
There are lots of reasons why someone might donate a car. For starters, in most states, donating a car can be used as a hefty tax write-off. The donated cars might have issues that the owner had given up on fixing. Perhaps the car was owned by an elderly family member – managing family affairs can be tough, especially if the family member has passed. Donating is easy, some places will even tow it away for free!
Here’s a rundown of what I saw and what you might expect at a public car auction.
The VOA auction offers a preview day (expanded to two preview days because of the pandemic) the same week of the auction. An auction happens every second Saturday, with preview days being on Thursday and Friday. There is no preview or vetting of the vehicles allowed on the auction day!
During those preview days, you can inspect the vehicle. You’re free to look inside the car, start it, and check fluids. You can’t drive the vehicles, though. If the doesn’t start or has no forward drive or reverse, that’s noted on the vehicle’s windshield.
On the auction day, you’ll need to register to bid. Registration starts at 9 a.m., an hour before bidding (10 a.m.). Registration is free – alls you need is a driver’s license.
If you win a vehicle, you must pay $100 (in cash or credit) to hold the vehicle. The vehicle must be removed from the premises and paid in full 48 hours after the auction. There area couple of small fees, too – tax, title, and a buyer’s fee added to the final cost. They’ll even sell you a temporary tag, if you need it.
About a week before the auction, VOA posts a list of what cars they’re gonna run.
A lot of the cars looked pretty rough – but if they went cheap enough, maybe they’d be worth my time for a flip. The 2010 “Toyota Scion” xD looked good, and with 108,000 miles I knew it’d likely still have a bit of street value left. The 2009 Ford Focus also looked like it was in good shape, but the value on those cars wasn’t very high.
Thursday, I braced 18-degree weather, and took a gander at some of the cars at the auction preview.
The Scion XD was rougher than its pictures on the website indicating. Inside, the car was full of soil, dirt, and mud on every surface. The tires were nearly bald, too.
The Focus was in decent enough shape, but I knew that its niceness meant that it would go for more than I wanted to pay.
The 1994 Toyota Camry was in really good condition for the year, but it’s a little old to have much value to me. It would definitely be a solid car for someone looking for reliable transportation though.
On Saturday morning I pulled into the combination Thrift Store/auto auction. Immediately, I was greeted to the sight of three tow trucks, and a few more trucks with tow dollys installed.
Hoo boy. I hate competing.
Nonetheless, I walked over, and registered to bid.
The first car on the run list was this rough Honda Odyssey. Full of junk, nearly 200,000 miles on a vehicle notorious for fragile transmission. The sliding doors on the passenger side didn’t open or close correctly, and the vehicle had clearly been hit in the front, as none of the panels lined up correctly. It sold for $750. Uh, what? Little did I know, that this would set the tone for the rest of the auction.
Next up was a 2013 Ford Focus DCT automatic. The car looked generally OK from afar, but up close the whole passenger side looked as if had been repainted with a brush. The paint was color matched okay, but you could see the brush strokes in the paint. It also had the infamous DCT automatic, which is the subject of a several class-action lawsuits. I’d imagine the car likely had transmission issues, so I’d bet on a replacement transmission needing to be done ASAP. Somehow, the car sold for $2,750.
Skipping forward, past a Malibu with water in the oil and a LeSabre with a horrible squeal and a broken door, we got to a 2002 Subaru Forester. The Forester is very rusty, sporting a hole in the front driver’s fender. One of the quarter panel windows was smashed out, covered up with a trash bag. The car barely cranked and would not stay running, uttering a cough and a putt-putt that sounded like low compression on at least one cylinder.
Sold – $850. Uh, what? I couldn’t understand why people were paying so much for these heaps.
The rest of the the run list went for similar pricing. A 2004 Odyssey that didn’t start – $750. A Saturn Astra with mismatched bumpers and “non-actual miles” pointing to a replaced odometer at one point – $1,650. That nice, but dirty Scion with bald tires? $3,100. A rusty BMW 325 E46 sedan with a hard miss and worn-out clutch went for $1,300, for some reason.
Like a TikTok depop seller picking through old Baby Phat crop tops, these auctions are swarmed by opportunists looking to make a quick buck. I mean, I can’t really say too much – what else was I there for? But, I was going against guys who were clearly gonna put as little money in these cars as possible, then put them on their buy-here-pay-here lot, to be sold to someone down on their luck in search of reliable transportation.
“These auctions are hit or miss,” said my other flip-car friend. It was early February, right at the cusp of tax time, where so many dealers are eager to sell cars to people flush with tax return cash. My friend anticipated that things would get less competitive in the springtime, when the tax time rush has died down.
Maybe next time, I’ll find a good deal that I can’t resist.