Buying a Car at an Auction: You’re Not Done Yet

If you're about to buy a car at a public auction, you're excited, you're ready to get that car, and you're ready to drive—but wait. Just because you've managed to outbid everyone else doesn't mean the car is already registered, nor does it mean the car is even road worthy. Once you have reserved the car, you need to go through a series of procedures to actually get it and use it. Here's a quick rundown of what you might have to deal with.


How you pay for the car depends on the auction house. Some make you put down a deposit with a promise to pay within a certain number of days, while others want everything right then and there, including an extra auctioneer's fee. Don't assume you know what to do, and don't even assume the auction house's website has the correct policy—those policies can change in real life while the online version doesn't. Contact the auction house a few days before the auction to verify payment procedures.

Road Safety

When you buy a used car at an auction, you're buying it as is. This means if you buy a car that isn't drivable, there's not much you can do unless the auction house has a policy of auctioning only cars that they have verified are working. In that case, you can complain to the auction house. But otherwise, you're on your own.

Some auction houses let you bring a mechanic onsite before the auction to check out cars you're interested in. While this onsite inspection doesn't really get under the car and doesn't really check out the internal components like brakes, it can give you a basic idea of whether the car is worth any bids.

If you don't have this preinspection done, once you've gotten the car, you will need to have it towed to a mechanic to have it checked out and fixed.

Registration and Other State Requirements

By the way, you read that correctly—you have to have the car towed. Auctioned cars won't be registered with the state, so you can't legally drive them yet. While you're getting the car inspected and fixed, head over to the state department of motor vehicles. You might have to wait until the emissions system has been checked and passed before you can get registered.


Let your insurance agent know before the auction that you plan to get a car there. That way they can have a policy semi-ready to go. You'll have to finalize the policy after the auction because the insurance company will need the exact year, model, and make of the car.

Auctions can be complicated, so take your time and just observe a few to figure out how they work. You can find some real gems in car auctions, but whether you're getting a sports car or an econo-car, you have to follow procedure to ensure the car is street legal. If you have more questions, contact used-car lots that offer auctions as well as auction houses.