How to Buy a Classic Car at an Online Auction

With soaring used car prices, new car inventories delayed by months, and the ongoing trend of staying closer to home from COVID-19, car enthusiasts are increasingly shopping online.

Last year, online auctions beat live auctions for the first time, with 20,000 cars sold online compared to 16,000 sold live in North America, according to a study by the insurer of classic cars and data company Hagerty. In total, online car sales increased 107%, from $492.5 million sold in 2020 to $1.02 billion sold in 2021, according to Kevin Fisher, an analyst at Hagerty.

The risks associated with buying a car at sight are innumerable. They can range from the mundane (that shade of blue on the 1975 Ferrari 308 looks different in real life than in the photos) to the expensive (you paid too much for that 1969 Corvette C3, and now it needs a new one. transmission). And dangerous (the worn tires of the little 1980 Mercedes-Benz SL give the impression of skating on ice).

There’s no way to completely erase the risk of buying a classic car online rather than doing it in real life. But there are ways to mitigate the risk and maximize the fun. Here are a few.

Determine the market value of the vehicle you want.

Hagerty price guides published online contain charts that show the rise or fall in values ​​of almost every collectible make and model in today’s market. They allow you to determine where the market is going for vehicles in perfect condition, vehicles in good driving condition and vehicles in need of work.

You should also check the Hammer Price app for market rates; each year it publishes the auction results of dozens of public sales for hundreds of vehicles. And thoroughly reading EBay Motors, Hemmings, and local lots, including Craigslist, to check prices and compare prices will give you a good idea of ​​what a fair price should be for the vehicle you want to buy online.

Here are some general rules of thumb: “Matching numbers” means that a car contains the original engine and is worth more than one that does not; manual transmissions are often worth more than automatic transmissions; and lower mileage generally means a car is more desirable and will cost more.

Find an example you like.

You have many options. Bonhams’s Market, EBay, Collecting Cars, Fantasy Junction and special online auctions from major auction houses such as Gooding & Co. and RM Auctions all offer collectible cars for sale online. The grandfather of them all is Bring a Trailer, which last year sold $828.7 million worth of cars, a 108% gain from $398 million sold in 2020 – and a quarter of a billion dollars ahead of its closest competitor at live auctions.

Most auctions work the same way: you can search for the make, model, and year of a vehicle you want, then follow the people who are bidding online. To place one of your own, which you can do at any time, you will register on the given site and provide your credit card information. (Most sites place a hold on the card or require an immediate down payment on the car, if you win the auction.)

Find the car in question.

Talk to the seller of the vehicle. On Bring a Trailer, you can message the seller directly with a question. On other websites, you can even call the seller by phone. Having a one-on-one conversation about any vehicle will help you quickly determine if the car is worth considering.

On a more general level, you can read long threads about model-specific reliability issues and set standards on enthusiast forums such as Pelican Parts and Ferrari Talk. It may help to browse online auction catalogs and read descriptions of previously sold models that are similar to the one you are considering. Although they may not necessarily relate to the car you are considering, they will give you an idea of ​​potential problems and what to inquire about.

“The problem [online] There is no ideal standard platform for proper photos and inspection of these cars,” says Dorian Valenzuela, founder and owner of DV-Mechanics, an Alfa Romeo performance restoration and enhancement shop and Porsche in Los Angeles. “A lot of badly restored cars look great in photos to the untrained eye.”

If you are really serious about the vehicle, consider traveling to view the car personally.

You wouldn’t buy an expensive sofa without sitting on it, or a luxury bed without lying on it, would you? It pays to go see a car and drive it.

Watch the sale.

Some cars are listed as “No Reserve”, which means the highest bid at the close of the sale will win the car. Other cars have a reserve, which means that if bidders don’t meet a minimum set by the seller, the car will stay with the owner. Find out if a reserve has been placed on the car you want — and figure out for yourself how much you can afford; don’t get carried away by emotion.

For example, a car you determined from your research has a market value of $75,000 would be a good deal if no reserves are listed and you can buy it for $65,000. Conversely, if you find that the market value of the car is $75,000 and the reserve attached to the car is $80,000, it is overpriced. Pass.

Read the play.

Take note of who is bidding on a car when the sale opens. Is it a random assortment of anonymous handles bidding somewhat arbitrarily, or are two bidders going back and forth with alternating bids? People who are already fighting to win the car may be willing to pay way more than it’s worth.

Beware of bidders who rush in early and bid fervently. Often they’re there to make a name for themselves or build hype for their own auto companies, says high-end auto broker Peter Brotman. Or a friend of the seller might try to raise the bid.

“If you list a seven-figure car on BAT, and it doesn’t sell for the price you want, you can pretty much get your friends to bid, and you can end up getting your car bought back” , Brotman says of one practice. it’s downright common among the upper echelons of the top-notch art and automotive worlds. “And that’s the best publicity you can get for your car. So it is definitely a controlled environment that the everyday shopper should be aware of.

Bid at the right time.

There is no sense in jumping into the auction early. It is best to wait and monitor any activity first. Keep reading the comments as they pile up. Then bid an appropriate price gradually above the previous bid and hope you win. And don’t forget the bidding limit you set for yourself; there is no point in breaking the bank for a special car.

Don’t be distracted by the peanut gallery.

Half the fun of buying a car online is reading reviews.

Most sales at Bring a Trailer carry dozens of comments about the vehicle; they offer a deep dive into the finer details of the car, from paint colors and vintage seat upholstery to wheels and door handles. These are very useful in assessing the authenticity of a given vehicle.

Yet the screams of cheap seats can also serve as a distraction.

“Anyone with an account can comment and ruin good bids,” says Valenzuela. “I see a lot of horrible cars making way too much money.”

Don’t get distracted after an online conversation about things that don’t matter to the real value and merit of a car.

Expect to pay even after your winning bid.

Did you win the car you wanted? Be prepared to spend more money.

The transport to return the vehicle to you will be expensive. An open-air truck ride to move your new baby from, say, Nashville to Los Angeles costs around $1,800. Transporting the car by truck with a closed trailer is even more expensive. Other fees include registration and insurance.

Hope for the best; Prepare for the worst.

No amount of photos – or even videos – can properly control a car. You will likely have to pay for at least some minor maintenance or repairs when you receive your new price.

That’s part of the fun of owning a classic car. There is always something to improve.

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