What to look for at a car auction

I am heading off to a Goodwill Auto Auction on Saturday to pick up a beater to drive around town. We can not drive the car before hand. They will start the car if it can and drive it up and back. What are some of the things I should be looking at or for when they do this or when I look at the engine before the auction starts.

Good luck. Buying a car this way is a crap shoot. No matter how hard you look you can’t see internal damage.

Just don’t pay more than a few dollars and you’ll be OK. Anything you buy will be a throw-away car. If you get several months worth of use, or a year, you’ve done well.

This is where they sell cars with dead cylinders.

make sure you get a “carfax” on it!

It is certainly a CRAP SHOOT. I consider myself above average in my knowledge of automobiles and have had some success finding ‘beaters’ for friends at auctions but wouldn’t consider offering above scrap iron price for a car without driving it. I would advise you take a friend familiar with auto auctions and title law and automobile repairs with you. In a Goodwill situation there certainly could be some “diamonds in the rough” but there’s a lot of rough out there. And when I go to an auction I pull a car dolly and carry the “new car” home in tow. I would never assume that the car would get me home.

I got lucky my first time, came away last July with a 98 Ford Taurus with about 127,000 miles for $450. It’s lasted a year and is now dying a very slow death due to a bad headgasket. I have only had to put in a new radiator and two ball joints, so I think I got $800 investment over the year. However I have learned that just because an engine sounds good doesn’t mean it’s a great engine. I know to check fluids and such and hope, my goal is to stay under $600.

If you’re thinking of doing this for a daily driver, you need to know cars beforehand and be willing and able to sink some time and money into getting it roadworthy.

I have a friend who buys an occasional vehicle at these auctions, gets them roadworthy, and sells them at a modest profit overall. But this guy has torn cars apart and restored them. He knows his stuff, and occasionally even he will lose money on one. And he does not do it for a daily driver, he does it more as a hobby.

If you had to ask, it probably isn’t a good idea.

Buy and learn how to use a vacuum gauge (about $40 and up) - you can learn a lot about an engine in about 5 minutes with one of these - very easy to use but have an assortment of vacuum adapters & connectors & some extra vacuum line in a few sizes.

A new set of tires = $3-400. That’s pretty easy. Look for odd wear patterns.

Look at the dipstick for goopy tar looking oil and/or signs of coolant.

You can’t really do much w/ the trans w/out driving but look at the fluid for its condition. Pay attn when you put it in gear - a bump into gear is a bad sign. Any hesitation to go is also a bad sign.

Carefully watch the exhaust for any sign of smoke, esp on first start up. Sniff it a little (obviously not too much) for oil or coolant.

Every car gets to auction for some reason. If it looks like crap with a bad interior I’d actually tend to trust it more than if it looks good. If it looks good that probably means the issues that got it there are more important things like engine, transmission, etc.

Its still a crap shoot no matter what you do.

I’m in agreement that an auction like this is a crapshoot and you’re more than likely going to end up with something that someone else decided to dump off rather than spend money repairing a major problem.

Listen for engine knocks, watch for oil smoke, and ask the person driving the car to hold the foot brake down and try to rev the engine while the transmission is in DRIVE followed by doing the same with REVERSE. You should not hear the engine rev very high. This can (sort of) let you know if the transmission is slipping.

Check the coolant reservoir for bubbles and for oil while the car is running to try to avoid another head gasket. I would pay very close attention to how the transmission shifts as well, since that is undoubtedly what gets a lot of these cars donated. Since they changed the tax deduction rules, only cars that are absolutely unsellable tend to get donated now, so I think your chances of getting a good car are pretty astronomical-- you’re probably better off just shopping out of the classifieds or craigslist.

But my advice to you is instead of buying another POS, fix your Taurus. It’s a little depressing to think about all the money I’ve spent on crappy sub-$500 cars in the last 10 years-- I could easilly have a very nice newer car. No regrets because I like tinkering around with them, but buying a crappy beater every six months is not the cheapest car ownership strategy. Even though it doesn’t seem to make sense on paper to spend more fixing your car than it’s worth, if all you need the car for is reliable transportation it’s better to invest in a known commodity than hoping to win the beater lottery.

To repair it I am looking at at least $1500 from the 3 different estimates I got, and i don’t have that kind of cash laying around.

press the brake peddle and see if it rests firm at the bottom of travel. if it wont start thats one thing, if it wont stop, well, you know. check the tail pipe for heavy black soot. if they let you, see if it starts and watch for blue, white or black smoke. white is oil, black is too much gas, blue is both. Check the fluid levels and condition. Look for fluid leaks. turn the steering wheel to check for play, less than 1 inch is still good. if manual, move the shifter and clutch peddle to check for wear. look at the DOT date code on the tires to see how old they are. look at the muffler and tail pipe for holes. examine the body for bondo or other indicators of wrecks. check the lights for operation. bounce the four corners of the body to check the shocks/struts and springs.
a vacume gauge and compression tester are useful but most auctions wont let ya use em. So bring along an automotive stethescope, and apply it to the running engine for a better listen. say a prayer and good luck.

Put any car with an illuminated “check engine” light off your list, could be simple or a real nightmare.

I figure if i can come out with something close to what i got last time, it’s a win. I paid $450 for the ford taurus, spent about another $500 in general repairs and have gotten over a year of driving and over 8,000 miles out of it. I figure a junk yard will give me at least $100 for it, because besides the engine everything else is in great shape, so anything more then the $100 would be great.

I also try to be the cheapest guy on the road. My strategy is to buy a used car for around $5000. I stay away from Toyota and Honda because of the price premium. I will only buy a car that has been maintained and is ready to drive. It takes some time to find a car like that, but they are out there. My lowest cost car so far was a $3500 Ford Escort driven from 62,000 miles to 170,000 miles with only one unscheduled maintenance event (an alternator). I usually give these cars away when the A/C fails (a Texas thing).

This is the famous $450 Taurus with the blown headgasket?

I have to admit, I’m enjoying watching you beat the system. Sincere best of luck finding a replacement. Keep us posted.