How long does it normally take you to decide which car to buy? Could you do it in 45 seconds?

James Ruppert on car buying at auction
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The Independent Culture
Why pay retail when you can get it wholesale? Consumers are increasingly being tempted into cash and carrys where they can buy direct from the manufacturer or wholesaler. No credit, no quibble, no fuss; simply pop down to your local trading estate and pick up the goods. If only they sold cars that way ...

Actually, they do. It's called an auction and is the easiest way to cut out the middleman (salesman) when buying a second-hand car. If you have the confidence, can cope with the pressure and are aware of the costly pitfalls, then an auction may well be the ideal way to buy your next motor.

To discover whether you are the auction type, answer these questions:

(a) Are you fussy about the colour and interior trim?

(b) Do you democratically involve your partner or family in the decision- making process?

(c) Are you a wimp?

If you've answered yes to any of the above then an auction is probably not for you. There is little time to look closely at the cars on sale, let alone find one that fits your requirements exactly, because buying at an auction is almost always a compromise. And once you see a promising car you have to be quick. Within about 45 seconds it will have been bought.

If you think that you could cope at a car auction, go on a couple of dry runs to experience how the system works, but leave your money at home. Ask for a copy of the "Conditions of Entry and Sale", a very useful document which tells you what you need to know about the rules of the particular auction. When it comes to placing a deposit, a cheque won't do: unless you are a regular and have an account, it is strictly cash, usually 10 per cent, and you won't be able to collect the car until you have paid in full within 24 hours.

I popped along to ADT's site in Peterborough. It is large, clean and very well run. This was an evening auction which started at 6pm. (Such sales attract lots of private buyers which can push prices up, so if possible attend the weekday mid-morning, mostly trade affairs.) I arrived early and bought a list of the evening's lots for pounds 2 and then located the ones I fancied in the car-park. You can't start, or even look inside these vehicles. The best you can do is look at an entry form stuck to the window, which may highlight any major mechanical faults.

Beware the language used to describe any faults, an innocent sounding "brakes need attention" may mean that they don't work at all. Then look at the obvious signs of wear on the car: tyres, damaged bodywork, oil leaks where the car is parked and shabby interior. Is it worth it? How much would you pay? Your previous research visits and a car-price guide from the newsagent will help, you should pay no more than the trade price and maybe a lot less if the car looks terrible. When your lot is due to be driven into the bidding ring walk outside the car-park and watch it being started. Is it reluctant to fire? Is there blue smoke? Is there, as I observed that evening, a problem getting it into gear? This is your only chance to see the car in action. As it nears the auction hall, join the throng fighting to get a look inside. Ask the driver to release the bonnet catch and have a look into the engine bay. Make a decision.

Bear in mind that the phrase "warranted all good" does not mean the car is perfect, the major mechanical items could be fine, but the instruments, trim and tyres could all be broken. "Without reserve" means that the car will go to the highest bidder, otherwise if a lot fails to reach a reserve the highest bid will result in a provisional sale. If you decide to bid, make sure that the auctioneer can see you.

That evening I saw great highs - such as a 1988 Ford GLSi sell for pounds 950 (pounds 2,495 on your local forecourt) - and pounds 60 lows in the shape of a 1983 Austin Maestro which may make an appearance in your local paper at pounds 395 this week. Every lot looked like a bargain, but I can't guarantee that they all were.

Society of Motor Auctions 01788 576465 for details of members who abide by a code of practice in your area.

WHEN BUYING AT AUCTION

Look for popular models - Rover, Ford, Vauxhall and Peugeot, for example - which have been company-maintained from new. These ex-rep cars are likely to be in as good condition as most cars you could buy on a forecourt.

Think of a buying limit and stick to it. Always take someone along you can trust who will stop you making an expensive mistake.

Position yourself in front of the auctioneer and listen carefully.

Do

Don't

Seem too eager. Stories that you can buy a Granada with a scratch of the forehead are exaggerated, but it is probably a good idea not to practice your aerobics in the hall.

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