Buyers can drive away a bargain – or find they're on a highway to hell

Plunging prices are tempting motorists to auction rooms. But there are pitfalls for the unwary, finds Julian Knight

Sales of new cars are reversing at speed as the credit crunch and recession hit home – a development illustrated by the job losses ripping through the motor industry.

And what happens at the top of the car market inevitably feeds down the chain. Prices for second-hand vehicles have been plunging and particularly so in the auction rooms. Usually the preserve of the trade dealers, these now offer the general public the opportunity to snap up a bargain motor.

"We have seen substantial price falls. Cars fetching £6,500 a year ago are now going for around £5,000," says Tim Naylor, a spokesman for British Car Auctions, which has 21 outlets across the UK and sells an average of 10,000 to 12,000 vehicles a week.

But the pattern, it seems, isn't uniform across the board. "The four by fours and prestige cars have fallen further than 15 per cent. On the flipside, the value of small cars and more environmentally friendly models, such as the Toyota Prius, have done well. You are able to get a lot of car for your money," adds Mr Naylor.

Lower prices are bringing out the bargain hunters: "Most of our business is trade but we're now seeing interest from private buyers as the word has got around that prices are low, particularly on real prestige makes."

There are dozens of auction rooms around the country, each holding sales a couple of times a week. However, as far as private buyers are concerned, it seems that only fools rush into car auctions. "Yes there are bargains out there at the moment, but also lots of traps for the unwary," says Vanessa Guyll, technical specialist at the AA. "There are real horror stories which emerge from the world of auctions – from stolen vehicles to buying a dud. You need to take care."

Mr Naylor warns against the uninitiated just turning up and bidding on what takes their fancy. "Auction sales are frenetic affairs. The hammer falls on a lot every 45 seconds on average. If you don't know what you are doing, it can be bewildering," he says.

Both Ms Guyll and Mr Naylor urge individual buyers to come to an auction prepared and with expertise on tap. "Bring a mechanically minded friend along with you to the auction to check things over," says Ms Guyll. "Also, so you don't pay over the odds, look at the Parkers car guide to see how much particular models are selling for. And set yourself a budget."

Mr Naylor stresses that it is important to spend as long as possible with the car: "Be clear about the type that you want, turn up a good hour before the auction starts, focus on a couple of vehicles and then make sure you look outside and inside and start it up. There are no test drives."

As for the auction house itself, check that it's a member of the Society of Motor Auctions; Ms Guyll warns against taking part in small backstreet sales. Also check the auctioneer's sales charge is no more than 2 or 3 per cent.

The protection on offer to purchasers at auction is far less than that available through a dealer. Cars are either sold "as seen" – which means no comeback – or with a few hours' warranty. That gives you the chance to take the vehicle you've just bought out for a quick spin, to check it is as described by the auctioneer.

There are other longstanding problems with some cars sold at auction. These include vehicles that have been stolen at some stage in the past, so- called "cut and shuts" (two separate cars welded together) and models still subject to hire-purchase agreements. There is also the menace of "clocking", where the mileage is turned back.

If you buy a stolen car or one that has hire purchase still outstanding, the vehicle will never actually be yours; it will belong to the rightful owner from whom it was taken, or to the loan company. "Its crucial to be sure of what you're buying," says RAC spokeswoman Lucy Haughey. "The auction house should ask the seller to sign a declaration, but you should approach everything with caution."

You can check a car's history prior to purchase. For £14.99 a time (or £19.99 for three vehicles), you can use the RAC's data check service (0800 975 5867). This will tell you if the car has been stolen, has finance outstanding or is a write-off. The mileage will also be checked with DVLA.

Independent Partners; request a free guide on NISAs from Hargreaves Lansdown

Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    Trainee / Experienced Recruitment Consultants

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 ...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Soho

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40000: SThree: As a Recruitment Consultant, y...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultants - Banking & Finance

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

    Quantitative Risk Manager

    Up to £80000: Saxton Leigh: My client, a large commodities broker, is looking ...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits