We all know about the mythical parking scofflaws. Some are infamous for their hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid parking fines. Their glove compartments, amusingly overstuffed with parking tickets, are the symbols of counter culture legend, and the occasional movie maverick. Even the guy who screwed “the man” by a lifetime lived with a single unpaid ticket from his rebellious 60s has made the local news. Meanwhile, most of us foolish enough to ignore unpaid parking tickets just have our biennial re-registrations denied, or worse, our cars towed or booted by armed posses of city marshalls who then maintain absolute power over our vehicles until we pay up. (Think you were towed? Try here).
Only what if we don’t or can’t pay up? Then our towed cars, trucks or motorcycles that are never reclaimed are sold to the highest bidder in local police auctions that are happening in and around our city every week, sometimes 3 or 4 at a time. The proceeds from each sale go toward paying your overdue fines and, if, after the sale, there is any money still owed, guess what. You are still liable for it. They can still come after you for it, get a judgment on your next car, truck or motorcycle or, even give it to a collection agency! Quite obviously the lesson here is don’t get and, if you do, don’t ignore parking tickets. (Need a parking map, try here).
For NYC residents, these police auctions are a widely reported cautionary tale. If towed cars are not recovered in time (anything more than 10 days is asking for trouble), they can be sold at auctions in various places in some of the darker extremities of our shining city. These auctions are announced in city papers. The VIN numbers, models and years of the cars up for auction are all listed. You can watch these announcements to see when your car is going up for auction, and if you see it, you might still be able to save it, minus the fines and penalties. Otherwise, just hope it goes for a good price.
But who would buy your seized car? What kind of vultures and other predators go to these faraway corners of the city, some that look like you might need police assistance any minute, to bid on your confiscated vehicle? The kind that are weighing the risk of buying the car you abandoned against their automotive knowledge to see if they can get an affordable deal not available anywhere else, the kind to give your otherwise discarded vehicle a new life, and, fortunately for you, the kind that help you lovable outlaws get out from under your outstanding fines. Namely, gearheads, risk junkies, bargain hunters, out-of-work investment bankers and riverboat gamblers… and those are just the ones bidding.
If you know something about cars, you might go to one of them, take a chance on a car and get a pretty good deal but be prepared to travel to some obscure subway stations and have your stamina and wits sorely tested. After seeing the memorable police auction scene in The French Connection, I was determined to try it myself. I was new to the city and didn’t want keep a luxury item on the mean streets of New York. The experience was marathonlike in many ways. It took all day, food and water were scarce, a lot of hidden expenses and other arrangements for the car had to be transacted, but for $150.00, I wound up with a very cool light blue Volkswagon Bug (Hey, this was the 80s) that ran beautifully on 3 cylinders for several years until, of all things, it was stolen anyway.
Unlike the French Connection scene, the majority of these auctions are fairly small with only about 20 – 50 cars. Most of the cars have something wrong with them (like my misfiring cylinder). You have to figure they weren’t left in the clutches of the NYC Dept. of Finance for nothing and it’s up to you to figure which cars need only minor repairs and which will hit you with a whopping bill. Sometimes this is obvious like no rear axel or a missing engine and sometimes it is in the invisible workings of its internal combustion.
The problem with these auctions is that you are not allowed to start the cars. Probably there is some safety reason for not allowing a bunch of NASCAR wannabees start the engines of a lot full of tightly packed automobiles with so many innocent bystanders milling around, and these cars were towed against their owners will, so, of course, new keys would have to be made, but starting a car is the single best way to see how much it is worth and without starting them, even the experts assume a high level of risk. That disadvantage is what can really cost you, but is also what keep a lot of people bidding low.
The tricky part of not starting a car you are buying is the two most potentially expensive repairs, the engine and transmission, are not obvious as they could be in a simple test drive. So gathering up as many other clues you can is important for you to be able to make an intelligent bid. For example, often these auction cars have paperwork on the windshield including the amount of the judgment against the owner. A large judgment is a good sign that the car may be worth something. They would have redeemed it but for the large amount owed. If the judgment is small, and they didn’t even bother to come get it, they may know something you don’t, like about costly needed repairs. You can roll the dice if you like, but after your crack team of investigators signs off on the rest of the vehicle.
The other challenge of these auctions is the NYC Dept. of Finance knows you crave the thrill of bidding and the tests of wills against other bidders when it seems sometimes that you are the only rational person on the planet, so they have organized these auctions like a horserace. You only get a half hour to check out all of the 40 or so cars and gather all of this additional information you need to avoid just throwing your money away. Fortunately, a good many of the cars are so derelict that you don’t have to waste time on them. Some are sold as junk to licensed junkyards. But a good auction has maybe 5 or 10 cars worth bidding on and they have just opened the gate and the crowd is pouring in, so better get looking.
As people push their way to their favorite cars (make and model listed in the paper) only to find that the vehicle has no engine, no seats and was left chainsawed in two as if by some depraved bicycle loving government official, they scramble to other rows and corners to just find something that will get their kids to their grandmothers, get themselves to the beach this summer or, at least, put a roof over their head. The scene can be a little intimidating, but you find a car whose first impression you can live with and then start your forensic investigation, rate the car for bidding and move on to find another. It’s a good idea not to get too attached to any one model because someone else who has fond childhood memories of that same car will likely be bidding against you. The bidding is the wildcard in all this and if you can wait until the dead of Winter to bid on a car, you usually will get better prices. But if you want that car in the Spring or Summer like most, be prepared for larger crowds and more competition.
[Still game? Coming soon: a few basics for evaluating auction cars.]
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