Monday, November 26, 2012

NYC Police Auctions. Adventure Part 2: Buying Tips

So now that you've made it to this police auction in some gentrifying corner of the city, how do you, a non-mechanic, decide if you want to bid on a car that you cannot even start? The usual used car buying indicators are a good start. You just have to weigh them a little more heavily.

Of course you want to look at the odometer, and having a Kelley Bluebook, Edmunds, or other used car buying guide will put a reasonable dollar value on that mileage for that make and model. It may also be the one thing that pulls you back from the edge. You would be amazed how easily the excitement and competition (even anger) of bidding causes the calmest to go high roller. A price guide can reveal just the moment when auction fever has set in and you need to get out. When the price of that perfect car you always wanted soars way past common sense, you need to know it.

Some bidders see a gorgeous paint job and a set of Alpine speakers and passionate romance flares. They might get lucky, but that expensive tabloid breakup is their own fault. Others are on their 3rd (or more) auction and they are going to win the bid this time or else. Also bidding kamikaze is the guy who has finally found that low mileage Japanese car he craves. But the smartest bidders are knowledgeable about more than one make and model of car and patient enough to weather as many bidding storms as you have to. Just by virtue of their age, all these cars will have something that needs fixing, and since they were abandoned, it could be serious. A private-sale book value minus at least $500.00 will give you the room for repairs you might need and with some luck you can do even better and land that great deal you went to all this trouble for. And don't forget the tow and locksmith charges still to come.

The overall condition of the interior and the engine are good indicators of the state of the car: how run down it might be or how well it was maintained. Once in a while you might find maintenance receipts (and history) in a car that was truly loved. But usually you have to rely on your sense of sight and smell and touch. A dirty, greasy engine is a more risky bid. Cut, poorly taped, or spliced wires that often mean dreaded electrical problems or failed emissions tests are even greater risk signs that would always cause me to move on. The condition of belts and hoses (leaking or fraying) demonstrates the previous owner’s commitment to car care and can help you gauge future expenses. Any missing engine parts, even quick fix parts like alternators, compressors, hoses, fanhousing, or air filters show a state of repair, aging or neglect that you probably can't afford. Rust suggests a car that has not been running. 

A simple system of estimating an auction car's worth is the 4 Fs. That is the condition of the four essential fluids (windshield washer not included). Most important is the appearance, smell and feel of the motor oil. All of the blinding speed, intense heat and sheer power of a car engine floats on a paper thin layer of oil and any breakdown of that essential lubrication will cut the life of an engine and can even destroy it. So look carefully at this vital fluid. Is the level right? How dark (less clean) the oil is might tell you if it has been changed regularly (or even just recently) and how consistent the engine lubrication has been. Is there anything funky in it, like water? Could be a head gasket problem. The feel of it between your fingers should be smooth. You don’t want to feel any metal filings in there which can mean serious engine wear. Smell it. A burnt smell in the oil can reveal oil burning caused by worn rings, an expensive repair.

While you’re sniffing around, you should also look at the power steering fluid. It’s generally red and should also be at the right level, clean, not leaking. Smell it and see if it smells like it's been cooking or burnt, and then dab some on a piece of white paper and check the actual color of it. Check for any unwanted grit.

The same goes for the transmission fluid. New fluid usually comes red. Over time and use it becomes more brownish, but it shouldn't be black. The paper test is also good here. The fluid on the paper should be clean and transparent, without any metal filings or black flakes. By now you may be a little high on fumes but it’s a good idea to also smell your transmission fluid for burning.

Car auction participants are always fond of the green. That’s the radiator fluid which should be brimming with green when you take off the radiator cap. If not at the right level, the car may have been overheating which puts stress on every other internal combustion part. If it is just water, or worse, rusty, that could spell abuse or a car that has been sitting too long.

Other tried and true methods for evaluating a car are pushing and pulling the tires at 10:00 o’clock and 2:00 o’clock. They should be firm without play. The condition of the sidewalls and treads should factor in to your bidding. After all, the tires are where the car meets the road. A quick push of all your weight on each of the corners will test shocks and springs. Finding them too stiff or too bouncy will mean eventual repairs. The brake pedal should not go to the floor. The accelerator should spring back when you take your foot off. How worn the pedals look are a sign of age. Does it have a jack and a spare? The state of the muffler and the undercarriage, in general, are important, so any doctors and disgraced investment bankers should wear their scrubs so they can have a good look.

The above indicators are a good start to show value or warn you about future costs. You may want to check for other signs you read about on the web or in the used car buying guide you will surely have with you. The first serious fluid problem you find is F enough reason for me to move on. If you're more mechanically inclined you may have a higher threshold. Sometimes these warning signs can scare off even the alpha bidders and if the price is crazy low, it might still be worth it, but be prepared for the hassle. Of course, you already noted any garages or mechanics nearby the auction site when you arrived, so in the event you do win a car that needs immediate repairs, you want to have the money to go to one of them to get it running ASAP.

You usually only have a half-hour to look at all the cars so quickly rule out as many as you can. Not as difficult as you might think considering how bad off some of these cars are. Of the ones you do like, try to form an overall impression of value from the information and time you have, what kind of repairs it might need in the first 6 months, etc and stick with it. Ideally, by the time the bidding starts you will have 2 or 3 cars you think are worth bidding on and maximum amounts for each. Then let the gambling begin.

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