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
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.
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.
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
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
repairs, you want to have the money to go to one of them to get it
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.