Online Auto Auctions Are Here to Satisfy Your Workday Boredom
If you’re looking to win the car of your dreams from your sofa, then the virtual auction block is where you want to be.
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Being able to browse classifieds online was the first step in the inevitable march toward a completely online car-buying process. Online auction sites officially surpassed traditional live auctions for collector cars last year, and there are plenty of signs things will only continue in this direction. As with so many changes brought on by the pandemic, the inability to hold a live auction likely helped push more people to online platforms.
Online auctions have progressed since the early days of eBay Motors, which is still a major player, but more enthusiast-friendly platforms have been developed. In the last few years, websites such as Bring a Trailer and Cars & Bids have become curated marketplaces for our dream cars. These auction listings also often become history lessons in the weird and wonderful world of automobilia. Did you know about a low-volume version of the E30 BMW M3 with a 2.0-liter engine? Neither did I.
In my search for the best car auction sites, I found a mix of those for serious collector cars, attainable classics, and even a place to source your next parts car. Most auction sites operate as the negotiation portion of the traditional sales process, which is something many people would rather avoid. These auctions have streamlined the process and ironed out many of the kinks that make online auctions unpleasant—namely, bid sniping and awkward website platforms that leave buyers at a disadvantage. In live auctions, digital buyers are on a level playing field. Several sites have apps, and all are mobile-friendly, so you could even bid from the grocery store checkout line.
Cars & Bids is a bit of a specialty online auction site. Unlike traditional listings or many other auction services, there is no fee to list a vehicle for sale. Sellers submit their car, and the auction team reviews the submission to decide if it will be a good fit for the site. Once the listing is ready, the car goes through a seven-day auction with a “soft” close that is designed to prevent the last-minute bid sniping common on platforms like eBay. After the close of the auction, fees are collected from the buyer by Cars & Bids, and the buyer and seller are left to complete the transaction within the next week.
The site has made a name for itself online since about 1980. This encompasses the Radwood era of cars, as well as interesting or cool new cars they call modern enthusiast cars. A quick look through the active listings and their completed auctions reveals a wide range of vehicles. Although many go for much more than $50,000 and some far into six-figure territory, the site still has quite a few desirable bargains.
Cars & Bids boasts more than 200,000 registered members and has completed 5,500 auctions. They reported a better than 85 percent sell-through rate with more than $100 million in sales.
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As a Buyer
Need to register: Credit card and phone numbers
Fees: 4.5 percent of winning bid, minimum of $225, maximum of $4,500
Process: Find a car you like, figure out logistics (financing and transportation plan), bid. Cars & Bids places a hold on your credit card, which will be charged the buyer’s fee if you win. You are expected to pay for the vehicle in full within a week of auction closing.
Who this is right for: If you want one of the cool cars from about 1980 to the present, this platform seems to attract them. In their past auction results section, I saw everything from a 2018 Audi RS3 to a 1988 Porsche 944 Turbo and even a 1993 Mitsubishi Delica Star Wagon.
As a Seller
Need to register: A cool car to sell
Process: Create an account, write up information about your vehicle, take photos, create listing, set price and reserve price, set terms for payment (deposit, cash in person, cashier’s check), interact during the auction, complete the sale.
Who this is right for: People with cool cars from the 1980s to now. Check out their past auction results for an idea about what they find interesting enough to list.
Bring a Trailer, also known as BaT, is one of the more well-known online auction houses, and it has become a serious player in the online and offline auction world. In 2021, they sold $828.7 million worth of cars, beating out Mecum Auctions, RM Sotheby’s, and even Barret-Jackson. The majority of BaT’s sales are for cars that go for less than six figures, but it has set records for most expensive Porsches sold at auction, among others. Also, unlike the traditional auction houses, BaT charges a flat fee to sellers and caps their buyer’s fee at 5 percent. That's on top of its robust user base, which includes a pool of registered bidders as well as active users who enjoy interacting with sellers about the latest listing.
Bring a Trailer has three levels of service on the seller side: Classic, Plus Photography, or White Glove. Classic is $99, for which sellers provide pictures and work with an auction specialist who rewrites their listing. Plus Photography hires a photographer to shoot your vehicle for $250 extra. White-Glove service is where BaT does it all for people with “significant cars and collections.” Price is not listed.
Bring a Trailer has 300,000 registered bidders and a larger enthusiast community of 700,000 users. Last year, they sold 17,846 vehicles for a total of $828.7 million. All told, they have more than 65,000 completed auctions.
As a Buyer
Need to register: Credit card
Fees: 5 percent of winning bid, maximum of $5,000
Process: Register with a credit card, find a car you like, bid. BaT places a hold on your credit card, which will be charged the buyer’s fee if you win). After a win, BaT provides you with the seller’s contact info so you can finalize the deal offline.
Who this is right for: Bring a Trailer has become known for serious collector cars and for a wide range of other interesting vehicles. Don’t be surprised to see a 1969 Ford F-250 with “good patina” alongside a 2005 Ford GT with 15 miles on the clock.
As a Seller
Need to register: A vehicle and registration fee
Fees: Starting at $99
Process: Decide on a level of service, submit your vehicle, and an auction team decides whether it’s a good fit for their audience. If accepted, the seller pays fees and a listing is prepared with a BaT auction specialist. Auctions run for seven days for regular listings, and between a week and 21 days for premium listings. It takes several weeks to get an auction if you provide photographs and longer if you use their photographers.
Who this is right for: Bring a Trailer is described as an auction site for special-interest vehicles and does well with automotive rarities. From Volvo 240s to Porsche Carrera GTs, the list of past auctions is a roundup of interesting vehicles, with many still selling for prices attainable to many.
Copart is a different type of online car auction site, but it is still a major player. There are a good number of drivable vehicles on auction, but the vast majority of cars are those with salvage titles because they’ve been totaled. I’ve purchased from them before, and if you’re looking for project cars, stick to clean-titled cars with light or no damage. The company purchases cars from all sorts of sources, from individuals to dealership unwanted trade-ins. Copart brings vehicles to one of its 200 locations and auctions them off weekly. How much you can buy really depends on the state you’re in and what kind of auctions they operate in that state. Many of them are open to the public, but some will be dealers only.
Copart describes themselves as an easy way to sell, “used, wrecked, unneeded, or unwanted vehicles.” You can find almost anything on their auction, from crashed cars to hail-damaged pickups to school buses—even some cars donated to the auction house. Bidders should inspect vehicles in person whenever possible since condition varies wildly, considering the sources of vehicles. One major change over BaT and Cars & Bids is that, in this case, buyers are dealing directly with Copart, which purchases their inventory from sellers as a separate transaction.
Inventory on hand across their network of locations is about 175,000 vehicles. Individuals compete with businesses for the same vehicles, so even crashed stuff can go for higher prices.
As a Buyer
Need to register: Credit card and identification. Memberships are $59 for Basic or $199 for Premier per year, with Premier requiring a $400 refundable deposit.
Fees: Consumer (non-business license) $25 to $800 up to $15,000, and 7 percent above $15,000 for secured-payment types (more for credit cards), including a Live Bid fee for $39 at the $100-$500 level and tops out at $129 at $8,000 and higher.
Process: Sign up, decide on a membership level or put down a deposit (you’re limited to $1,200 or must have 10 percent of your maximum bid as a deposit as a basic member), submit your licenses, and find a broker (if necessary in your state). You’ll then need to find a vehicle you want, place bids, and pay within three business days. Pick up or arrange transportation within those three days as well (or pay a storage fee).
Who this is right for: These are not collector vehicles, so look for the mechanically healthy or for car parts.
As a Seller
Need to register: A vehicle to sell
Process: Call or fill out their instant offer form online, accept the offer. Copart picks up your vehicle, and you get paid.
Who this is right for: If you have something you want to get sold quickly and conveniently, this seems like a decent route.
eBay Motors, one of the more established online auction players, is the vehicle-specific section of the eBay platform. In addition to selling new or used car parts, they also offer vehicles for sale. Buying a car is a little different than buying car parts, thanks to binding and non-binding bids. Most bids on eBay are binding, meaning you’re subject to penalties or fees if you back out of the purchase. Vehicle bids are non-binding, meaning a transaction won’t be closed until agreements are met between buyer and seller.
If you sell fewer than six vehicles per year, you can pick from a range of packages similar to other car classified sites, from $19 to $79, which add on features in each level and more photos, and run in an auction for 7-10 days. Each seller can dictate their preferred payment terms. Many require a deposit of several hundred dollars within a few days of winning the auction and then full payment via cashier’s check. There is also an eBay Motors Financing Center, so buyers can secure financing through the site.
One major plus for vehicles purchased through eBay Motors is the Vehicle Purchase Protection coverage, which protects you for up to $100,000 of the purchase price if something goes wrong. There’s a bit to the terms and conditions, but if you buy a vehicle and never get it, they pay you back.
As a Buyer
Need to register: An eBay account
Process: Find a car you like, bid, win the auction, then abide by the terms laid out in the auction listing regarding deposit and payment.
Who this is right for: Anyone looking to buy a vehicle at an auction. There are affordable vehicles here and nicer ones, too, but the multimillion-dollar collector cars don’t often make it to the pages of eBay.
As a Seller
Need to register: eBay account
Fees: $19 to $79
Process: Create an account, gather relevant information about your vehicle, take photos, create listing, set price and reserve price, set terms for payment, interact during the auction, complete the sale.
Who this is right for: Given the wide range of vehicles listed on eBay, unless you have a rare or particularly desirable vehicle, it’s probably a decent fit.
When you look for online auctions, don’t discount local auction sites. Even in Small Town, Montana, where I live, the local auction house runs a decent online auction. I bid on a Datsun during one of their vehicle auctions, and they had a decent online portal. Had I won the car, I would have driven out to the auction house, paid them, and hauled home a really rough car. (I later saw it in person. Losing the auction was a win for my marriage.) Overall, the auction usually sells a lot of heavy machinery and farm implements, which makes sense in this agricultural region.
My poor taste in vehicles aside, there are some basic principles you can use to your advantage here. First, no matter what you’re looking at you want to be able to see the car in person before the auction. Next, if an auction site has past auction results, you can get an idea what vehicles go for, and what sorts of vehicles might be coming up for auction. Don’t go to the auction that sells a bunch of classic American muscle cars when you’re looking for an old Datsun. However, if your local auction house specializes in something else and occasionally sells cars, then you’re likely to get a deal.
You’ve got questions. The Drive has answers.
Q: What do I need to buy cars at an online auction site?
A: For most auctions, it’s the same you need for online shopping: an email address and a way to pay. Transactions through an auction house generally stick to a formula: someone wins the auction, the site gets a percentage, and the buyer and seller are left to complete the title transfer process.
Q: How can I keep from getting ripped off?
A: One thing that came up a lot on multiple auction sites was the effort made to protect the people doing business there. Stick to the official auction sites and follow their recommendations for how and when money should change hands after the auction is over.
Q: How much will I get if I sell my car at an online auction?
A: There isn’t an easy calculation. Match what you’re trying to sell with the right platform. If you have something that would be at home at Radwood, then Cars & Bids or Bring a Trailer are probably your best bets. If it’s just an extra car you want to let go, then eBay or Copart might be better solutions. Though it’s no guarantee, eBay notes that most vehicles sell at auction roughly between the vehicle’s trade-in price and retail price.