Car Auctions for Good Cheap Cars

Public Car Auctions, Government Auctions, Police Auctions, Repo Auctions, and Salvage Auctions

used car auctionsCar buyers who are looking for cheap cars often overlook public car auctions, or dismiss them because they think the auctions are only for car dealers.

It’s true that there are dealer-only auctions, but there are also many car auctions open to the public that provide an opportunity to pick up good used cars for good prices — if you know where to look and know how the auction process works.

What kinds of car auctions are open to the public?

  • Public wholesale car auctions
  • Government surplus auctions
  • Police and law enforcement seized car auctions
  • Unclaimed and abandoned vehicle auctions
  • Repossessed vehicle auctions
  • Salvage vehicle auctions
  • Public wholesale auctions

Local auction companies and national companies such as Manheim conduct public wholesale car auctions all over the country on regular schedules. Use the Internet or your telephone directory to find companies located in your area. You’ll need to find locations, schedules, and auction rules and procedures. All auction companies have different rules regarding participation, registration, bidding, and payment. It’s best to attend a couple of auctions to get the feel of the process before you actually go to bid.

Government surplus auctions

Local, county, state, and federal government agencies frequently sell or auction surplus vehicles. These are vehicles that are being replaced by newer vehicles. For example, when a police department buys new patrol cars, the old ones go up for sale. Local auctions are usually announced in a local newspaper. Call newspaper offices to find out which one does it. State and federal auctions are usually announced in a national newspaper such as USA Today or The Wall Street Journal, or on U.S. government web sites such as Also see

Police and law enforcement seized car auctions

Local and federal police agencies impound and sell property, including cars, seized from criminals and drug dealers. You can find everything from late model luxury vehicles to old junkers, and everything in between. Again, these auctions are announced to the pubic through newspapers on a particular schedule, say the third Friday of each month. Find out which newspapers in your area carry these announcements.

Get a directory of auctions

You can do the work yourself to locate auctions, but there are online services that have already compiled lists of auctions in all areas of the U.S., which can save you time and get better results. For a fee, they give you access to their database. There are a number of these auction “directory” services on the Internet. Some have good up-to-date information, while others have information that is incomplete and possibly out-of-date. So, if you decide to go with one of these services, make sure they offer a full money-back guarantee in case you find the information unsatisfactory. is one of the companies providing an auction directory service. The site contains instructions and information on how to participate in the auctions, in addition to their comprehensive directory service. They show you exactly what to do before, during, and after the auction — step by step. Even if you don’t use their service, the free instructions and tutorial are well worth a visit to the site.

Unclaimed and Abandoned Vehicle Auctions

Cars and other vehicles that have been towed, impounded, or abandoned are typically sold by a local government agency or by towing companies. The Philadelphia Parking Authority auction is one of the biggest and most known. Other cities have similar auctions, some conducted by professional auction companies. Since many of the vehicles have been abandoned by owners, expect to find a number of junkers. However, you might also find “jewels” in the mix.

Repossessed Car Sales and Auctions

Banks, credit unions, and other lending institutions frequently repossess cars from customers who are unable to make payments on their car loans. This is especially common during times of economic troubles and when people are losing jobs. Some small banks and credit unions may sell the cars directly by simply placing them in the front parking lot with a “for sale” sign in the window. Larger banks will use a professional auction company. Contact your local banks and credit unions to ask about repo auction locations and schedules.

Salvage Car Auctions

Salvage car auctions are often called “insurance auctions” because the vehicles being sold are those that have been declared total losses (“totaled”). Some of these vehicles are wrecked and damaged beyond any hope of repair or restoration. However, others may have relatively little damage, or damage that can be repaired inexpensively. It can be a great source of cheap cars for people who like to work on cars, for project cars, or even for parts. Contact local insurance companies to ask about the auction company they use to sell their salvaged cars.

How do I participate in auctions?

The key to being successful at public car auctions is know what you are doing. This means know how auctions work, know the rules of the specific auction you want to attend, know how to judge the condition of cars you see, and know used-car values.

You are usually allowed to inspect vehicles before an auction begins. You may be allowed to start the cars but you can’t test-drive them. If you can’t judge the condition of cars, you should bring someone with you who can do it for you.

Most seasoned auction attendees bring a used-car value guide with them, such as Kelley Blue Book or NADA Guide. Or you could use a portable computer or smartphone to look up values on the Internet on the web sites of the companies who publish value guides.

Before you get serious about buying, attend a few car auctions to learn how they work, and learn the rules and procedures.

If there is a “catch” to car auctions, it is that you will have other people bidding against you. If you expect to be successful, you’ll have to learn how to control your emotions and not overbid for cars you want.


You can expect to find some outstanding car deals at public car auctions — if you know what you are doing, are willing to learn rules and procedures, are patient, and can manage your emotions — or take someone with you who can.