Public Auto Auctions Or Used Car Dealerships; Which is Better for You?

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When it comes to shopping for a used car, the actual nitty-gritty can be frustrating. Where do you go? How do you find the best deal? Of course, you know about used car dealerships—it’s typically difficult to miss them. What may not be on your radar are public auto auctions, which actually allow you to shop for and purchase a car without actually bidding in the auction. The process is similar to the one you know on a used car lot, with a few minor differences: cars at auto auctions come from various sources and may be in markedly different states of wear and repair.

A Different Experience

You may be considering an auto auction simply because you’re looking for an experience outside of the typical lot foray. Used car shopping can actually be fun. If you’re the type of person who enjoys the more intricate parts of auto shopping or if this is a hobby you’re interested in, you may find that public auto auctions are an exciting experience. Depending on where you live, there may be several near you that are open.

Public auto auctions do provide safe locations for both buyers and sellers to meet. Unlike online auctions such as Craigslist or Facebook, auto auctions eliminate predatory opportunities and unsavory buyers. At auto auctions, all buyers and sellers on the property are registered so that anonymity is mostly removed from the process, and you can have a safe transaction that allows you to focus on the actual details of the automobile.

A commonly enjoyed boon of the auto auction experience is the large selection immediately available in a single location. This can streamline your car buying process, as well as save time and truly turn this into an enjoyable outing. Buyers will too often compromise on their purchases out of sheer exhaustion as they are looking to be done with the process and simply acquire a vehicle. Auto auctions provide diverse and interesting inventories that benefit the buyer.

Stay Savvy

Financing your car is possible at an auto auction, and you don’t need to bid on the car of your choice during the actual auction; you can make an offer beforehand with the seller and purchase the vehicle on the spot. A vast majority of auto auctions will let you do this even on non-sale days, depending on the policy, another step that makes the whole process easier for you. In addition, since you can make the purchase sans pushy sales staff, it’s easier to make your selection without being pressured into buying or having to endure aspects of the sale you can’t afford.

Cars at dealerships are typically recent trade-ins, end-of-lease returns, or repossessed vehicles. These are all cars that will be discounted below the ticket price you may find at a dealership, and oftentimes they are priced lower than at the car lots. While the thought of recent trade-ins or repossessed vehicles may be initially disconcerting, the reasons are varied, and this can include cars in new(ish) condition and recent models.

The inspection process at auction can often be done very rapidly and not very extensively. They often take the seller’s word “as is,” which gives the buyer little recourse after the sale. This means that you may need to fix some issues that the vehicle has, purchase new auto parts, or hire a professional.

When perusing car auctions, it’s important to keep in mind that inspecting the vehicle in and out is almost entirely on you. If you decide that the auction route is right for you, do your homework in advance. Stick to your price and remember that your happiness is a priority while they are hoping for the sale. While not everyone out there is a scam artist, there’s no reason to trust anyone’s word at face value, especially when purchasing a car.

Discovery At Auction, Reliability On The Lot

Auctions often move quickly and for specific reasons. Auctioneers will want to start the price of the car cheap and try for a bidding war. This is why savvy buyers will maintain their comfortable price or attempt to buy the car outright and avoid the bidding stage altogether. Despite the benefits, make sure you keep asking yourself, “why is this car here and why at this price?” To sellers, it’s just inventory, but the history and upkeep of the car are important. If the vehicle doesn’t meet your standard, walk away.

While auctions won’t have you struggling against pushy salesmen or dealers like the lots, it’s important to remember that with less supervision comes an increased likelihood of something being wrong with the car. You don’t want to drive away, contact your service department and find out the car has issues. Bad cars are often sold at auction, and if you find yourself intimidated by needing to do the beforehand homework or stay savvy against the auction, stick with the dealers. One wrong purchase will mean another car that’s simply returned to auction, where the cycle may begin again.

In the end, there are key differences to keep in mind:

Pressured Sales vs. Unmitigated Freedom

You may feel pressure to buy when attempting to purchase a vehicle at a lot or dealership, but there is still some protection in the assurance of quality that will be harder to find flat-out at the auction. The process is all about your comfort level, whether you wish to contend with pushy salespeople or the important research and inspection necessary when buying at auction.


While it’s possible to negotiate both at auction and at the lot, you have a lot more wriggle room when it comes to the auction. You will find that lots and dealerships stand firmer on the bottom price, and at auction, it’s up to you how much money you’re willing to spend. Also, the auction will have fewer hidden fees than the used lot.


The inventory will always be much higher at the auction, but the quality may not be as impressive as the lot. Used service vehicles, returned leases, and bank-owned vehicles are what awaits at the auction, and this can be exciting if you’re willing to spend the time finding a shiny deal in a much larger haystack.

The Final Price

Arguably you will find the best deals at auctions, where it’s easier to haggle, and the list price will always be lower. Used car dealerships won’t be able to touch this, despite them having quality on their side. When it comes to bidding or haggling at the auction, you will be able to stick to your reasonable target price and stay there. While there are the benefits of reduced cost at the auction, remember that you will have to do the work yourself to ensure the vehicle you are buying is of comparable quality to what you might find in a used car lot or dealership.

About the Author

Kathryn Fowler is the Marketing Manager at PartsAvatar. She’s been passionate about cars since childhood. She loves examining different components of cars to understand their operation. Kathryn started writing blogs on automobile parts to share her love for cars and educate automobile enthusiasts worldwide.

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