Buying a used car can be a time consuming business. It's all too easy to spend hours poring over classified ads and waste days travelling to inspect second-hand motors that aren't all they're cracked up to be.
The beauty of an auction is the huge number of cars in one place at one time - so you're likely to find one that suits you. What's more, you'll generally pay less than you would at a dealership, so there's money to be saved.
Many car auctions are only open to dealers, so you won't be allowed in unless you're a registered trader. However, most auction centres hold regular public sales, which usually consist of a large number of older cars at rock bottom prices.
The majority of vehicles at these sales come from dealerships that have acquired them as part exchange or trade-in models when customers have bought a more expensive car. That means the dealer just wants rid of the older, cheaper model, and so they'll let it go at auction for next to nothing.
Private sellers, fleets, finance companies and other outlets also put their cars into public auctions when they want to get rid. Most of them know that they won't get back what they paid for the car in the first place, so they're willing to take a hit.
It's easy to be scared off by auctions, as many buyers worry that they'll end up with a dud or get excited and bid too much. However, with a few tips from our insider in the motor trade, you'll be able to bag a bargain with minimal fuss.
What to bring
Preparation is vital before you head for the halls and it's worth gathering a few small but invaluable items to help you get the inside line on other auction goers. A car price guide (from Parkers or What Car?, for example) is essential and will give you a good idea of what you should be paying for most cars.
A torch and a magnet are also worthwhile - they'll help you to properly inspect the nooks and crannies of a potential buy, and identify any areas of rotten bodywork that have been covered up with filler.
Our trade insider reckons it's always worth bringing a pal with you, too: "Even now, after more years than I care to remember in the motor trade, I still bring a colleague or a friend with me when I buy at auction. It stops me from getting carried away when I'm bidding, and another point of view often helps to spot the good cars - and avoid the duds."
Top five tips
1. Go and see an auction take place before you intend to buy. This will help you to familiarise yourself with the process so you'll be more comfortable and have a better idea of what you're doing when you come to buy for real.
2. Research the car you want beforehand. Look at classified adverts for similar cars to get an idea of how much you should be paying for the one you want. Our trade insider suggests that this is the best way to work out an accurate price: "Price guides are very handy, but they're not always reflective of 'real world' values. Thumbing through the classifieds before you buy and watching other similar cars sell at auction will give you the most accurate valuation."
3. Get there early. The more time you have, the better, as you'll be able to wander around the lots outside the auction hall and inspect the cars thoroughly. If you find yourself with time to kill then most auction sites have a café, so you can enjoy a fry-up and a cuppa.
4. Buy a catalogue before the sale. Auction centres generally charge a small fee for these - usually less than £5 - but they're worth it. A catalogue contains the lot numbers and a small amount of essential information to help you identify each car and work out when it will go under the hammer. This is particularly useful for sales when there is more than one lane.
5. Keep track of the car you want. A catalogue will help you to do this, but standing by your car of choice when the engine is started and while it's running is invaluable. "Watch and listen when the engine fires up," said our trade insider. "If you see or hear anything unusual like rattles, warning lights on the dials or lots of smoke, then steer clear. You don't have much time at auction, nor can you test drive the car, so every second counts."
Best UK auction sites
Manheim (manheim.co.uk): The world's largest vehicle auction company in terms of the volume of cars that it sells. A reputable firm with numerous sites across the UK.
British Car Auctions (BCA) ( ): This is the largest vehicle auction company in the UK and Europe, so there's bound to be one near you.
West Oxfordshire Motor Auction ( ): This centre holds two ex-police vehicle sales every month. The cars are usually well maintained and very cheap - well worth a look if you live within the region.
Car and Van Auctions.co.uk ( ): It's not an auction centre, but an online directory with a comprehensive list of vehicle auction sites categorised by local area.