What to look out for when buying a used car from an online auction

If you’ve ever trawled eBay looking for a car, but not had the confidence to actually buy anything, then you’re not alone. Most people like the idea of buying a used car from an online auction, but many don’t have the confidence to do so.

The first thing you need to remember is that buying from an online auction is similar to buying from a live, real-world auction. The same rules apply.

But, there are a few additional things to bear in mind when you are considering buying online from an auction.


There are several different kinds of auction houses running regular online auctions, but before you consider bidding you will need to look into:


Perhaps the first online auction site that people think of is eBay.
eBay Motor is a great platform because of the detail of its search and filtering functions. These allow you to filter by make, model, transmission, fuel type, body type, year and engine size as well as buying format.

In fact, eBay has been hailed as the number one car auction site by buyers and sellers alike, including manufacturers like GM, which are now selling new cars through the site.

Remember that there are a lot of different kinds of sellers operating on eBay, including private sellers getting rid of their old car to finance the purchase of a new one; small-time dealers who buy cars at auction then flip them to make a quick profit as well as local dealerships, main dealer franchises, Police constabularies, fleet companies – the list goes on.

Suffice to say that just about everyone into selling cars has a presence on eBay. Navigating your way through them is the hard part. It’s all about the principle of good faith and knowing who you can trust.

used car for sale

Buying advice

If you are considering buying on eBay – here’s a bit of advice. It’s also useful for other online auction platforms too:

  • Check out sellers and their feedback before you buy. You will be able to build up a reasonable picture of who you are dealing with and how reliable they are likely to be.
  • As with any auction, set your maximum price and stick to it.
  • Do your research, narrow down your search criteria and use the filters to find the exact car you’re after.
  • Make vehicle enquiries on the www.gov.uk website to check MOT status and a check on the V5C logbook to check that the all is OK and that the registered keeper of the vehicle is genuine.
  • Inspect the vehicle and ask for a test drive before you bid.
  • Check the seller and vehicle location. Stay in your region so that you can easily travel to inspect the car.

As well as checking out our buying advice, download our handy checklist to take along when you examine your prospective new purchase.

National auctioneers

Auctioneers like British Car Auctions and Manheim offer online auctions. However, these are only available to you if you’re a bone fide motor trader. If you are looking for your next family runabout, eBay is the place for you.

That said, you can search auction catalogues online on major auctioneers’ websites so that you can get an idea of what you want before you go the auction. Check out our used car checklist for more help.


Salvage auctions

Some auction sites specialise in salvage repairable vehicles. You should avoid these. If you are looking for something that you can pick up and drive immediately, eBay is your best online auction option. Salvage repairable cars will cost you to remove from the auction house and you will have to get them repaired and tested for an MOT before you can drive them legally.

Unless you are a mechanic looking for a bargain, a hobbyist looking for a project or know a trusted mechanic who can do the work for you it’s not worth the hassle.

Police auctions

Some online auctions specialise in vehicles from Police forces around the country. These vehicles fall into two categories; vehicles that have been seized by the police for one reason or other and ex-police vehicles.

The latter category can contain some real bargains because these cars will have been well looked after, serviced and maintained.

Some forces have their own auction sites and a presence on eBay, but they are not well promoted so you will have to a bit of digging to find them.

Seized vehicles sold at auction come with the added hassle that they may not have keys, history or MOTs, so going along to view the cars and finding out as much about them as you can before you bid is always advisable.

Smaller auctions

There are numerous family-run auction sites up and down the country. Many will have live bid facilities, which means that you can bid online at the time of the auction or leave proxy or highest bids online. This is not to say you should do this in lieu of attending the site to view the car you’re interested in before the day of the auction. It’s vital that you inspect the car first before you bid.

So, make sure the auction site you have found is not too far away from your home. You don’t want to have to go too far to inspect the car before you buy.

Some auctions will have live bid and buy-it-now options. Avoid the temptation to let your heart rule your head where ‘buy it now’ is concerned. Make sure you do your research and know exactly what car you’re looking for.

Cash buying

Buyer beware

Take care. At online auctions, cars are sold as seen and carry no warranties or guarantees. Cars can be viewed and assessed, but it is still very much buyer beware.

Motoring associations such as the RAC and the AA also offer online auctions. These may have a better reputation and offer mechanical and vehicle checks. Caution is still advised, however. Make sure there is as much vehicle history as possible with the car and that the legal stuff (such as the V5C) is available.

Some online car auction sites are trade only. Read the T&Cs before you waste time searching for cars on various auction sites or you could be disappointed.

Also remember that some will charge you a fee to register before you can bid on vehicles on their site, so be sure they have a good selection of exactly the sort of car you’re after.

Knowledge is power as they say.


Check out our blog on buying at auction for more advice.