Police auctions tend to conjure up images of beat up cars confiscated from drug dealers and mint condition police cruisers that—for one reason or another—never saw service. The reality lies somewhere in the middle, and there are some good deals to be had so long as you're careful, and absolutely sure about what you're doing. Let this list be your insurance.
1. Make sure the car's not a bloody mess—literally
More often than not, that car you’re buying is physically fine, as it's either an ex-government car or one that was towed away for parking illegally. But, that doesn’t mean your car wasn’t part of a gunfight. There could be blood if you haven’t checked thoroughly prior to bidding. If there is, it’ll be all yours.
2. Know what car you're looking for You can find a list of what’s for sale online, either at Govsales.gov (if it’s a federal police auction) or through your local agency/county/department (just Google it). You need to have a decent idea of what you’re wanting to pick up, or you won’t have time to properly vet everything, which could get messy. See above.
3. Check the VIN
The vehicle identification number is way more than just something you use to search CarFax, it’s on every body panel. Look for it everywhere and make sure it’s the same. If it’s not, there’s definitely been body damage in the past.
4. If you're looking at an old cop car, check the hour meter instead of the odometer
Mileage won’t tell you a whole lot about the wear and tear on the car, since the engine is generally running idle every time officers set up camp waiting for some speeder to come along. Police cars have what’s called an hour meter, which as the name suggests, tells you exactly how much time the car has spent running.
5. Check to see if it’s drivable The auction won’t let you take it for a test drive, but if you can, start the engine, look for smoke, and listen for odd noises. You won’t always have that opportunity, however. Some cars don’t even come with keys.
6. If it isn't, find a way to get it home
You'll need a locksmith or a tow truck. Hopefully it's worth it!
7. Make sure you can fix it up yourself Nothing will eat away all those saved dollars like having to pay someone else to clean up a mechanical mess you didn’t spot.
8. Do your research
You need to know exactly how much the cars are worth so you don’t get suckered into paying market value for something that might need a few grand in parts for reconditioning.
9. Determine the max price you’re willing to pay Don’t go over it for any reason whatsoever. This is a police auction, not an estate sale full of stuff that may or may not be Antiques Roadshow-worthy.
10. Get there early
There’s going to be a long line of people checking out the few cars that are worth buying. Get there with enough time to inspect everything you need to inspect.
11. When the car you want is on the block, don’t jump on the bidding early
Really, there’s no reason to bid at all until the auctioneer’s about to put the hammer down. Bidding any sooner than that tips your hand to other bidders.
12. Trust your gut No matter what auction you’re at, you’re going to be surrounded by pros who do this kind of thing all day, every day. If things get out of control at all, you can find yourself in a bidding war against someone with much more knowledge about how much work a given car needs.
13. Bring cash
You might be able to get away with setting up some sort of financing option, but auctions abide by the seemingly timeless universal motto: cash is king.