With used car prices skyrocketing, and new-car inventories delayed for months, car lovers are increasingly shopping online.
Last year, online auction sales beat live auction sales for the first time, with 20,000 cars sold online. Kevin Fisher, an analyst with Hagerty, said that online car sales rose from $505 million in 2020 to $1.02 billion in 2021.
Buying a car sight unseen can be dangerous. They can range from the mundane, like the shade of blue on the 1975 Ferrari 308, to the expensive, like the 1969 Corvette C3 and now it needs a new transmission. The worn tires and old brakes on the cute little 1980 Mercedes-BenzSL make driving it feel like skating on ice.
There is no way to completely eliminate the risk of buying a collectible car online. There are ways to maximize the fun. Here are a few.
The rise or fall of the values of nearly every collectible make and model can be seen in the charts in the price guides. They allow you to determine where the market is going for vehicles in good condition, and vehicles that need some work. The Hammer Price app publishes auction results from dozens of public sales each year for hundreds of vehicles. You can get a good idea of what a fair price is for the vehicle you want to buy online by looking at eBay, Hemmings, and local lots.
You might be surprised. Rolls-Royce's classics cost less than their new equivalents. Manual transmissions are often worth more than automatic transmissions, and the original engine of a car is worth more than one.
You have a lot of options. Bonhams, eBay, Collecting Cars, Fantasy Junction, Gooding & Co., and other big auction houses offer online auctions of cars. The granddaddy of them all is Bring a Trailer, which sold $828.7 million worth of cars last year, a 108% gain over the previous year, and a full quarter-billion dollars ahead of its previous year.
You can search for the make, model, and year of a vehicle you want and then follow online as people place bids at most auctions. To place one of your own, which you can do at any time, you need to register with the given site and give your credit card information. Should you win the auction, most sites will place a hold on the card or require an immediate down payment.
Discuss the vehicle with the seller. You can message the seller directly on Bring a Trailer. You can call the seller on other websites. Having a one-on-one conversation about any vehicle will help you decide if it's worth it.
You can read long threads about model specific reliability problems and build standards on enthusiast forums such as Pelican Parts and Ferrari Talk. It is possible to peruse online auction catalogs and read the descriptions of models that are similar to one you are considering. They will give you a sense of potential problems and what to ask about, even if they don't pertain to the car you're considering.
There is not a great standard platform for photos and inspection of these cars, according to the founder and owner of DV-Mechanics.
If you are serious about the vehicle, you should visit the car personally.
Valenzuela says he flew to England for a pre-purchase inspection because he didn't trust photos.
The price of a plane ticket is insignificant compared to the cost of a classic vehicle. You wouldn't buy an expensive couch without sitting on it, or a luxury bed without laying on it, right? It's a good idea to see a car and drive it. Either you will find that you don't like it and save yourself the money, or you will gain confidence that it's a vehicle you want to own.
The highest bid at the close of the sale will be the car. Other cars have a reserve, which means that if a bidder doesn't meet a minimum, the car will remain with the owner. Be aware if a reserve has been placed on the car you want and determine for yourself how much you can afford to pay.
If no reserve is listed and the car has a market value of $75,000, it would be a great deal to buy it for $65,000. If you find that the car's market value is $75,000, and the reserve set is $80,000, it's overpriced. Move on.
Don't get upset if you don't get what you want the first time you bid. Don't force yourself to place a higher bid than a car is worth if you can't afford it.
When the sale opens, watch out for who is bidding on a car. Is it a random assortment of anonymous handles bidding, or are two people bidding at the same time? People who are already in a fight to win the car may be willing to pay more than it is worth.
Beware of people who jump in early. They are often there to make a name for themselves or to build hype for their own car business. A friend of the seller might be trying to increase the bidding.
If you list a seven-figure car on BAT, and it isn't selling for the price you want, you can have your friends bid for it, and you can have your car bought back. It is definitely a controlled environment that the everyday buyer should be aware of.
Not right away. It's not wise to jump into the bidding early. It is better to wait and watch any activity. As the comments accumulate, keep reading. If you win, bid an appropriate price above the previous one. There's no sense in breaking the bid limit for one car.
Valenzuela likes to show no interest in a car and then bid in the last minutes.
Be patient. You should remind yourself that there will always be another example of what you want coming out there. When the right car finds you, the timing and finances will fall into place.
Buying a car online can be fun if you read the comments.
Remarkably, on BAT the community has become fraught with information and back stories. You have some very smart professional people giving opinions that are very valuable.
Everyone likes to share their hot take on old cars, whether or not it was requested. Most sales at Bring a Trailer offer a deep dive into the car's most minute particulars, from period-correct paint colors and seat upholstery to wheels and door handles. These are helpful in determining the authenticity of a vehicle.
The cheap seats can distract from the shrieks.
Valenzuela says anyone with an account can ruin good auctions.
Don't be distracted by a rabbit trail conversation online about things that are inconsequential to a car, for instance, a conversation about the fact that the car has an old set of tires. Put new tires on your car if you buy it.
Did you win the car you wanted? Great! Prepare to spend more money. Unlike live auctions where the buyer must pay a percentage premium for the purchase, most online auctions do not.
One of the great things about online sales is that you can see and buy cars you can't see in person. This increases the chance that the car you buy isn't in your town. You will have to pay for transportation to get the vehicle. The cost of an open-air truck-ride to move your baby from Nashville to LA can be as high as $1,800. It costs more to transport the car via truck with an enclosed trailer. When necessary, getting a vehicle emissions-tested, and paying additional fees will all come into play.
There is no amount of photos or videos that can properly vet a car. When you get your new prize, you will probably have to pay for some minor repairs. Fixing electronics in the dashboard or repairing windows or seat belts is a small thing but is essential to making the vehicle ideal for use. If you are lucky, the car you buy online will be close to what you expected.
It is part of the fun of owning a collectible car. There is always something to improve.