British Car Auctions vs US Car Auctions - What’s the difference?

“They do things a bit differently over there.” It’s a sentiment you’ll probably hear from auction car buyers and dealers on both sides of the Atlantic, and to be fair, they’re not wrong. Various cultural and legal differences between the US and UK ultimately means that American auto auctions aren’t handled in quite the same way as we typically organise British car auctions. If you’re wondering about what buying an auction car Stateside would involve, allow us to enlighten you about what to expect!

Who can buy auction vehicles?

Buying at British Car Public Auctions

There are also lots of dealer-only auctions in the UK, but there’s good news for British non-dealers; you can find a lot more open public auctions here in Blighty. Many are held through large public auction houses such as – genuinely – one called British Car Auctions. (A directly-titled organisation if ever we knew one!) We do share several similarities with the US industry though; for starters, Police seized vehicle auctions are still an equally great place for private buyers to find great-value auctions cars, often supplied by the police, banks and car insurance companies.

US Car Private Auction Sales

Most privately-run auctions over in the States are ‘closed’ auctions. This means they’re not open to the general public, but are invitation-only – often to dealers. Open public auctions on the other hand are generally run by the government, usually through entities like law enforcement or customs agencies. For prospective buyers who are non-dealers, these governmental auctions are often amongst the best bets for securing themselves a seized vehicle or auction car.

On the other hand, if they’re not big fans of what they find at these governmental auctions, they might try and find someone with a dealer’s licence to attend a dealers-only auction, and bid on their behalf. This is sometimes referred to as ‘bidding by proxy’, and it’s big business in the United States. Though many organisers don’t like it, it’s not illegal, and there are often entire websites dedicated to helping non-professional bidders find licensed proxies. And of course, non-dealers can always fall back on the many and varied online vehicle auctions (just like those we hold here at RAW2K!).

car auction aerial view

Preparing before a car auction

British car auctions inspections

Much more rarely will you find an auction set solely outside on this side of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, our weather doesn’t often allow for it! The timescales for inspection in British car auctions are often stricter too – with more or less all car auctions, the inspections are held on the same day, hours or even minutes before. Most buyers have a short time to inspect the vehicle, ask their questions, and then hurry to the relevant auction hall to start bidding. With the biggest car auctions like those held at Manheim or Copart, there’s little to no chance of test-driving the car beforehand, given that they’re often being displayed a very short time later.

In online car auctions like the ones we hold here at RAW2K, however, they’re generally a lot more relaxed affairs. That’s a big part of the draw for our customers, in fact! When you buy an auction car online, you have a lot better chance of being able to test drive it in advance. It’s still not necessarily guaranteed though, so bear that in mind!

Inspections at US Car Auctions

The settings of American auctions can vary, depending on who’s holding them. Attendees in America are far more likely to find themselves inspecting vehicles outdoors on dealers’ lots or private land, although official or state-run auctions have a slightly better chance of being held in large purpose-built auction halls.

Before the beginning of any auction, prospective buyers will have the chance to inspect the vehicles in question. Americans can be a bit more generous in this respect than we typically are here in the UK, but not always! The time allotted for prior inspection can vary: sometimes buyers will get the whole afternoon on the day before the auction, whereas other times they might have just two hours before the auction begins.

Depending on the size of the auction, in many cases the cars will be lined up in rows outside, giving buyers plenty of room to assess the vehicles. They can also ask to test drive the auction car, although it’s not a request they can necessarily expect to be granted!

inspect old car

How bidding is organised, and how the auction is run

Bidding at a US Car Auctions

Bidders in US auto auctions have access to an interesting and effective system, and perhaps one that we should adopt more widely here in the UK. As the auctioneers read out the details of the car (at lightning speed), coloured lights above their heads serve to indicate the rough status of the car to potential buyers.

  • Green indicates that the vehicle is in basic working condition, but it’s subject to arbitration policies
  • Red means that the car is sold as-is. The seller takes no responsibility for faults that the buyer hasn’t identified themselves. Naturally, this means a greater risk on behalf of the buyer.
  • Yellow is there to show buyers that they need to listen carefully. The seller will announce items that are subject to dispute, but once these have been covered, they’re no longer viable for arbitration. In other words, all the problems with the vehicle are about to be announced verbally. If you choose to buy the vehicle after that – whether or not you heard them properly – then that responsibility rests with you.
  • Blue is the odd one out, there to indicate to buyers that the vehicle doesn’t come with a title. The buyer has 30 days to secure the title, and provide proof of ownership to the auctioneers. 

green traffic light

American auctions also have officials referred to as ‘ring men’ along the front row of the auction crowd. Potential buyers can quickly ask the ring man to clarify something about the car, but other people will still be bidding around them as they do it, so there’s rarely time for a lengthy exchange.

Reserve bids may or may not apply at any given auction. A reserve bid is basically the minimum price that the seller is willing to accept for the vehicle, so the bidding has to reach or exceed it for the sale to be valid. If an auction goes ahead without a reserve bid having been set, the highest last bid is subject to the seller’s approval. That means even if you bid the highest amount of money, if the seller thinks it’s still not enough, then you won’t get the car. It might sound harsh, but these stipulations are all clearly stated for those who know to look for them!

Bidding at British car auctions

In British car auctions, however, conditions can often be even more unforgiving. The auction houses trust all buyers to be fully aware of the vehicle beforehand, and doing extensive research to find out its age, provenance and condition. The auctioneer will read out the key details of the vehicle, and then crack on with bidding. Potential buyers need to particularly listen out for the key details of its selling description:

Any major mechanical faults

The vehicle shouldn’t have any faults in the engine, gearbox, clutch, brakes, steering or transmission.

Specified faults

The auctioneer will read out specific faults which have been acknowledged by the seller

Sold as-seen

This mean the vehicle is sold exactly as-is, with no warranties or responsibility taken by the seller. If you buy a sold as-seen auction car and you’re not happy it, that’s on you! ‘Without warranty’ is a term that means exactly the same.

On an engineer’s report

This means that the vehicle has been examined by a qualified professional engineer, as is sold on the description contained in the report. This is placed on the windscreen before the sale, so buyers have plenty of time to inspect it in the run-up to the auction itself.

There’s arguably a greater degree of risk involved in British car auctions, as there’s no handy traffic-light system to clue in any buyers as to what’s going on. There are no ring men to help out either. Buyers have to rely on a practised ear to listen to the auctioneer, and if they miss anything, they’ll have to deal with the consequences themselves! British vehicle auctions will also almost universally have a reserve bid for buyers to reach, which removes an element of unpredictability in the bidding almost immediately. It means that British buyers might have to spend a bit more, but there’s no chance of their high-earning bids being rejected arbitrarily on the personal whims of the seller.

Of course, online vehicle auctions are an easy way to avoid all the stress and hassle of physical auctions on either side of the Atlantic! We simplify the process here at RAW2K by laying out all the key information for you at a glance in each of our listings, whether that’s for a prestigious BMW auction car or a Ford family runaround.

Similarities between British car auctions and US auto auctions

us and uk flags

In almost all physical auctions you’ll attend in either the US or the UK, buyer’s fees will apply. The rates and amounts will vary depending on who you’ve bought the car from. For the established houses in British car auctions, for example, you can expect to pay up to £500 or 20% of the hammer price (whichever’s greater) as a deposit for the car. Cash payments will also be subject to handling fees.

Also, whether or not you’re getting the benefit of the US ‘traffic light’ system, in all cases there’s no excuse for not doing your research on the car before you turn up. The auctioneers in both countries talk at the same lightning speed, and you’ll need to be equally as diligent with setting your budget in advance. Experts in both countries also recommend getting hold of a vehicle history report before you turn up to the auction. Another tip for first-time buyers is to attend an auction in advance with no intention of buying, which should help you settle into the pacing and atmosphere of it all.

All these factors combined means that no matter which site of the Atlantic you’re on, online car auctions are by far the most reliable source of the very best deals. Here at RAW2K, we’re proud to be one of the nation’s number one sites for online car auctions, with a huge range of used, salvage and seized cars in our range, suitable for a vast array of budgets­ – so why not see what we’ve got in stock?