Last week I had mentioned that I'd be purchasing a car at auction for less than $5,000 and put it to work as my primary driver for less than $500 in maintenance. 

Getting straight to the point, I visited a variety of local public auctions and checked out their inventories to see if there was anything suitable.  I ended up settling on the auction where the most cars were available so I’d have the biggest selection.

Among the several hundred cars there, I was able to pick out three cars that seemed as if they would suit my needs.

It turned out that this was a very difficult way to shop for a car. I had to walk through the lot of several hundred cars and identify the ones that seemed suitable and then narrow it down to just a few. 

Knowing what to look for

So, what was I looking for?  The first challenge was to find a car that was less than ten years old and had four matching tires with reasonable tread life left.

That first challenge was particularly tough because, at this price point, no one puts new tires on cars prior to going to auction.  In fact, in many cases individual cars had different brands of tires with varying depths of tread.  That's not safe and, due to the cost of new tires, immediately moved a majority of the available cars into the 'unsuitable' column.

In terms of my age requirements, it really wasn't tough to find an appropriate car.

The second challenge was to find a decent running car with operating air conditioning from what was left. I was surprised to find many of them where the AC was operable and blew cool air.  Some even blew cold air!

Other minor challenges were to find a car with the service records still in the glove box and still possessing their owner's manual.  I didn't find one car that still had these.  Luckily, most still had a spare tire and jack.

Inspecting the cars

In terms of inspecting the car, I was looking for a car with all the lights functioning and with little in the way of body damage.  I was again surprised to see that most of the cars had fully functioning lighting. 

In terms of appearance, many of the cars were far below average with many having scrapes, dents, faded paint, and mismatched or ill-fitting body panels. 

This is an area where paying close attention can pay off in a big way.  Having access to the vehicle identification number (VIN) allowed me to run reports like CarFax and AutoCheck on vehicles deemed appropriate.  But, just because the online reports might be clean means little if the car was damaged and fixed outside of using insurance. Self-pay repairs often don't make it to CarFax or AutoCheck.

Another challenge was to find a car that didn't smoke from the tailpipe, didn't leak exhaust gases, wasn't too loud, or have a puddle of fluids accumulating below it. Again, most of the cars did fairly well in this regard.

The auction where I was looking had a very unfortunate policy of not allowing test drives.  While all the keys were in the cars and potential buyers could start them, the only real operability tests that could be performed was listening carefully to the running engine, checking the operation of windows and ventilation, and looking at the exhaust.  Other than that, moving the shift lever from park to reverse to drive was the only other real operability test.  That's not exactly what one might call a purchaser's comfort zone.

After a couple of hours on the lot, I had selected three cars that passed my inspections, looked decent enough, and were likely to sell at or below my budget of $5,000.  That didn't mean, however, I would be able to bid all the way up to $5,000.

There were auction buyer’s fees, taxes, and tag and title charges to consider.  Plus, I also had to figure in a 2% up-charge because I wasn't about to do the transaction in cash (which the auctions love) or use a debit card (which they also love). I wanted instead to use a credit card for the purchase in order to have as much protection in what I could only imagine was one of the sketchiest and riskiest purchases I'd ever make.  That meant that I could bid up to about $4,000.


"I coulda been a contender…"

My list of three cars were unspectacular but known for being fairly good cars and, in their day, had been fairly well received by Consumer Reports.

I selected a 2006 Nissan Maxima with 198K miles in very good condition that was there only because the mileage was so high.  Other than that, it looked, smelled and ran like a much newer car.  Somebody had taken very good care of that Maxima.

The second car on the list was also a Maxima.  This one was one year newer with 50K fewer miles, but its condition was much poorer than the first Maxima.  Nevertheless, it looked okay and, like the other, had a good CarFax with only one minor issue.

The third car was a 1997 Volvo V70 wagon which, while outside my age range, looked quite good, ran well, and had a clean CarFax.  It was the lowest overall in accumulated mileage having only 137K miles.

The cars I'd selected were fairly far down the list so, while the other cars went across the block, I watched to see how pricing was going and who was bidding on what.

A dark horse emerges

That's where the problem came in that evening.  As I was waiting, I saw a very interesting car in line and ran over to take a quick look.  What I found was a late arriving, fairly shoddy looking 2005 Volvo V50 wagon with messy adhesive all over the roof from tape that had been used to seal up a presumably leaky sunroof.

The car was running well and an auction representative was at the wheel.  There were places on the tailgate where the paint had chipped off leaving bare metal behind and there also appeared to be a compromised headliner.

On the upside, there was no smoke from the tailpipe, the body panels were fairly straight -- save few dings here and there -- and the interior was clean and smelled good.  The headliner was certainly compromised from the leaking sunroof but, by all appearances, this car seemed to me to be at auction mainly because of cosmetic issues.  And, to my surprise, the car had four brand new Michelin tires.

I tried to snap a photo of the VIN so I could run a CarFax report, but I couldn’t get a good look at it because it was getting dark.  This is where it’s good to either really know what you’re doing or have someone with you who does.

Because I have spent decades following the automobile industry, I knew I could get the VIN off the dash display.  So, while the car idled in line four cars from the block, I reached in the car and pulled up the VIN from the display and snapped a quick photo of it.

I decided that, if I could get that car on or below budget and it had a reasonable CarFax, I'd buy it.

I ran the CarFax and it was clean!


The bidding begins…

So, as the bidding began at $2,000, I watched until the action slowed down and the price was up to $3,800. I bid $3,900 and no one else offered a bid.  Did I just buy a car?

The auctioneer then focused all his attention on me and said that the seller was looking for $4,700 and asked if I could go that high.  I shook my head and said that was my final bid and that $3,900 was all I had.

SOLD!  I just bought a 2005 Volvo V50 T5 wagon for $3,900 plus buyer’s fees.  When all was said and done, I was $200 under my budget of $5,000!

Now, keep in mind that I saw this car minutes before it went to the block, so I didn't have a chance to do any of my own more in-depth inspections.  I had just taken a very big chance.

Upon completing the paperwork, I was informed that the car I'd bought had been inspected and deemed roadworthy and had current emissions.  The auction company had me sign a paper that stated that any major issues with the car were subject to arbitration.  I would not get my money back, but someone might just help pay if the transmission (or other major system on the car) was bad.

It's nice to have that minor assurance, but I'm not too sure how easy it would be to take them up on the offer of arbitration and actually succeed in getting payment.  Overall, yes, that's a bit of protection but nothing to bet your life on.

So, I bought the car, drove it directly to my trusted mechanic and waited for his call.  Had I bought a lemon?

Check in next week to find out what you get in a ten-year-old Volvo for less than $5,000.

About the author: David Lardner is a volunteer at Team Clark Howard's Consumer Action Center.

Image of David LardnerAbout the author: David Lardner

David Lardner is a volunteer at Team Clark Howard's Consumer Action Center. View More Articles

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