Is Trying to Sell Your Car on Auction Websites Worth It?

Once upon a time, eBay was one of the few ways to bid on cars online. However, the last few months and years have seen the rise, proliferation, and evolution of numerous dedicated car auction websites. There’s even one designed specifically for Radwood-era vehicles. But what does it take to list your car on one of these auction sites? And does it pay off in the end?

To answer that, I tried selling my car, a 1999 Mazda Miata 10th Anniversary Edition, through an auction website. And as you’ll soon learn, it didn’t go quite as planned.

How do you prepare to sell your car on a car auction website?

Classic cars up for auction at the 2020 Mecum Kissimmee Summer Special
Classic cars up for auction at the 2020 Mecum Kissimmee Summer Special | Patrick Connolly/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Whether you list your wheels on a car auction website or Craigslist, the end goal is the same. You want your car to sell for as much as possible, and that requires a bit of prep work.

Firstly, regardless of the specific car auction website, figure out your car’s market value and if you want a reserve or not. A car with no reserve often attracts more bidders, but you run the risk of not getting as much money as you wanted. That matters because auctions have listing fees, Hagerty explains. And while a website like Cars & Bids doesn’t charge as much as an in-person car auction house, sellers do pay some fees. However, I can confirm that reserve prices are negotiable.

The next step in car auction website preparation is getting your car ready. For one, that means documenting and/or fixing any mechanical issues, KBB says, and replacing things like oil filters and fluids.  But it also means getting your car’s interior and exterior detailed. Clean vehicles simply look better in photos than dirty ones and thus command higher prices.

Successful car auction website listings require good photos and documentation

Speaking of photos, they’re the next big step in preparing your car for its auction website debut. Take as many photos of the interior, exterior, underside, and engine bay as you can in the best lighting available, The Drive recommends. And if you’re selling additional parts, such as winter tires, take photos of those, too.

If possible, shoot the outside of the car from multiple angles during the ‘golden hour’ before sunset. And don’t try to hide any flaws; instead, take clear pictures of scratches and rust. If you don’t feel confident in your photography skills, some sites offer professional photo services.

Remember, unlike at in-person auctions, online bidders can’t see or touch what they’re bidding on. They’re relying on you to document its condition as accurately as possible. If they don’t feel confident in a car because they can’t see certain parts of it, they likely won’t bid. Disclosing issues upfront is the better way to go.

That element of disclosure is why some car auction websites recommend filming walk-around and cold-start videos of your car. The former provides an additional perspective on the vehicle’s condition. And cold-starting your car highlights any issues it may have that a warmed-up engine might hide.

Next, after snapping photos and video footage, organize all of your car’s documentation. Car auction websites typically ask for a photo of the car’s title and VIN to verify ownership and title status. A few auction sites also provide free Carfax reports, hence why the VIN is required. And you’ll also need a bill of sale, maintenance and service records, and if applicable, warranty documents. If you take pictures of the records, though, make sure to block out any personal information.

Your potential auction listing might not go live right away, though

Finally, all this information needs to be uploaded to the car auction website. The site will then ask you a few questions about the car’s features and equipment, its condition, what’s included with the sale, if it has any faults, and your overall history with it.

However, your car listing still isn’t live yet. All of these steps have been to apply for an auction listing. The website still has to decide if it approves the application or not, which usually takes at least a day. But even if you get the thumb’s up, your car might not go to auction immediately.

As one car auction website representative explained to me, the sites want to avoid overlap between similar cars. So, if you’re trying to list, say, an NB Miata, and there’s another one on the schedule, your NB auction will likely be delayed. This prevents similar car auctions from overshadowing one another and thus leading to lower/fewer bids.

Eventually, though, your car will pop up on the auction website. And after that, the only things left to do are answer any commenter questions and wait to see what happens.

I tried selling my 1999 Mazda Miata on Cars & Bids…and failed

A blue 1999 Mazda MX-5 Miata 10th Anniversary Edition in a parking lot
1999 Mazda MX-5 Miata 10th Anniversary Edition | Matthew Skwarczek, MotorBiscuit

After several years of RWD fun, I realized I wasn’t making the most out of owning my 1999 Mazda Miata 10AE. So, I decided to try selling it on a car auction website, hoping a fellow enthusiast would win it. And I initially went with Cars & Bids, given its focus on ‘80s, ‘90s, and modern enthusiast vehicles.

Getting the Miata ready for sale involved all the steps described above. I got it detailed inside and outside, including some minor paint correction. I took it to my mechanic, who’s a Mazda specialist, for an inspection, belt replacement, and a brake and clutch fluid flush. And after taking numerous photos, I shot the walkaround and cold-start videos and gathered up all the records and documentation.

Applying for a Cars & Bids spot was trouble-free. I uploaded all my photos and videos, documented all the car’s flaws and features, and paid a $49 ‘no reserve’ listing fee. After my application was approved, I was connected with a specialist who remained my contact throughout and after the auction. The specialist writes a draft of the car description, which is then edited by the Cars & Bids team. And after I approved the draft, two days, later, my Mazda Miata listing went live.

While I anxiously checked the listing every day, the auction itself was uneventful. And after seven days, the winning bid on my Mazda Miata stood at $7100. Which, incidentally, was more than I originally paid for it.

However, my Miata didn’t sell on Cars & Bids. The website sends the seller the winning bidder’s contact info and vice versa. But although my initial phone call with the winning bidder went through, they never responded to subsequent emails or calls. Even after I let Cars & Bids know about the situation, the site couldn’t get through to them either.

Trying to list it on other car auction websites failed, too

The blue-and-black interior of a blue 1999 Mazda MX-5 Miata 10th Anniversary Edition with its roof down
1999 Mazda MX-5 Miata 10th Anniversary Edition interior | Matthew Skwarczek, MotorBiscuit

The Cars & Bids specialist was very helpful, though, and tried contacting the runner-up bidder. They, however, weren’t interested in the car anymore. In the end, the website agreed to split the buyer’s fee with me. And I decided to try listing my Mazda Miata elsewhere.

After Cars & Bids, I decided to try Bring a Trailer. Unfortunately, my application wasn’t accepted. So, I turned to Rad for Sale, figuring that my Radwood-era car would be a perfect fit. And I decided to list it with a $5000 reserve, the third-place bid my Miata earned on Cars & Bids.

Once again, the website representative was very helpful and easy to work with. And the Miata appeared on Rad for Sale after a few days. But after a week, it failed to make reserve. This despite it being one of the best times of the year to sell a convertible.

Does this mean using online auctions isn’t worth the trouble?

In the end, I did sell my Mazda Miata, though not on a car auction website. But has my experience left me wary of using these sites in the future?

The short answer is, not necessarily. Auctions are inherently risky ventures without a guarantee of success. It’s possible that if I had sold a different car on Cars & Bids, the winning bidder might not have re-negged. But while the auctions themselves were unsuccessful, I had no complaints about working with the website representatives.

If you absolutely want to see your car sold, going through an auction website likely isn’t the best choice. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them at all. It just means accepting the possibility of disappointment.

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