Cars on Auctions

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Formally instituted at the end of November 2008, online second-hand car auctions were not a bidorbuy idea. For better or for worse, the credit goes to the sellers of South Africa’s largest online auction site and marketplace.

“What planet are you from? Do you expect me to buy a car on the basis of a few pictures posted on the Internet?” asked one exasperated visitor when he stumbled upon a recent second hand Mercedes CLK320 auction on bidorbuy.
Truth to be told, that is exactly how bidorbuy used to feel. The Internet did not seem like a suitable venue for consumer-to-consumer trade in used vehicles. It was taken for granted that the buyers will want to go around the car peering carefully, their faces scrunched in a frown of concentration; that they will want to knowingly kick the tyres before test-driving the car.

As for the sellers, it was thought that they would not want to place one of their most valuable possessions on an online auction, at the mercy of bidders who may turn out to be unable to secure financing from a bank.

Exceptions Carry the Day

For all those reasons, bidorbuy originally did not envisage having car auctions and sales on the site. Instead, the sellers were offered the option to list their cars in the classified section. The buyers could then contact them and arrange the viewing, the testing and the rest.

True, bidorbuy itself, in cooperation with a big dealership, did stage several promotional car auctions. However, those were brand-new cars, and with brand new cars buyers know exactly what they are getting. If in doubt, they could always pop into the nearest dealership and test the relevant model.

When, more than a year ago, someone put a second-hand Audi on an auction – starting from R1, at that – a few eyebrows were raised. The auction was successful. However, the whole thing was regarded as no more than an exception to the rule. Then, a couple of months ago, another used car, a Mercedes, appeared on a R1 auction. A Fiat Sienna followed suit and was sold on a no-reserve R1 auction.

Since bidorbuy did not have a category for cars outside the classifieds, all of the mentioned “exceptions” had to circumvent this limitation by getting listed in the “car parts” section. The situation took a serious turn at the end of November 2008, when a seller contacted bidorbuy with a wish to list a rather pricy and very dishy Mercedes Benz CKL320 cabriolet on a R1 auction. The powers to be decided there and then that enough is enough and proceeded to open a separate category, aptly named “Car Auctions”. Several days later, “Car Auctions” featured not one, but about a dozen second-hand vehicles, although all except the Mercedes had an appropriately high starting bid.

Risky Business

Now that the cat is out of the bag, bidorbuy will have to allow the sales of second-hand cars, whether on auction or at a fixed price, for as long as the sellers are willing to offer them and the buyers are willing to buy them. Still, it must be emphasised that this kind of transaction poses challenges for both buyers and sellers alike.

The sellers need to prepare good images and a detailed description. They have to decide whether to allow the highest bidder a “grace period” in which to see the car in real life or not. They have to monitor the bidding process carefully and weed out anyone who does not give the impression of being a serious buyer – for there are few things more frustrating for a seller than being left with a “sale not concluded” result after going through all the trouble of listing and perhaps even the expense of advertising the listing.

As for the buyers, acquiring a second-hand car is always a big unknown, tyre-kicking and test-driving notwithstanding. It stands to reason that it is that much riskier to make a decision without the test drive. To avoid disaster, prospective buyers need to ask the seller questions. A lot of questions. Never mind that the description states “in perfect condition”. They should ask anyway, in great detail. And then keep the hard copy of questions and answers – just in case.
For example, in the case of the CKL320 auction, which precluded the real life viewing option, potential buyers did ask everything they can think of: Was the car in an accident? Are there any scratches? Does it have any leaks? Does the engine overheat? What is the VIN number? Is the seller the first owner? And our favourite: Is the car lady-owned?

Was that Lady-Owned?

Now, let us consider this last question in more detail. There is no need to explain why people prefer to buy a second-hand car that had a woman as a driver. Everyone knows that women are better drivers and that they are easier on the cars. What has to surprise anyone who has ever haunted second-hand car dealerships in search of the perfect bargain is that, as if by magic, each and every car one stops to view invariably turns out to have been driven by some sedate matron “from home to the shopping centre and back, you know”. No vehicle in any dealership has ever been known to have had a young man high on hormones as its driver.

And that is where online second-hand car sales can have an advantage over real-life second-hand car sales. A serious seller on an online marketplace like bidorbuy depends on her or his reputation. And since word travels fast on the Internet, reputations can be lost very quickly. Both the buyer and the seller need to examine closely each other’s history and ratings and proceed with the transaction only when they are reasonably confident of each other’s integrity.