Buying car online? Look carefully at those photos

Buying car online? Look carefully at those photos

A photograph can tell a thousand stories, and this can be especially true at auction. Want to complain about that scratch you didn’t know was there? “Sorry Sir, it was clearly in the image on the internet...”


SOLD AS SEEN

Images of course only tell half a story, but it’s interesting given the recent, post-Covid (in particular) trend for online auctions where the buyer no longer stands jostling in a room of many, standing around the cars going through the ring, or at the more upmarket venues seated in a cosy auction hall with a few choice classics dotted around the edge, everyone casually trying to look inconspicuous whilst discreetly surveying the potential competition in the room…“That chap in the tweed and loud red trousers has been looking at that Daimler I want to bid on, is he new money, or old money? Will he dive straight in, or wait till the end… arghhh now I’ve been outbid by a man on a telephone who seems to bid with invisible sign language only the auctioneer understands…”

Gone are those days; now we can sit at home with a beer and bid anonymously right up until the very last nano-second (known as snipe bidding) without fear of public humiliation, embarrassment, peer-pressure, red faces or loss of nerve (all self-perceived of course, but powerful nonetheless). As a result, we now rely on the images and description more than ever. Some auction houses have opted to write as little as possible in their descriptions, furnishing bidders with the bare minimum including make/model, indicated mileage, engine size, potted (often vague) history and some spec detail – if at all. Other auction houses prefer to offer more information, spec detail and a breakdown of the car’s history file which is aimed at reducing the number of questions asked of the consignor/ auction house and usually hugely useful for all parties – to be forewarned is forearmed etc.

The problem for the auction house is, the more they write, the more they are open to interpretation and error. Wrongly state something and it could be grounds for rejection or a tool on which to haggle afterwards which they definitely do not want or like.

As a result, the less said, the better with auction houses preferring bidders to come and view in person where possible and check the documents physically with the onus being on the buyer to satisfy themselves what the car is, transferring the liability to the bidder/buyer and away from both auction house and vendor – the most obvious thing to do from their standpoint. Thus, many have opted for more images and less text. For those buying from afar or unable to view, photographing, and accurately representing the car including cosmetic faults (videos can include mechanical faults) is certainly useful for the buyer and a useful tool for the auction house, but less popular with the vendor who would rather these things not be pointed out. The problem arises when a car might be mis-represented; for example if some, or all panels are suffering from micro-blistering. If it’s not mentioned in the text, it needs to be photographed or it could be grounds for rejection if it wasn’t mentioned or photographed – and we all know cameras polish things. If it was you buying it, you’d definitely rather know if the car you’ve just paid £30,000 plus premium for is covered in microblistering if you were unable to view in person – you’d expect an honest representation for the fee payable.

Distance selling rules have become more complex and have affected how online auctions operate, with the rules of the deal changing when compared to the traditional auction where a man stands at a lectern with a gavel knocking the hammer down in a room full of people.

They operate in a similar way as if you were to buy a car from a motor dealer at distance. Although of course the auction house is not a dealer and doesn’t provide a warranty, the rules are more in favour of the buyer than they ever were traditionally – worth considering if you think you’ve bought a pup that wasn’t described properly.

But remember, auction houses only represent the seller and act as the middle man, and they do not generally inspect the cars like a dealer might.

A buyer wrongly assumes they know the cars but they don’t: although they look at the documents, speak with the vendor and take some photos, they often take the car at face value – as a result they are often unaware of any major issues simply by lack of exposure, so be careful how you approach an after-sale issue; don’t make too many assumptions.

If there’s a major issue the auction house will usually try to help, particularly if it’s just after the sale because the vendor won’t have been paid out yet and a sensible conversation can ensue before the legal threats and hot air get the better of the situation. Reputation is important after all.

What is interesting is that buyers expect a level of service and after sales for the premium they pay at auction, with many often surprised that their winning bid is subject to 10 or 12% or even more (plus VAT) for the privilege of buying at auction. What you pay for is the service, facility and selection of Lots, all under one roof. It costs a lot to run an auction, with staff, software and provision of the sale and its set up – this has to be funded somehow.

Still, that aside, they offer lots of fun and excitement with a wide and varied selection to suit all tastes and all budgets, the auction fever seems to not yet have run out of steam;instead it’s continued to adapt to the ever-evolving economic landscape and ever evolving buyer and seller tastes and demands. Long may they continue.

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