Should You Buy Vehicles from Government Auctions?


People are always on the lookout for bargains, especially when we’re talking about used cars. But when we see a vehicle being sold for what we think is well below its market price there’s got to be a catch, hasn’t there? Well not necessarily. Thousands of cars, trucks, SUVs and vans are sold every year through government auctions and many get sold for considerably less than their supposed market value. The question is are government auctions legit and should you buy a vehicle from a government auction?

Government auctions are excellent places to find vehicles for sale at sometimes incredibly low prices, and if you know what you’re doing you can sometimes buy confiscated or ex-fleet government vehicles for a fraction of their normal market value at these auctions.

In this article, I’m going to go into detail about everything you need to know about government auctions. This will include how to find them, the types of vehicles you’ll see for sale, why those vehicles are being offered for sale, what you need to watch for, the procedure for bidding, and what to do when you’ve bought your bargain vehicle from the auction.

What types of vehicles are sold at government auctions?

There are four categories of vehicles sold at government auctions, which are ex-fleet vehicles, ex-police vehicles, vehicles that have been seized or confiscated for one reason or another by the authorities, and vehicles being sold by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Ex-police vehicles

When we think of ex-police cars we immediately think of black and white interceptors, which more often than not will be a Ford Crown Victoria or a Dodge Charger. Actually, police forces around the country use a much wider variety of vehicles and many of them are not black and white with red and blue flashing lights.

You will find plenty of former police interceptors and highway patrol vehicles for sale at government auctions that have been replaced, but a lot of police use unmarked cars and these get replaced after a certain amount of time just like interceptors and highway patrol cars.

You’ll find loads of different brands and models from a Dodge Dart to a Chevrolet Suburban and everything in between. The likes of the FBI drive things like the Chevy Malibu, Ford Fusion, Ford Edge and many other regular cars, and all of them have to be disposed of when they reach the end of their time with the government.

GSA Government Fleet Vehicles

There are many thousands of vehicles sold by the government that are not directly used for law enforcement but are actually fleet cars used by civil servants in every part of government you can think of. These vehicles have been leased by the government in just the same way as a private or public company would lease them; typically for between 3 and 5 years.

These vehicles are bought, leased, managed, serviced, maintained and disposed of by a division of the federal government called the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA).

GSA vehicles are generally of good quality and have been properly maintained according to the manufacturer’s guidelines. I purposely used the term “disposed of” to describe what the GSA does with these vehicles when they need to get rid of them because the leases are up. GSA vehicles are sold as are well-maintained, low-mileage, detailed, and ready to drive, so these are a pretty safe bet and that means prices might not be as low as you might hope.

The federal government uses taxpayers’ money to buy these vehicles and it’s certainly not in the business of making a profit out of them when the time comes to replace them. All the GSA needs to do is get them sold and this is why they sometimes get sold for seriously low prices.

Confiscated or seized vehicles

Some of the vehicles that are the most interesting to those looking for a bargain at government auctions are those that have been seized or confiscated from criminals or criminal enterprises. There are many reasons why the police and feds seize vehicles and the diversity of vehicles confiscated them can be staggering.

A lot of vehicles seized will be fairly run-of-the-mill models such as Fusions, Malibus, Escapes, Regals and the like. They could have been seized from crooks who were using them for their criminal endeavors, but they can also from hauls of stolen vehicles that criminals have been trying to move on to be broken down for parts.

Now I know what you’re thinking here. Does this include the Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and other exotic models that some criminals own and drive before they get caught? The answer is yes it does, but there’s a catch. When these exotic, high-end and rare cars are seized by the cops or feds they usually end up being sold through special government auctions. Sometimes these special auctions are advertised on a limited basis, but sometimes they can be by invitation only I’m afraid.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicles

If there is one category of vehicle you have to be more careful with than any other it’s vehicles offered for sale by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. These can be a rich source of genuine bargains, but they’re definitely not for the faint-hearted or the inexperienced auction buyer.

The USA.gov website states: “These vehicles are for sale “as is” and may need extensive repairs. They must be towed from the site. They should not be considered safe for driving until checked by a licensed mechanic.

If that statement doesn’t set the alarm bells ringing in your head I don’t know what will, but if you know what you’re doing you could pick up a vehicle for very little money that could end up being worth a whole lot more after a little work. Or in some cases, a lot of work!

Why are vehicles sold at government auctions?

Ex-government, ex-police and confiscated vehicles are sold at auction for the same reason any vehicles are sold at auction, which is convenience. Of course these vehicles could be sold for higher prices if they were sold on lots or through Autotrader, etc. The thing is, it would take huge resources and much more time and effort to sell each vehicle individually to retail buyers.

Even if they were sold for considerably more than they go for at auction, the extra costs involved with selling to retail would be higher than the extra money raised. This is why you get the chance to bag a bit of a bargain buying from an auction.

What to watch out for at government auctions

All the rules that apply to any other car auction apply to government auctions, and you can read more generally about vehicle auctions in my article about the pros and cons of car auctions here.

Although these vehicles will probably have been very well maintained throughout their time with the authorities, they could have been stood for some considerable time before they go up for sale and they could have problems. It might be nothing more than a flat battery, but a more serious fault could have occurred a while before the vehicle was due to be decommissioned and you could be inheriting a world of hurt if you don’t know what you’re looking at.

If you’re not particularly mechanically-minded it makes a lot of sense to take a technician friend with you to an auction because you don’t want to get stuck with a lemon, and when the hammer comes down and you’re the winning bidder there’s little or no chance of going back.

A lot of the time the issues with these vehicles will be minor or nothing more than cosmetic, but it still makes good sense to get as good an idea of what you’re buying before you start to bid.

Check some VIN numbers before bidding

If you know the vehicles you’re interested in are GSA vehicles that have come to the end of their lease you probably don’t have to worry about checking the vehicle identification numbers (VIN). The government isn’t going to have outstanding finance, the vehicles will obviously not be stolen, and there’s no way they’re going to be two vehicles welded together.

However, if you’re looking to buy a seized vehicle then you should get a VIN check before you bid, and I’d recommend you use EpicVIN for a quick, affordable and comprehensive history check. The government should have done what’s necessary to get the vehicle cleared for sale, but as some vehicles will have been stolen and recovered there could still be issues with finance, ownership and accident history that may be outstanding.

You can probably overcome any problems like that with a bit of work, but do you really want the hassle? If you do an EpicVIN check and something untoward comes up you really are better off moving on to the next one.

How to buy from government auctions

Government auctions are not widely advertised, but something like 35,000 vehicles are sold through them each year in America so they’re not exactly rare. To find out where and when they are happening you’ll need a directory to save you hours and hours of painstaking research, and the biggest resource for these auctions is a membership with gov-auctions.org. The cost is small and there are usually offers available for new members, and you’ll probably make the money back many, many times if you actually go on to buy a vehicle as a result of the information.

Anyone over the age of 18 with a driving license can bid and buy from government auctions, but I stress once again that you have to know what you’re doing. I could write another couple of thousand words here about how to buy from one of these auction events, but if you really want to know how to be s successful buyer then click here and then go to the “Auction Guide” section, and everything is explained in some detail in a FREE tutorial.

Government auction FAQs

Are government auctions legitimate?

Official government auctions are completely legitimate, but it has to be pointed out that there are other auctions out there run by private companies that are marketed in a way to make them seem like official government auctions when they are not.

Are police cars remapped?

Police cars are not remapped, although many of them are pretty fast because they have big, powerful V-6 and V-8 engines that make them quick enough to be pursuit vehicles. They’re not remapped to deliver extra performance because they are operated under manufacturer warranties and remapping a car would invalidate the warranty.

What cars does the government use?

Almost every type of vehicle you can turn up at a government auction, including cars, trucks, buses, vans, SUV and even, alternative fuel vehicles. Even presidential Cadillacs have been sold to the public in the past through government auctions, although it might be wise to set your sights a little lower if you’re hoping to buy the last version of “The Beast” to be disposed of by the Feds.

Can you test drive vehicles at government auctions?

You are not able to test-drive vehicles at government auctions, but you do get the chance to have a good look over them before they go up for sale. This is a crucial opportunity that shouldn’t be overlooked, especially if you are mechanically knowledgeable or you have a mechanic with you.

What’s a “buyer’s premium” fee?

A buyer’s premium fee is an extra amount of money added to the winning bid by the auction house as its income. The amount is usually around 5% of the purchase price and is usually payable on top of the purchase price, so remember to take this into consideration when you’re working out how much you have to pay for the vehicle you’ve agreed to buy.

Do you have to pay in full right away at a government auction?

Winning bidders have up to two working days to pay the final balance they owe for vehicles they’ve bid on and won, but a deposit has to be paid as soon as the auctioneer’s hammer has fallen on your bid.

Can I back out of a government auction bid?

At any live auction, a bid represents your intention to buy and it’s a legal obligation with no going back. If you realize you’ve made a terrible error you can always ask for your bid to be canceled and for the sale to be passed to the next highest bidder, but although some auction houses will agree, many will not.

I absolutely love vehicle auctions and I even watch Barrett Jackson live for hours when it’s on TV, but I’ve also made my fair share of mistakes bidding on cars at auction. The worst thing you can do is rush into bidding on a vehicle before you’re ready.

My advice would be to take a long-term approach. Get a government auctions subscription and learn all you can from past and upcoming sales. Decide what type of vehicle you want to buy and the maximum amount you are prepared to spend, and only bid when you are happy that the car is right and don’t over-bid. It’s easy to get carried away and think “I’ll just make one more bid,” and before you know it you’ve spent far too much and overpaid.

If you do your homework and take your time you can get a fantastic bargain from a government auction, but you can also overspend or end up with a lemon on your hands if you get too carried away by what is an extremely exciting way of buying a vehicle.

Sean Cooper

Former retail auto industry professional for almost a decade and an automotive writer and journalist for the last 8 years

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