By Dave Tobin
As we all know Bringatrailer.com has revolutionized the collector car market, and I don’t think ‘revolutionized’ is too strong a word. The site has morphed from a basic blog / internet forum about funky cars for sale to a site with a handful of member cars being sold via auctions to the juggernaut it’s become today… almost 800 auctions live at any one moment, and, according to the BaT website, a “knowledgeable community of more than 700,000 users and over 300,000 registered bidders.” I might take issue with the ‘knowledgeable’ claim. Sure, there are some guys who know a lot about specific makes and models, but there are also a lot of uninformed, not-so- knowledgeable commenters, who have never bought or sold anything on BaT, who love to hear themselves type.
Talk among industry insiders is that BaT is beginning to look a lot like eBay motors circa 2001, and we all know what happened to eBay Motors over the past 20 years. A larger user base, more registered bidders SHOULD produce more bidding competition and, theoretically, attract higher quality cars and prices. That may be true, but it comes at a cost. Whatever the shortcomings of the ‘general public’ finding out about the collector car world’s ‘best kept secret’ and the plethora of BaT imitators and competitors that have cropped up over the past few years, it’s still the go to place to find a new owner for your interesting collector car while putting the most money in your pocket.
The Disruptor and Its Value Proposition to Buyers and Sellers
What started as some car guys selling mostly ‘affordable classics’ really turned into an industry disruptor in late 2019 and early 2020 and really took off after Hearst Publications purchase of BaT. Ever since, BaT consignors have been using the online platform as an alternative to the big, live, in person auctions.
Cars in the $250,000 – $1,000,000 price range are commonplace on BaT at this point. In about the past month 92 cars in this price range have been offered on BaT, about 67% were sold (not counting any deals on cars that may have initially been ‘no sales’ due to reserve not being met. Those are cars that may very well have been consigned to Gooding & Company or RM Sotheby’s pre-BaT. Where buyers and sellers would have paid a lot more in commissions.
If you were to buy a Mercedes 300SL Gullwing at one of the big, in person, auction houses with a high / winning bid of $1,000,000, you would pay the auction company (the new ‘industry standard’) commission of 12% on the first $250,000 ($30,000) and 10% on the balance of $750,000 ($75,000)… for a total of $105,000, on top of your $1 M high bid, so, $1,105,000 all in. Buy that same car on BaT and you’d pay just $1,005,000… $100k less. BaT’s buyer’s fee is 5% and it’s capped at $5,000.
It works the same way for consignors, but they keep even more of the money on the table, as a basic 7 day auction where you take the photos of your car yourself costs just $99. At the big, in -person auctions, the above mentioned ‘industry standard’ commission structure works the same way for consignors. So, if your beloved Gullwing was to receive a high bid of $1,000,000 you’d pay the auction company $105,000 in commissions. So you’re taking home $895,000 for your Gullwing that ‘sold’ for a million bucks… not to mention what you might have paid for shipping to get it to the venue and any other expenses. Of course, auction houses often negotiate special rates with individual clients who are consigning cars, but suffice to say, it will surely cost you more than $99 to sell with a major, in-person auction than it will on BaT. And, if you’ve got a reserve on your car with RM Sotheby’s and that reserve isn’t met on sale day, you’ve got to ship the car home, more expenses still.
A Good Place to Sell Your Collector Car, Usually
A BaT auction is, in most cases, a great place to offer your car in order to maximize sale price. I used to say “There are NO ‘good deals’ on BaT” – that statement isn’t as true as it was a few years ago, but still, NOTHING slips through the cracks. If it’s on BaT, real buyers with real checkbooks will see it. If you present your car well, with great photos and videos, in a transparent manner and if you can manage to keep the discourse in the comments section civil and professional, you will most likely sell your car for ‘all the money.’ While I like BaT for most cars, there are some cars, types or categories, that I think can be better sold privately, off of bringatrailer.com.
It sounds easy, like anyone can submit their car and have a great outcome, right? Well, it’s not… because BaT isn’t just 25,000 or even 50,000 hard core car guys who ‘get it’ anymore. Things have really changed since the Summer of 2020, after BaT was acquired by Hearst Autos. Of course, we all knew things would change after that… things started to grow, and quickly.
Is Bigger Better?
More cars for sale, more registered bidders a bigger community… all those things should be better for sale prices and offerings, right? Maybe. But that growth has come at a price, to user experience. Most clearly, this price is being paid by users, specifically sellers, in time it takes for auction listings to go live once submitted. The general quality of the listings has suffered, and I don’t mean so much the kinds of cars or specific examples, but the photos and presentation by so many ‘amateur’ sellers who treat their BaT listing about the same as an eBay listing in terms of photo quality, engagement, etc. And in some cases, the quality of the bidders and buyers. Folks who win an auction and then have no knowledge or experience in the generally accepted, industry standard ways of completing a deal, paperwork, banking, shipping a car, etc. Despite the fact that BaT offers extensive information regarding all of these items and ‘best practices’ for each on their website.
Time From Vehicle Submission to Live Auction
The time it takes an auction to go live from the time you initially submit the car can vary greatly on BaT. Back in the old days, my first BaT auction was back in 2016, things moved faster, but there were only 25, maybe 30 auctions live at a time. I think it took about a week or 10 days… to get a listing draft back for approval once the car was accepted. Last Summer I waited as long as 5 weeks to get an auction draft back from BaT for a no reserve auction, after the car had been accepted and the listing paid for. More recently, I’ve seen pretty fast turn-around times, maybe a week to 10 days. You never really know and it seems to take a different amount of time depending upon who the seller is, what kind of car it is, the car’s value, is there a reserve or not, a variety of factors.
Uninformed Buyers with Unrealistic Expectations
Last year I had a winning bidder of one of my Mercedes-Benz auctions explain to me on the phone that I was unreasonable for not accepting his payment for the car in Bitcoin. That same buyer, eventually, agreed to send a wire transfer, BaT’s published, preferred way to pay a seller on the platform, but he would only send that wire ONCE the car was actually loaded ONTO an auto transporter in the parking lot of my dealership. Nuts, for so many reasons. And I was the unreasonable one?
This year I had a winning bidder, and a serious car guy with some very nice and expensive cars in his collection, but a first time BaT bidder / user tell me that my request for a wire transfer to pay for the car that he won ‘within a few days’ after the auction ended was ‘overly aggressive.’ He wanted to pay half about a week after the auction ended and the balance a MONTH later when he had time to drive out from the west coast with his trailer and pick the car up. Who thinks that’s acceptable? I managed to keep things civil on the phone with him about his request, while firmly disagreeing with his plan, in fact, I think I even said it was ‘unacceptable.’ Eventually he said something like “I’m going to contact Bring a Trailer and see what their policy is about a reasonable payment timeline.” “PLEASE DO” I responded, “I think that’s a great idea. Check with them and see what they say, I’m willing to follow their instructions.” Knowing full well BaT recommends a wire transfer as the best form of payment and they generally expect buyers to pay for the cars they win, in full, within 3 to 5 days. In the end, the money was sent about 6 days after the auction ended and the deal got done. In this case, the under bidder was so upset he didn’t continue bidding during the auction, that he contacted me multiple times after the auction reminding me that if the high bidder didn’t come through, he was happy to buy the car. That’s always a nice back up plan… but it wasn’t needed in this case, although it was touch and go for a while there. I really had my doubts about the high bidder as things were unfolding.
Deadbeat Bidders / Auction Winners
I just had my first experience with this a couple of weeks ago with my NO RESERVE 1999 Porsche Boxster auction on BaT. This also falls into the general category of ‘it’s often harder to sell a $15,000 car than a $150,000 car.” It can certainly be more ‘work’ anyway. This was a no reserve auction, high bid wins the car. It was a great example of an early Boxster, 51,000 original miles. I bought it from a guy in his mid 70s in Minneapolis last Summer. He had owned it since 2002, when it had 5,200 miles on it. He always took it to the Porsche dealer for service, it was just a nice example of an ‘un-messed with’ car, as I like to say.
On the morning of the last day of the auction, October 26th, it was bid to just $9,400, so, as usual, I was a little worried, but I just kept telling myself, you’ve done everything right, 300+ detailed photos, 4 videos, clear, concise, civil answers to questions and comments posed by ‘the community’ despite some ‘dumb’ questions (questions that could have been answered had one looked at the listing and the photos before asking it) and bizarre comments. Trust the platform. Bidding picked up in the last minutes and, in the end, the high bid was $15,100. I had included this car in an email I sent out to my email list of more than 1,500 clients, customer and friends just a few weeks before with an asking price of $14,900, so I was happy with the BaT result.
I got the BaT email ‘Congratulations Your Car SOLD’ a few minutes later and reached out to the buyer via phone as I always do. No answer, I left a voicemail and followed up a few minutes later with a congratulatory email with some next steps and a note asking the winning bidder to please give me a call. A few hours passed, by about 8:00pm EST I called and left another message and sent another email. No response. I went to bed that night with a bad feeling. Even if you were REALLY busy, even if you were just getting on a flight to China, wouldn’t you at least send a quick text or email to the seller of the car you just ‘won’ on BaT? Even a cheap, $15,000 car?
I checked my phone and email the next morning and nothing from the winning bidder. So, by late morning, I messaged my BaT auction specialist, through the back end of the BaT system for the Boxster listing.
Amazingly, I didn’t hear anything from my BaT auction specialist at all after that message. So, the next day I wrote him another message.:
By the next day, still no response from my BaT auction specialist. So, 40+ hours after the auction end and no contact from the winning bidder and no response to 2 messages to my BaT auction specialist. I ended up digging up an old email from last year in which I corresponded with the guy I requested in the first message to my auction specialist. He is part of BaT’s ‘Customer Experience’ team and really helped me handle the deal with the guy and the Bitcoin / payment / shipping issue I mentioned in the ‘Amateur / Uninformed Buyers’ section above. He was so professional and capable with that situation I was hoping he could help me with the deadbeat Boxster buyer.
Eventually, about a week after the end of the auction, he reached out to the under bidder of the Boxster auction. He explained the issue with the deadbeat and offered the car to him at his high bid amount, the second to last bid of the auction, which was $14,750 and he gave me his information so I could get in touch with him. In the end, the underbidder was interested at the $14,750 number, sent a wire transfer and came up from the Washington D.C. area a few days later to pick up the car. A very nice guy, easy, clean transaction.
In the end, the high bidder of the Boxster auction never responded to me or the BaT representatives who reached out to him over the next week. During that week he was STILL bidding on other BaT auction, multiple auctions in fact, until the BaT guy I was working with informed me that his account had been suspended.
Amateur / Careless Sellers
This one is tougher for me to address with examples, as the 4 or 5 examples I’d like to use are actually from people I know and who know me and are most likely reading this article. I just don’t want to hurt any feelings, although it would probably do them some good (financial good) to read this before they submit their next car to BaT. When I say ‘amateur presentation’ I don’t mean it in the sense that the person presenting their car on BaT isn’t a car dealer or professional photographer, I mean that they take poor quality photos and make poor choices commenting and answering questions during the auction.
Poor photography, in terms of general composition or lighting or angles or both. A side view of a car in which the front bumper is cut out of the frame, should NEVER appear in a BaT auction. You should NEVER take photos in dappled sunlight through the trees. You should NEVER take interior photos in the middle of the day in the sun, it creates all kinds of bad shadows, it doesn’t allow people to see the interior surfaces cleanly. You should never take photos of cars with a bunch of stuff in the background, especially other cars. When you see photos of cars on BaT that fit the criteria above it’s AMATEUR HOUR. And these people wonder why their auction didn’t meet reserve or their expectations. Look at the BaT sellers you like the most, the ones who sell a lot of cars, the ones you enjoy following. Look at their photos and emulate them. There are plenty of one-off, first time, only-time BaT sellers who DO present their cars well. They take good photos, in a simple setting, with good lighting and have great results. It isn’t hard to do, it just takes someone willing to study how successful sellers present their cars and follow the same principles.
If you’re not sure if you’re capable, have someone else do it for you, or spring for the $349 “Plus” auction package BaT offers where they will send a photographer out to you to take the photos. Or pay someone like me to do it. People ship cars across the country to my dealership to have me put them on BaT because they see how I do it and they trust me to get top dollar for their cars, there is no greater compliment. The sense of responsibility I feel to present those cars well is equally great.
There are lots of specialty car auction sites that have arrived on the scene over the past few years. I have experience buying and selling on two of them, carsandbids.com as well as pcarmarket.com. I am a registered user on a number of the other sites listed below and check in on them with some frequency, but no buying or selling experience. Do you buy or sell with any of these other platforms or one that I haven’t included here? Let me know in the comments.
carsandbids.com – ‘Modern enthusiast cars’ founded by YouTube car guy Doug DeMuro. They accept only cars from 1980 and newer. Seems to be a younger audience interested in ‘newer’ cars. Most cars on offer at any given time aren’t 20 years old.
Pcarmarket.com – Originally focused just on Porsches, but quickly started accepting other makes and models due to demand. Now offers online auctions for any make.
hemmings.com Auctions – trying to stay relevant in a ‘print is dead’ world. Hemmings has started offering online auction listings. Strange mix of cars and prices.
The Market by Bonhams – started in the UK, ‘The Market’ was acquired by ‘brick and mortar’ auction house Bonhams in early 2021. Offerings from various countries around the world.
The MB Market – Mercedes marque specific, growing, slowly but surely. Heavy marketing to MBCA members, for obvious reasons, but I think their time and marketing dollars might be better spent elsewhere. I find most MB club members rather crotchety and ‘cheap’ – for lack of a better word.
Hagerty Marketplace – just launched a few weeks ago, the collector car insurer has expanded into online collector car auctions. You’d think they would be able to build a strong member base and platform with their existing insurance clientele. I have hopes that this will become the BaT competitor we’ve been hoping for.
ACC Auctions (All Collector Cars) – 50+ auctions live at any one time, mostly American cars, but some European and Japanese.
Shiftgate Automotive Auctions – Not sure what differentiates Shift-Gate at this point. Only a few auctions live at a time anymore.
Nobody has a crystal ball, but we can safely say that new players in the online collector car space will emerge and others will fade away. We’ve already seen radforsale.com – the car show giant “RADwood” launched auction site for ‘RADwood Era’ cars come and go. No doubt, there will be others we haven’t heard of yet that will arrive to the space. For now, we’ve got BaT and all the others trying to carve out their own piece of the market.