Bypassing costly retail stickers, more and more consumers are turning to car auctions to purchase a set of wheels for less or to buy the classic car they’ve always wanted. Open to the public, car auctions offer those with poor credit - or drivers looking for a great deal - an opportunity to buy a vehicle outright at a wholesale price.

But you’re just as likely to get a lemon as you are a steal, so be sure to do your homework ahead of time.

Prior to the event, you’ll want to read the car auction catalogues and online listings for a description of each car -- complete with photos, a car history and an estimated selling price. Use these listings to determine which type of car, make and model you’re looking for. The Internet is invaluable when it comes to researching car values and special features, production runs and owner reviews. If this isn’t enough, reach out to a mechanic you trust and get their opinion on the vehicle you’re looking for. This is also a good time to review your auto insurance policy so you understand how it might be impacted when you purchase a new car.

Decoding Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) provides a total portrait of the vehicle and is, therefore, a great tool in determining the true value of a car at auction. The VIN reveals where the car was built, including which plant it was assembled in; who manufactured it; what type of fuel it takes; the model year of the car; and the engine size, type and more. Most manufacturers have online VIN decoders accessible to the public.

Larger auction houses will often have a concierge service for novice bidders. This is something to consider if you have a specific make and model in mind, or if you want to arrange a pre-bid test drive or professional on-site car inspection.

It’s Auction Day: Come Prepared and Ready to Bid

On the day of the car auction, make sure to arrive early. Registration lines can be long, and you’ll want to reserve time to inspect any cars you’re interested in up close. Don’t be afraid to bring along a knowledgeable friend or mechanic, your car auction guidebooks or pricing info, or even a flashlight for up-close inspections.

Finally, if you are planning on purchasing a vehicle, consider how you’re going to haul the car home on auction day. You can pre-arrange for shipping, or car auctions will typically have reputable shippers on-site who can make the arrangements for you.  Don’t forget to add the new vehicle onto your auto insurance policy before it gets hauled home. This way you’ll be covered in case anything happens in transit.