Why Government Car Auctions Are Not For The Light Of Money

You know that supposed great government vehicle you can get for only $100? The type you see promoted via spam and late night TV? Well, I managed to get one.


It was a first generation Ford Explorer that had been left at a back of a small city's water department for two years. The online listing on Govdeals was too good to be true. 20 year Explorer. $100. A surprisingly nice interior. All the things that make you have stupid thoughts about an impulsive late evening purchase.

I was bored of course, and drunk, and browsing on Craigslist for old cars that were probably worth more dead than alive. After a brief jump into the world of Govdeals.com, I saw it.

It was right between a listing for parade gaiters and another one for a large box of old library books.


I remember when they were new and, of course, not being able to afford one, or even wanting one for that matter. Back in 1993 I was pretty much on the opposite side of the enthusiast world when it came to SUVs. They were for Moms and Yuppies.

My nearly insatiable love back then was for the first generation Miata and a rare high-end Japanese delicacy known as the Toyota Celica All-Trac. Explorers were just not my thing. But I do recall thinking that the ones used in Jurassic Park were pretty cool, and heck, for $100? What did I have to lose?


Long story short, the next day I woke up with a mild schnapps induced hangover, walked down to my seven year old laptop, clicked on an email, and saw this.

"Congratulations, Steven Lang! You are the high bidder."

Two days later I hauled in my bounty.


It was beautiful! At least to me. Vinyl seats and all. I replaced the battery, had my mechanic tend to the old gas in the tank. Filled it up. Changed the oil. Added a healthy amount of fuel treatment, and drove it through about two tanks of gas before finally selling it for $2000. I then decided to re-invest that money, buy another car, sell that one, and repeat the process ad infinitum for the benefit of two local charities. Here's the article if you're so inclined.


So what's this article about again? Oh yeah. Government auctions are not cheap. Well, they're not. But that has more to do with bad presentation and general incompetence than it does with the quality of the merchandise.

Take this listing for instance. Click on it. Read it all the way through, and then ask yourself a question.


Why is it so cheap?

There's an easy answer that you won't see in the description. You can not legally drive a vehicle with a CNG fuel tank that is expired unless you get that tank replaced, which typically cost around $2000 to $3000. To make matters worse, Atlanta has virtually no infrastructure when it comes to fueling these vehicles. Caveat emptor!


This isn't a one vehicle issue. Most listings give you very little information about the vehicle's condition. In fact, nearly every one of the vehicles sold by the City of Atlanta come down to three words.

I... know... nothing...


In the world of governments, these words get translated into zero disclosure for bidders.

"engine condition unknown, transmission condition unknown, driving condition unknown...AS/IS...."


When you bid on a government car online, you are headed to destination unknown. Sometimes you can end up with a primo police car that was owned by a County Commissioner and maintained to the nth degree, and other times you can wind up with an interior with more potential moisture related diseases than an abandoned public restroom at an old truck stop.

This smell, which was ten times worse than a worn out mop, is what I got as an unpleasant surprise from the city of Pine Lake, Georgia. A small town that used to be synonymous with speed traps and cheap liquor.


I bought from them a based out 1998 F150 for about $750 and then threw in another $750 to make it right. Everything from the seats, to the pedals, to the carpet needed to be stripped out. Then I had to do a tune up, a freeze plug, weird wiring issues,... all this for a truck with a dog V6 and about 76k miles. It would have likely been well over $2000 if I was just some poor schmoe off the street.

I have been buying government cars for about 15 years now. My advice? Always go in person with a jumpbox. If you can't see it in person, don't bid. Get a Carfax for every single one. See if you can find out the maintenance records, and do some serious handicapping when it comes to your bid.


There is an ocean of vehicle neglect out there (check out how our local light rail service always manages to destroy engines) , so until you find out the answers in person, don't bid. Life is too short for rolling turds and 4000 pound paperweights.

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