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Confessions of an Otay car auction junkie

Why bother committing a crime when the payoff isn’t any better than you could get legit?

You may have seen classic car auctions, such as the ones put on by Mecum or Barret-Jackson that occasionally fill out the hours on lower-tier cable network. This isn’t that.
You may have seen classic car auctions, such as the ones put on by Mecum or Barret-Jackson that occasionally fill out the hours on lower-tier cable network. This isn’t that.

It’s almost eight o’clock, and the crowd is getting restless. It’s a chill, overcast January morning, and maybe 30 early birds have been waiting around for a while now, eager for the chain-link gate to grind its way across the gravel-covered grounds and let them in. Others are lined up at the pay booth, waiting to plunk down $500 deposits to prove they’re serious buyers and thus deserving of the paper name badge and inventory list that will grant access to the rows of aging iron that lie beyond the fence.

It wasn’t always like this. In the Before, anyone could stroll right into any one of a handful of auto auction lots strung along Highway 905, a stone’s throw from the Mexican border. Now, there’s a need to keep crowds down, to at least make a perfunctory nod toward following covid protocol. I kind of like it. I don’t have to deal with hordes of looky-loos hogging car keys, clogging rows barely wide enough for two people to shuffle past one another, crowding the auction floor to ooh and aah at every late-’90s engine bay while serious bidders jostle and shove to get one last peek, one last listen for a squeal or a knock, before the cash starts flying.

Of course, I don’t pay to get in, which may be why the new restricted-access policy appeals to me so much. A quick nod to Marco, the gate guard (not his name, none of the names here are real), and I slip in at the tail end of the stream of registered bidders (and not a few other freeloaders like me) pouring in.

Gravel crunches under my work boots as I walk the rows first, to check on the cars I’ve had my eye on since the inventory list went online, and see if there’s anything I missed. The boots are essential, if you’re going to hang around long, more fashionable shoes are going to go to work — first on your feet, and eventually your back as the day wears on and you trudge across the uneven ground and then stand for hours once the show begins. Flip flops are a giveaway that you’re either new here or insane.

First up, an early 2000s Volvo wagon. I’ve bought quite a few of these over the years, and I kept a similar sedan that was given to my daughter on her 16th birthday. It still runs great today. They tend to be more reliable and easier to fix than other European brands, not as in demand as the Japanese models that are bid up often above their retail value, and not as beaten down as some of the disposable American cars that make their way to these auctions.

Public auctions like these are generally where bad cars come to die. Ostensibly, one must be a licensed dealer to purchase inventory, but a nifty loophole and an extra $50 fee when doing the paperwork will make just about anyone with a photo ID a dealer for a day.

A side note: public auctions like these are generally where bad cars come to die. Ostensibly, one must be a licensed dealer to purchase inventory, but a nifty loophole and an extra $50 fee when doing the paperwork will make just about anyone with a photo ID a dealer for a day. There are a few legitimate dealers roaming the lots: the husband-and-wife Armenian team sporting copious amounts of gold jewelry who’ll buy five or six lots on a good day, the affable older Black gentleman usually dressed better than most and always with a new apprentice in tow, whose perceived failings he frequently chides and uses as a foil when holding court with the other regulars. But most of the good cars go through the true “dealer only” auctions with stricter credentialing processes and much bigger and newer inventory. These Otay free-for-alls are mostly the domain of amateurs and members of a thriving underground economy.

Back to my Volvo — it’s a donation car, which I like. Ever wonder where the cars go that wealthy old people donate to Father Joe, or KPBS, or that outfit with the dreaded jingle, Kars4Kids, end up? They come here. I look for cars that 15 or 20 years ago would’ve been solid upper-middle-class luxury, the kind owned by someone who’s decided during an episode of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me that they’d rather not be bothered by the hassle of typing up a Craigslist ad when it’s time to get rid of their vehicle. My partner-slash-mentor Jimmy is partial to old Buicks and Cadillacs for a similar reason.

“Always plan on putting at least $500 more into the car than you think you’re going to put into it,” Jimmy cautioned me the first time I accompanied him to an auction after hearing his high-flying tales of driving a new car every month, never paying registration, and (almost) always making a profit at the end of the day.

But this one has an out-of-state title, and even though the interior looks clean, there are telltale signs of rust bubbling up around the rear windows. Inside the fender wells, it’s even worse. This little wagon spent some time in a snowy state that salts its roads, coating the undercarriage of vehicles in a slurry that inevitably hastens the development of cancerous decay. This one is a pass.

Next up is a boxy old Jeep Cherokee. These XJ models have become something of a holy grail for off-roaders, especially the late-’90s iterations that were some of the last to roll off the line before the model was killed off in 2001. I once bought one and drove it for a week before deciding I was more partial to ZJs, the first-generation Grand Cherokee that would eventually kill off the XJ. I sold it for more than twice what I paid to the first person to respond to the ad. This one, though, isn’t a 4x4, and it’s immediately removed from consideration.

A mid-2000s Dodge Ram, one of the newer offerings on the lot, looks nice and clocks in at under 100,000 miles. It’s nice, but it’ll probably go too high and I already have a ¾-ton Chevy I picked up for $800 that runs well and meets pretty much all of my personal truck needs. A Cadillac El Dorado looks good too, but I don’t have Jimmy here today to properly assess its merits.

On it goes. I’ve looked at eight of the hundred or so lots that looked interesting on paper, but none of them seem to be for me. I haven’t even bothered going up to the key table to trade my driver’s license for the right to start the cars, pop them into drive and reverse (they’re rarely more than 12 inches apart, so there’s no test driving going on here). More likely, I’ll discover that they’ve got a dead battery and have to trudge across the lot in search of one of the few jumper boxes to get them started. But since it’s almost auction time, I’m going to stick around for a while to gauge the crowd.

Ambling back to the lot armed with soda and a roach coach breakfast burrito around auction time, I’m denied entry. Most of the non-stickered crowd now stands outside the gates with me, where we’re told that we can still bid as long as we’ve got cash. They’re not going to turn down money after all, but if you win and aren’t ready to pony up on the spot, be prepared to scram and never come back.

About 20 minutes past the posted start time, the auctioneer’s booth speakers crackle to life. A series of rapid-fire announcements, first in Spanish and then English, pierce the ears like fire from a machine gun that never needs reloading. Wear your masks, please, you bid it you bought it, no guarantees, you better have cash in your pockets or keep your damn hands there, no returns, “just wear the friggin’ masks.”

As the auctioneer has been warming the crowd up, a small army of porters has been scurrying into action. The first row of cars are fired up (most of them need another jump start), drivers hop into a half-dozen and inch closer to stage left. Someone comes running with a gas can - #3 ran out of fuel and is blocking traffic. And then we’re off.

But first, it’s non-runner time. If these public auction lots were already the low-rent apartments of automotive opportunity, the non-runners are a moldy cot in the corner of a sub-basement. These cars don’t even fire up, and it’s impossible to know when they last ran, though the extensive coating of grime on most makes it evident that it’s probably been a few years. A man carrying a broomstick with one end stuffed into a traffic cone and the other with a fading yellow flag affixed runs from one lot to another, plopping the cone down on the hood of the next item up for bid.

There are sometimes some steals in here for people braver than I. A man in a hoodie and skinny jeans with bedazzled pockets, the likes of which I haven’t seen since the mid-2000s, is ecstatic to buy a late-model diesel BMW for $2000, far more than I’ve ever seen a non-runner fetch, but less than a fifth of what it would command if it were functional. A cherry red Volvo with just 60,000 miles and a pristine interior under the dust goes for $350. I find it on Craigslist the next day advertised as having a new starter and being in perfect mechanical condition. The asking price is $5500.

Now it’s go time. The battery and gas issues seem to have been resolved, and the cars that run (or are at least capable of limping across the asphalt pad that serves as a stage) begin rolling onto the block.

You may have seen classic car auctions, such as the ones put on by Mecum or Barret-Jackson that occasionally fill out the hours on lower-tier cable networks. This isn’t that. Instead of a team of polo-shirted porters heaving in unison to glide a car in neutral onto a stage, a single driver, often hanging out of an ajar door in the dead of the summer heat, wheels his steed onto a pad. In the televised vanity shows, a camera pans in on the car, projecting images of glossy paint and shiny engine bays onto a screen while elderly white men quietly raise bidding panels. Here, a horde descends on every car as it rolls onto the block, someone pops the hood and hands grab at the oil cap, transmission fluid dipstick, the radiator. More crane their necks into the passenger door, crowding the porter and demanding to know what error messages the dash is displaying and asking fruitlessly for advice on how the car runs from a man (almost always a man) who’s driven it less than a hundred feet. Most of these clowns aren’t even going to register a bid, and they knew that before obtrusively making themselves a part of the show.

The one thing that the reality shows don’t undersell is the auctioneer’s patois — that rambling, rapid-fire cacophony of sound that’s even more endearing and confusing when slipping fluidly between English and Spanish. My favorite auctioneer Oscar isn’t here today, but this guy’s pretty good too.

“Next up lot two yes lot two vehiculo numero dos it’s a ’99 Chevy Cavalier clean title titulo limpio donation donation donation car runner runner I got three three trescientos now four four cuatro cinco seis six hundred its got tires they got wheels llantas y ruedas six fifty six fifty siete look at the doors ochocientos eight fifty gonna goooo gonna go to-day venderemos ahora got nine you got nine you’re out sir novecientos primera nine hundred twice you want it bud you raise your hand c’mon buddy one more time nine hundred three and SOOOOLD eight hundred fifty ochocientos y cincuenta bidder number seventy-nine setenta y nueve!

Two minutes in, two cars gone. And someone is stuck with a wreck for which I wouldn’t have given $300.

Next up is that Ram, which goes for $1400. Damnit, I should’ve looked at that one a little harder. It’s 10 years newer than my Chevy, which I’m sure I could have gotten $3500 for on the open market, pocketing about $1700 after fees and upgrading my work truck in the process. The rust bucket Volvo brings $800 to a soon-to-be regretful schmuck, the Jeep gets $1000 which wouldn’t be bad if I had any respect for two-wheel-drive SUVs. The Caddy pulls $500, making me wish Jimmy had been here, or that I’d called him and texted some pictures.

I quickly bore of standing in the sun, which poked its way through the clouds a couple of hours ago and is now blasting on the wasteland inferno that defines the Otay industrial district. I leave once all of the cars I’d looked at and ventured guesses on have rolled across the line. Others will be waiting here for the next few hours, forking over more cash to cover their purchase balances, processing and dealer fees, and waiting to claim their prizes won. Or they’ll just be stuck waiting around to get their deposits back if they ponied up and didn’t make a buy.

So, after all the hustle and bustle of auction day, what’s next for these cars? That can vary wildly, depending on the buyers.

A lot of them, especially the stalwart Japanese workhorses with expired registration bills rivaling their actual market value, are headed for Mexico. I don’t understand exactly how that works — maybe they can be registered without paying the US duties owed, maybe they end up on farms where they never touch public streets and don’t need valid plates. Maybe people just drive them until they give out or they’re impounded.

More will end up resold in the US market over the next few days or weeks. This is a process known as curbstoning, where unlicensed dealers meet unsuspecting marks on the side of the road or in a commercial parking lot and sell off their haul without ever registering the cars in their name with the DMV. The silly name comes from the practice of parking a vehicle on a curb somewhere easily visible, with a “for sale” sign but without the owner having the paperwork required actually to conduct a dealer transaction.

A few cars might even end up getting registered by their buyers, who have a genuine intention of owning and driving them for years to come.

For me and Jimmy? It’s kind of a hybrid between the last two approaches.

“Always plan on putting at least $500 more into the car than you think you’re going to put into it,” Jimmy cautioned me the first time I accompanied him to an auction after hearing his high-flying tales of driving a new car every month, never paying registration, and (almost) always making a profit at the end of the day.

To an underemployed freelancer already skirting the grey areas (worse, to be honest) of living legally, this sounded like a dream.

In the fall of 2015, I cobbled together $1000 from a host of other dodgy schemes and Jimmy and I, after deciding to take a half-day off from our construction jobs, headed south for the first time, just after daybreak.

We were supposedly just there to look, but a clean grey ’95 Volvo sedan that seemed to run great had no interested bidders and Jimmy convinced me to pick it up for $300. After paying the auction fees, smog check, and registration, I was still only about $900 deep and had what seemed like a pretty decent car.

The original plan wasn’t to sell. My wife’s old Dodge Neon had suffered a catastrophic engine failure and she’d been driving my Honda Civic, a remnant of my former desk-job-and-dress-slacks life. I was relegated at the time to a 1987 Mazda coming apart at the seams and none too enthusiastic about hauling my work tools. If she took this Volvo, I could sell off the Honda and get a more appropriate work vehicle.

She was having none of it. So, onto the internet went my new car — within two days I was counting out 15 crisp hundos from a buyer who’d traveled from Orange County. I had my nut back, plus Jimmy and I each pocketed $300 for our trouble. It was on from there.

A Buick Century only needed an oil change and some brake pads, netting a quick $800 profit. Then came the Jeep XJ that cost $1200 and brought $3500 after replacing the radiator and some hoses, and doing a tranny flush. I got and kept my ZJ. Another Volvo got new spark plugs, ignition coils, and fresh fluids before delivering $750. A Volkswagen Jetta that looked like it hosted a carpool of sweaty oil derrick workers who neither washed themselves or their car for years on end got an entire new interior plucked from the junkyards just north of the auction lots and brought nearly a grand. I eventually found a Volkswagen Passat to my wife’s liking and dumped off the Civic, but by this point its front axles were failing and had to be replaced before I could feel good about selling it. A guy came all the way from Nevada to drive a Cadillac home, another flew in from Michigan with his wife to take a Buick.

There were good cars, but there were plenty of bad ones too. A Volkswagen Beetle (the dumb kind, not the cool old kind) started pissing coolant out of the block two miles away from the auction and took the better part of a day to limp home, with me stopping every few miles to cool down, adding water purloined from one fast food bathroom after another, and limping to the next shopping center. We ended up selling that one at a $300 loss to someone whose daughter had been rear-ended and had a good engine but no car to put it in.

A Cadillac Deville also had an overheating problem, and its early Northstar engine had an electric water pump that required the entire engine to be dropped for repairs. Not ready to take that on armed only with jack stands and half a tarp shading our East County driveway/mechanic compound, we took a $500 loss.

Another VW Passat, this one a station wagon, ran great but kept throwing check engine codes I could never figure out how to solve. It wouldn’t pass smog, I eventually gave up on it, and it disappeared from Jimmy’s driveway one day. I don’t know if he ever sold it or if, as he claims, it’s still sitting at the house of his buddy, another unlicensed mechanic. Regardless, I’m out a whopping $1900 on that one when you figure in the cost of the car and all the parts I threw at it trying to make the SOB go.

Regardless of circumstance, I felt good about the cars I sold. It was usually him doing the selling. I’m not much for hard negotiations. We were always open about how we got the cars. “Hey, so I picked this up at an auction and went through it to make sure it was in good shape, you can see all the paperwork here, and I’m just trying to make a few bucks for my time.” Even if that wasn’t entirely legal, we always believed that we were selling good, cheap cars to people who needed good, cheap transportation.

That said, I’m not everyone, nor am I really an example of the curbstoning community. I’ve met plenty of people who want to do nothing more than take a $500 wreck home, buff the exterior and shampoo the interior, and throw the car up on the open market. Watch out for these guys.

How? If you’re going to buy a used car online, make sure you see ID from your seller. If it doesn’t match the name on the title, ask why. You’re probably going to get a “Well, my mom/dad/sister/brother/aunt/uncle/cousin wanted me to help them with the sale.”

Ask if you can talk to or meet the mom/dad/sister/brother/aunt/uncle/cousin. If that’s a no, take warning. It’s fair game at this point to ask if you’re buying an auction car. If so, you don’t need to worry so much — it’s the seller that’s breaking the law by selling illegally, not you who might be buying from an illegal dealer. Still, you need to protect yourself.

Ask if you can have your mechanic check the car out before you make an offer. Lots of mechanics, for a fee of $100 or so, will do a pre-purchase inspection (Google is your friend in this case, folks), and this is just good practice for anyone buying a used car ever. If you get pushback or someone tries the hard sell, walk away. There are so many cheap cars out there; you’ll find one that works and won’t leave you stranded.

Eventually, the game ended up being a bit much for me. Construction work picked up, then freelance work did the same. Despite some of the big scores, after doing the math Jimmy and I were splitting an average profit of about $500 per car, usually putting at least 5-6 hours into cleaning it up and at least twice that much time under the hood to make sure things were as reliable and safe as cars this far past their prime ever could’ve hoped to be.

The returns just weren’t there, and why bother committing a crime when the payoff isn’t any better than you could get from legit work that’s readily available? Not to mention I’d grown my personal collection to six vehicles, admittedly overkill for a household of three drivers.

Still, there’s something fun about the thrill of the chase, the hopes of finding a diamond in the rough, the silent satisfaction of learning to bid undetected using a single raised eyebrow and a smile. And so I’m back another few weeks later, this time with my eye on a mid-’90s Ford Ranger pickup with the same five-speed manual and 4.0-liter V6 engine I owned back in high school. The clutch feels firm, the engine purrs, it’s got a spotless interior (minus the fact someone haphazardly sliced out the headliner with a razor knife when it started to sag), and I’m really sick of the miles-per-gallon ratio of my Chevy that feels more like gallons-per-mile when I’m doing smaller jobs.

The gavel bangs at $1300. My wife is not pleased. I tell her it’s got a rare feature – a millennial theft prevention device, also known as a clutch pedal. I want my daughter to learn to drive it. Maybe I’ll sell it off in a few months or a year, but for now my stable has once again grown by one.

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You may have seen classic car auctions, such as the ones put on by Mecum or Barret-Jackson that occasionally fill out the hours on lower-tier cable network. This isn’t that.
You may have seen classic car auctions, such as the ones put on by Mecum or Barret-Jackson that occasionally fill out the hours on lower-tier cable network. This isn’t that.

It’s almost eight o’clock, and the crowd is getting restless. It’s a chill, overcast January morning, and maybe 30 early birds have been waiting around for a while now, eager for the chain-link gate to grind its way across the gravel-covered grounds and let them in. Others are lined up at the pay booth, waiting to plunk down $500 deposits to prove they’re serious buyers and thus deserving of the paper name badge and inventory list that will grant access to the rows of aging iron that lie beyond the fence.

It wasn’t always like this. In the Before, anyone could stroll right into any one of a handful of auto auction lots strung along Highway 905, a stone’s throw from the Mexican border. Now, there’s a need to keep crowds down, to at least make a perfunctory nod toward following covid protocol. I kind of like it. I don’t have to deal with hordes of looky-loos hogging car keys, clogging rows barely wide enough for two people to shuffle past one another, crowding the auction floor to ooh and aah at every late-’90s engine bay while serious bidders jostle and shove to get one last peek, one last listen for a squeal or a knock, before the cash starts flying.

Of course, I don’t pay to get in, which may be why the new restricted-access policy appeals to me so much. A quick nod to Marco, the gate guard (not his name, none of the names here are real), and I slip in at the tail end of the stream of registered bidders (and not a few other freeloaders like me) pouring in.

Gravel crunches under my work boots as I walk the rows first, to check on the cars I’ve had my eye on since the inventory list went online, and see if there’s anything I missed. The boots are essential, if you’re going to hang around long, more fashionable shoes are going to go to work — first on your feet, and eventually your back as the day wears on and you trudge across the uneven ground and then stand for hours once the show begins. Flip flops are a giveaway that you’re either new here or insane.

First up, an early 2000s Volvo wagon. I’ve bought quite a few of these over the years, and I kept a similar sedan that was given to my daughter on her 16th birthday. It still runs great today. They tend to be more reliable and easier to fix than other European brands, not as in demand as the Japanese models that are bid up often above their retail value, and not as beaten down as some of the disposable American cars that make their way to these auctions.

Public auctions like these are generally where bad cars come to die. Ostensibly, one must be a licensed dealer to purchase inventory, but a nifty loophole and an extra $50 fee when doing the paperwork will make just about anyone with a photo ID a dealer for a day.

A side note: public auctions like these are generally where bad cars come to die. Ostensibly, one must be a licensed dealer to purchase inventory, but a nifty loophole and an extra $50 fee when doing the paperwork will make just about anyone with a photo ID a dealer for a day. There are a few legitimate dealers roaming the lots: the husband-and-wife Armenian team sporting copious amounts of gold jewelry who’ll buy five or six lots on a good day, the affable older Black gentleman usually dressed better than most and always with a new apprentice in tow, whose perceived failings he frequently chides and uses as a foil when holding court with the other regulars. But most of the good cars go through the true “dealer only” auctions with stricter credentialing processes and much bigger and newer inventory. These Otay free-for-alls are mostly the domain of amateurs and members of a thriving underground economy.

Back to my Volvo — it’s a donation car, which I like. Ever wonder where the cars go that wealthy old people donate to Father Joe, or KPBS, or that outfit with the dreaded jingle, Kars4Kids, end up? They come here. I look for cars that 15 or 20 years ago would’ve been solid upper-middle-class luxury, the kind owned by someone who’s decided during an episode of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me that they’d rather not be bothered by the hassle of typing up a Craigslist ad when it’s time to get rid of their vehicle. My partner-slash-mentor Jimmy is partial to old Buicks and Cadillacs for a similar reason.

“Always plan on putting at least $500 more into the car than you think you’re going to put into it,” Jimmy cautioned me the first time I accompanied him to an auction after hearing his high-flying tales of driving a new car every month, never paying registration, and (almost) always making a profit at the end of the day.

But this one has an out-of-state title, and even though the interior looks clean, there are telltale signs of rust bubbling up around the rear windows. Inside the fender wells, it’s even worse. This little wagon spent some time in a snowy state that salts its roads, coating the undercarriage of vehicles in a slurry that inevitably hastens the development of cancerous decay. This one is a pass.

Next up is a boxy old Jeep Cherokee. These XJ models have become something of a holy grail for off-roaders, especially the late-’90s iterations that were some of the last to roll off the line before the model was killed off in 2001. I once bought one and drove it for a week before deciding I was more partial to ZJs, the first-generation Grand Cherokee that would eventually kill off the XJ. I sold it for more than twice what I paid to the first person to respond to the ad. This one, though, isn’t a 4x4, and it’s immediately removed from consideration.

A mid-2000s Dodge Ram, one of the newer offerings on the lot, looks nice and clocks in at under 100,000 miles. It’s nice, but it’ll probably go too high and I already have a ¾-ton Chevy I picked up for $800 that runs well and meets pretty much all of my personal truck needs. A Cadillac El Dorado looks good too, but I don’t have Jimmy here today to properly assess its merits.

On it goes. I’ve looked at eight of the hundred or so lots that looked interesting on paper, but none of them seem to be for me. I haven’t even bothered going up to the key table to trade my driver’s license for the right to start the cars, pop them into drive and reverse (they’re rarely more than 12 inches apart, so there’s no test driving going on here). More likely, I’ll discover that they’ve got a dead battery and have to trudge across the lot in search of one of the few jumper boxes to get them started. But since it’s almost auction time, I’m going to stick around for a while to gauge the crowd.

Ambling back to the lot armed with soda and a roach coach breakfast burrito around auction time, I’m denied entry. Most of the non-stickered crowd now stands outside the gates with me, where we’re told that we can still bid as long as we’ve got cash. They’re not going to turn down money after all, but if you win and aren’t ready to pony up on the spot, be prepared to scram and never come back.

About 20 minutes past the posted start time, the auctioneer’s booth speakers crackle to life. A series of rapid-fire announcements, first in Spanish and then English, pierce the ears like fire from a machine gun that never needs reloading. Wear your masks, please, you bid it you bought it, no guarantees, you better have cash in your pockets or keep your damn hands there, no returns, “just wear the friggin’ masks.”

As the auctioneer has been warming the crowd up, a small army of porters has been scurrying into action. The first row of cars are fired up (most of them need another jump start), drivers hop into a half-dozen and inch closer to stage left. Someone comes running with a gas can - #3 ran out of fuel and is blocking traffic. And then we’re off.

But first, it’s non-runner time. If these public auction lots were already the low-rent apartments of automotive opportunity, the non-runners are a moldy cot in the corner of a sub-basement. These cars don’t even fire up, and it’s impossible to know when they last ran, though the extensive coating of grime on most makes it evident that it’s probably been a few years. A man carrying a broomstick with one end stuffed into a traffic cone and the other with a fading yellow flag affixed runs from one lot to another, plopping the cone down on the hood of the next item up for bid.

There are sometimes some steals in here for people braver than I. A man in a hoodie and skinny jeans with bedazzled pockets, the likes of which I haven’t seen since the mid-2000s, is ecstatic to buy a late-model diesel BMW for $2000, far more than I’ve ever seen a non-runner fetch, but less than a fifth of what it would command if it were functional. A cherry red Volvo with just 60,000 miles and a pristine interior under the dust goes for $350. I find it on Craigslist the next day advertised as having a new starter and being in perfect mechanical condition. The asking price is $5500.

Now it’s go time. The battery and gas issues seem to have been resolved, and the cars that run (or are at least capable of limping across the asphalt pad that serves as a stage) begin rolling onto the block.

You may have seen classic car auctions, such as the ones put on by Mecum or Barret-Jackson that occasionally fill out the hours on lower-tier cable networks. This isn’t that. Instead of a team of polo-shirted porters heaving in unison to glide a car in neutral onto a stage, a single driver, often hanging out of an ajar door in the dead of the summer heat, wheels his steed onto a pad. In the televised vanity shows, a camera pans in on the car, projecting images of glossy paint and shiny engine bays onto a screen while elderly white men quietly raise bidding panels. Here, a horde descends on every car as it rolls onto the block, someone pops the hood and hands grab at the oil cap, transmission fluid dipstick, the radiator. More crane their necks into the passenger door, crowding the porter and demanding to know what error messages the dash is displaying and asking fruitlessly for advice on how the car runs from a man (almost always a man) who’s driven it less than a hundred feet. Most of these clowns aren’t even going to register a bid, and they knew that before obtrusively making themselves a part of the show.

The one thing that the reality shows don’t undersell is the auctioneer’s patois — that rambling, rapid-fire cacophony of sound that’s even more endearing and confusing when slipping fluidly between English and Spanish. My favorite auctioneer Oscar isn’t here today, but this guy’s pretty good too.

“Next up lot two yes lot two vehiculo numero dos it’s a ’99 Chevy Cavalier clean title titulo limpio donation donation donation car runner runner I got three three trescientos now four four cuatro cinco seis six hundred its got tires they got wheels llantas y ruedas six fifty six fifty siete look at the doors ochocientos eight fifty gonna goooo gonna go to-day venderemos ahora got nine you got nine you’re out sir novecientos primera nine hundred twice you want it bud you raise your hand c’mon buddy one more time nine hundred three and SOOOOLD eight hundred fifty ochocientos y cincuenta bidder number seventy-nine setenta y nueve!

Two minutes in, two cars gone. And someone is stuck with a wreck for which I wouldn’t have given $300.

Next up is that Ram, which goes for $1400. Damnit, I should’ve looked at that one a little harder. It’s 10 years newer than my Chevy, which I’m sure I could have gotten $3500 for on the open market, pocketing about $1700 after fees and upgrading my work truck in the process. The rust bucket Volvo brings $800 to a soon-to-be regretful schmuck, the Jeep gets $1000 which wouldn’t be bad if I had any respect for two-wheel-drive SUVs. The Caddy pulls $500, making me wish Jimmy had been here, or that I’d called him and texted some pictures.

I quickly bore of standing in the sun, which poked its way through the clouds a couple of hours ago and is now blasting on the wasteland inferno that defines the Otay industrial district. I leave once all of the cars I’d looked at and ventured guesses on have rolled across the line. Others will be waiting here for the next few hours, forking over more cash to cover their purchase balances, processing and dealer fees, and waiting to claim their prizes won. Or they’ll just be stuck waiting around to get their deposits back if they ponied up and didn’t make a buy.

So, after all the hustle and bustle of auction day, what’s next for these cars? That can vary wildly, depending on the buyers.

A lot of them, especially the stalwart Japanese workhorses with expired registration bills rivaling their actual market value, are headed for Mexico. I don’t understand exactly how that works — maybe they can be registered without paying the US duties owed, maybe they end up on farms where they never touch public streets and don’t need valid plates. Maybe people just drive them until they give out or they’re impounded.

More will end up resold in the US market over the next few days or weeks. This is a process known as curbstoning, where unlicensed dealers meet unsuspecting marks on the side of the road or in a commercial parking lot and sell off their haul without ever registering the cars in their name with the DMV. The silly name comes from the practice of parking a vehicle on a curb somewhere easily visible, with a “for sale” sign but without the owner having the paperwork required actually to conduct a dealer transaction.

A few cars might even end up getting registered by their buyers, who have a genuine intention of owning and driving them for years to come.

For me and Jimmy? It’s kind of a hybrid between the last two approaches.

“Always plan on putting at least $500 more into the car than you think you’re going to put into it,” Jimmy cautioned me the first time I accompanied him to an auction after hearing his high-flying tales of driving a new car every month, never paying registration, and (almost) always making a profit at the end of the day.

To an underemployed freelancer already skirting the grey areas (worse, to be honest) of living legally, this sounded like a dream.

In the fall of 2015, I cobbled together $1000 from a host of other dodgy schemes and Jimmy and I, after deciding to take a half-day off from our construction jobs, headed south for the first time, just after daybreak.

We were supposedly just there to look, but a clean grey ’95 Volvo sedan that seemed to run great had no interested bidders and Jimmy convinced me to pick it up for $300. After paying the auction fees, smog check, and registration, I was still only about $900 deep and had what seemed like a pretty decent car.

The original plan wasn’t to sell. My wife’s old Dodge Neon had suffered a catastrophic engine failure and she’d been driving my Honda Civic, a remnant of my former desk-job-and-dress-slacks life. I was relegated at the time to a 1987 Mazda coming apart at the seams and none too enthusiastic about hauling my work tools. If she took this Volvo, I could sell off the Honda and get a more appropriate work vehicle.

She was having none of it. So, onto the internet went my new car — within two days I was counting out 15 crisp hundos from a buyer who’d traveled from Orange County. I had my nut back, plus Jimmy and I each pocketed $300 for our trouble. It was on from there.

A Buick Century only needed an oil change and some brake pads, netting a quick $800 profit. Then came the Jeep XJ that cost $1200 and brought $3500 after replacing the radiator and some hoses, and doing a tranny flush. I got and kept my ZJ. Another Volvo got new spark plugs, ignition coils, and fresh fluids before delivering $750. A Volkswagen Jetta that looked like it hosted a carpool of sweaty oil derrick workers who neither washed themselves or their car for years on end got an entire new interior plucked from the junkyards just north of the auction lots and brought nearly a grand. I eventually found a Volkswagen Passat to my wife’s liking and dumped off the Civic, but by this point its front axles were failing and had to be replaced before I could feel good about selling it. A guy came all the way from Nevada to drive a Cadillac home, another flew in from Michigan with his wife to take a Buick.

There were good cars, but there were plenty of bad ones too. A Volkswagen Beetle (the dumb kind, not the cool old kind) started pissing coolant out of the block two miles away from the auction and took the better part of a day to limp home, with me stopping every few miles to cool down, adding water purloined from one fast food bathroom after another, and limping to the next shopping center. We ended up selling that one at a $300 loss to someone whose daughter had been rear-ended and had a good engine but no car to put it in.

A Cadillac Deville also had an overheating problem, and its early Northstar engine had an electric water pump that required the entire engine to be dropped for repairs. Not ready to take that on armed only with jack stands and half a tarp shading our East County driveway/mechanic compound, we took a $500 loss.

Another VW Passat, this one a station wagon, ran great but kept throwing check engine codes I could never figure out how to solve. It wouldn’t pass smog, I eventually gave up on it, and it disappeared from Jimmy’s driveway one day. I don’t know if he ever sold it or if, as he claims, it’s still sitting at the house of his buddy, another unlicensed mechanic. Regardless, I’m out a whopping $1900 on that one when you figure in the cost of the car and all the parts I threw at it trying to make the SOB go.

Regardless of circumstance, I felt good about the cars I sold. It was usually him doing the selling. I’m not much for hard negotiations. We were always open about how we got the cars. “Hey, so I picked this up at an auction and went through it to make sure it was in good shape, you can see all the paperwork here, and I’m just trying to make a few bucks for my time.” Even if that wasn’t entirely legal, we always believed that we were selling good, cheap cars to people who needed good, cheap transportation.

That said, I’m not everyone, nor am I really an example of the curbstoning community. I’ve met plenty of people who want to do nothing more than take a $500 wreck home, buff the exterior and shampoo the interior, and throw the car up on the open market. Watch out for these guys.

How? If you’re going to buy a used car online, make sure you see ID from your seller. If it doesn’t match the name on the title, ask why. You’re probably going to get a “Well, my mom/dad/sister/brother/aunt/uncle/cousin wanted me to help them with the sale.”

Ask if you can talk to or meet the mom/dad/sister/brother/aunt/uncle/cousin. If that’s a no, take warning. It’s fair game at this point to ask if you’re buying an auction car. If so, you don’t need to worry so much — it’s the seller that’s breaking the law by selling illegally, not you who might be buying from an illegal dealer. Still, you need to protect yourself.

Ask if you can have your mechanic check the car out before you make an offer. Lots of mechanics, for a fee of $100 or so, will do a pre-purchase inspection (Google is your friend in this case, folks), and this is just good practice for anyone buying a used car ever. If you get pushback or someone tries the hard sell, walk away. There are so many cheap cars out there; you’ll find one that works and won’t leave you stranded.

Eventually, the game ended up being a bit much for me. Construction work picked up, then freelance work did the same. Despite some of the big scores, after doing the math Jimmy and I were splitting an average profit of about $500 per car, usually putting at least 5-6 hours into cleaning it up and at least twice that much time under the hood to make sure things were as reliable and safe as cars this far past their prime ever could’ve hoped to be.

The returns just weren’t there, and why bother committing a crime when the payoff isn’t any better than you could get from legit work that’s readily available? Not to mention I’d grown my personal collection to six vehicles, admittedly overkill for a household of three drivers.

Still, there’s something fun about the thrill of the chase, the hopes of finding a diamond in the rough, the silent satisfaction of learning to bid undetected using a single raised eyebrow and a smile. And so I’m back another few weeks later, this time with my eye on a mid-’90s Ford Ranger pickup with the same five-speed manual and 4.0-liter V6 engine I owned back in high school. The clutch feels firm, the engine purrs, it’s got a spotless interior (minus the fact someone haphazardly sliced out the headliner with a razor knife when it started to sag), and I’m really sick of the miles-per-gallon ratio of my Chevy that feels more like gallons-per-mile when I’m doing smaller jobs.

The gavel bangs at $1300. My wife is not pleased. I tell her it’s got a rare feature – a millennial theft prevention device, also known as a clutch pedal. I want my daughter to learn to drive it. Maybe I’ll sell it off in a few months or a year, but for now my stable has once again grown by one.

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