Winners and Losers at a Car Auction

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The auctioneer looks for a buyer. Any sudden movement can be considered a bid.

Photo by: Pearl Gabel

The auctioneer looks for a buyer. Any sudden movement can be considered a bid.

On a Friday in July Cislyn Rigby of Queens walked into a lot on Maspeth Avenue and walked out as the owner of a 2004 Dodge Neon. The price? $1,200. For a hard-working mom with a family to lug around, the vehicle held the promise of great convenience. “To my surprise I found something that I can afford. I hope it runs well,” Rigby said. “That’s the only downside. I can only gamble what I can afford to lose. “

One person certain to lose, however, is the car’s former owner—a driver who ignored accumulating parking tickets and found their vehicle had been towed by a New York City Marshall.

Racking up parking fines and judgments totaling $350 or more can land your ride in a junkyard lot with hundreds of other seized vehicles. Car owners are expected to respond to a ticket 30 days after it has been issued. After 30 days the NYC Finance Department will send notices for any unpaid parking violations. Once 90 days have passed, there is the threat of the vehicle being seized, and that shiny new car you purchased can be sold to the highest bidder in an auction.

On Friday July 24th a crowd of some 40 eager bidders stood in a hot, muddy car lot at 364 Maspeth Avenue. Cell phone use was not allowed, any sudden motion could be accepted as a bid and winners were directed to pay up in cash immediately following the sale.

The auctioneer, who started the bids as low as $150, made a series of sales. A 1998 Mercury Villager sold for $490. A 1992 Lexus sold for $1,000. A 2000 BMW for $1,900. The 1993 Volvo went for $150. A 1998 Subaru Wagon was bought for $490.

All purchases are “as is.” The marshal makes no promise that a car he auctions will run well, or for long.

Like most potential buyers, Cislyn came to the auction hoping to score a vehicle that would be reliable enough to take home, but knowing the risk that it wasn’t.

“I have a mechanic that is going to look at the car for me tomorrow and he will explain to me the work that needs to be done,” she said. “Hopefully it’s not too costly and he and I can work it out to get me on the road. For repairs, I don’t want to go over $1,000.”

Buyers do run the risk of walking away with lemons because vehicles are not inspected at the auctions.

“These cars are seized off the street and we have no control of the condition of the vehicles,” said New York City Marshall Frank Siracusa. “My strong suggestion is that individuals bring somebody that’s mechanically inclined and knows about automobiles so they can actually check certain fluids on the vehicle, they could look into the wear and tear. Someone with auto mechanic experience might be a plus. Always bring somebody down that can give you advice on the condition of the vehicle. “

Losing your car to the city and still being held responsible for the fines against it is a painful pill to swallow. The target of scofflaw frustration is often the middle-man—a marshal hired and authorized to take vehicles with outstanding tickets right off the streets.

“We seize them off the street and they are towed into the facility,” Siracusa says. “We send notifications out to the respondents. Some respond and voluntarily just surrender the car.”

There are options to set up payment plans and there are even opportunities to stop the sale. “I will do everything in my power if someone comes in at the last minute to try to pay for the vehicle. If they need more time I would tell them that they could go to the Department of Finance and get a sales hold to accumulate the funds,” he says, but adds: “They have to remember the sales hold stops the sale of the vehicle but it doesn’t stop the expenses like the surcharges. I always suggest to people to try to get the car out as fast as possible and you would save on storage.”

When a car is sold, the proceeds go first to pay the marshal’s fees and then to pay off the debt that triggered the seizure in the first place. “Our main idea is to satisfy the judgment for the person that has actually lost their vehicle. We want to make sure the highest dollar amount is accepted so that we can credit their tickets,” Siracusa says. “After all of the city and state statutory fees are taken out of the sale price, the remainder amount goes toward the summonses and the judgment of the respondents. Our job is to make sure that each vehicle is sold for the highest amount. If there is a vehicle that we feel might be too low, we will pull it from the sale and resell it at a different time.”

Just a few weeks before the July 24 auction, a state judge in Brooklyn sided with the city’s Department of Finance in a case brought by a woman who, claiming her 2001 Infiniti had been improperly seized by Siracusa, was trying to block its sale at auction. The marshal in 2009 seized a different car owned by the woman, a 2005 Lincoln that had $567 in fines against it, and auctioned it off for $6,400. After taking out the fines and $861 in fees, the marshal returned $4,971 to the woman. But there were other outstanding tickets against the Lincoln, and another $900 against a 1993 Isuzu also owned by the woman, so Siracusa towed the Infiniti. The judge rejected the woman’s claim that her attempts to resolve the parking tickets were improperly rebuffed.

Both marshals, who are private citizens given a city franchise to seize property and effect evictions, and sheriffs (who are government employees) auction cars in the city. In the first half of fiscal year 2011, the Department of Finance received 46,000 calls via 311 about cars that had been towed, suggesting the city is seeing a declining number of tows, as 311 queries about seized cars numbered 131,000 in 2010 and 123,000 in 2011.

As for the buyers at these auctions, some are people looking to get a secondary car, some hoping to buy cars to resell them. There are salvage collectors who actually take the car for the metal or parts.

And there are some just looking for a way to get around.

“I’ve come to the auction a couple of times but I haven’t found anything. I chose this car is because it was small, it looked clean, and I shouldn’t have much trouble parking it. That’s a big factor for me. You could be looking for parking for days in the city,” Rigby said. “It puts the owners in a bad spot and I feel for them, but I need a car too.”

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