Note: This is equally applicable to any other car auction service – eBay is just what I know.
You have a car that you like (or just need to keep running) and it is getting to that age where it starts to need serious work. Perhaps the repairs are mechanical issues, or perhaps they are problems with the body or interior. You have the repair manuals, and a decent set of tools, but you need one more thing: parts.
At first, you might go to an auto parts dealer, the dealership that carries parts for the car, or your local automobile recycler. Buying parts one at a time becomes expensive rather quickly, thus, you may consider buying a parts (or donor) vehicle for your car. Often a parts car, well searched, can cost as little as a few parts for the vehicle in question – I paid $100 for a 1991 Plymouth Voyager with 305,000 miles on it, a bad transmission, and significant hail damage, but in otherwise good mechanical condition, considering the mileage. The van had very little, if any, rust, but did show the wear that one would expect, given the mileage. I took all the parts that I needed at the time, for a third of what they would have cost me, had I purchased them separately.
The first step to buying a used vehicle on eBay is to determine which models will provide you with the parts that you need. Most of this information is available in the Chilton or Haynes repair manuals. Keep in mind that many models that are not exactly the same will be similar enough that many of the parts will be interchangable – for instance, for my 1995 Plymouth Voyager, most parts from a 1991-1995 Dodge Caravan / Grand Caravan, 1991-1995 Plymouth Voyager / Grand Voyager, or 1991-1995 Chrysler Town and Country will work. Visually, they are not necessarily an exact mach, but most are similar enough. A counterexample is the 1993 Honda Civic, where it is difficult to swap parts among body types – there is a different sort of side mirror for the hatchback, coupe, and sedan.
Determine how you are going to get this vehicle home. If you, or a friend, have a truck or SUV that can tow the vehicle, car trailers can be rented from U-Haul for about US$40/day. Be sure that the vehicle can handle towing something this heavy first – you don’t want to ruin a good transmission just to get some cheap parts for another vehicle! Alternately, you may choose to just remove the parts you need – wreckers are generally more than happy to do this, as they still have the remainder of the parts to sell, whereas individuals usually want to get the car off their property. This may not always be the case, so always ask first! Also, some sellers will offer delivery, for a price.
Determine the maximum distance you are willing to go to get the vehicle. This will usually be a function of the condition and current price, and not an absolute.
Figure out what parts you need, and if color really matters. If the car that you are looking for parts for is in one of the more popular colors for that model, it may be easy to find another that will match. Or color may not matter so much – a door that is the wrong color is better than no door at all. Keep in mind that it is difficult to exactly match paint colors with spray paint, especially metallic colors – if you happen to get a parts car in a color that does not match, be prepared to become good friends with the people at the body shop.
Start looking for cars at www.ebaymotors.com. Search in the category specific to your car a couple times a week for a couple weeks, before you start bidding. Check the "Completed Items" to see what the actual prices that the vehicles sell for are. And be sure to check Parts & Accessories : Parts: Car & Truck : Junk/Parts Cars. Also check the prices for the individual parts that you need – it is sometimes possible to buy the parts on eBay for much less than they can be found locally.
Once you have gathered this information, start trying to find the parts car of your dreams. Ask the seller any questions BEFORE you bid – be sure that all the parts that you need are present and working. Keep in mind that the vehicle will not look as good as it does in the pictures – the little details just don’t generally show up in the low quality pictures many sellers use. Place a bid. I am not going to get into the discussion of whether you should snipe or not… I think that argument is best suited to some other location.
Once you win the car of your dreams, follow through! Too many people place bids on cars and do not follow through, which raises prices and makes things more difficult for the rest of us. Get your car. Pay for it. Drive home, happy. (And if you are just taking parts, take all those parts that you just might need – trim pieces, a spare tire, and the like._
Using this method, I purchased a 1991 Plymouth Grand Voyager with 305,000 miles on it in June of 2002 for $100. It has hail damage and a bad transmission. Other than that, the vehicle was good – the engine was rebuilt about 50k miles ago, the cooling system and air conditioner were good, the vehicle appeared to never have suffered any significant accidents, and the interior was good, if dusty (it was from west Texas).