The Long Beach auto auction, the largest west of the Mississippi, generates millions of dollars for the city
By Gary Metzker
It’s a Tuesday in January as a light drizzle turns into a downpour. Some people, not expecting the rain, retreat into the hoods of their sweatshirts or take refuge under the notes they wrote about the cars they plan to bid on.
The city of Long Beach’s first auto lien sale of 2017 is getting ready to start, but before it does, people get almost 90 minutes to puddle-hop around the lot located at 3111 E. Willow St. to kick the tires, check under the hood, and inside the car – for good reason:
“I’ve seen everything and anything,” says Vic Moraila, the lien sales supervisor. “Bodies, urns, body parts, cash, drugs; you name it and I’ve seen it in some of these cars.”
The city’s auto lien sale has been 24 years in the making according to Moraila. He says, to his knowledge, the city-run auction is the largest west of the Mississippi River. “There’s one in St. Louis that is almost as large,” he says.
Mother nature has no preference, though, and today she is making it difficult for many of the auction’s regulars.
“I’ve been doing this for two years now,” says Juan Prerez, a stay-at-home dad from Long Beach who likes to recondition cars in his garage and then sell them. “I hope the rain keeps the crowds down,” he says, “that way, I can buy more cars.”
Originally held one Saturday each month, the city began impounding so many cars, it decided to move the auction to Tuesday and hold it twice a month.
If you have ever seen the reality TV show “Storage Wars,” where the same cast of characters bid on storage lockers, then you have some idea what this auction is like. “There are about 30 regulars that come to the auction,” says Michael Sam, who makes the trek from Los Angeles. “Some people do the auction to make a profit, but some, like me, do it to help other people who can’t afford a new car.”
The rules of the auction are straightforward and are listed on the city’s website, along with the cars up for auction that week, and some photos. “This is an as is, where is, sale with all the faults,” Moraila says. “You can’t hold the city responsible.”
The rain doesn’t let up and the line of people searching for a car on the cheap gets longer, too. “Damn,” Prerez whispers, “I guess everyone was thinking like I was – that people wouldn’t show up in the rain.”
To get into the auction, you have to show a policeman your driver’s license or identity card. It is checked against a list the city has of people who aren’t allowed in because, for example, they have been kicked out for using offensive words or disturbing another person or intimidating someone to not bid on a car. There is no charge to get a bid card, but if you win an auction, you also have to pony up a $26 key fee and a $21 buyer’s fee. Oh, did I forget to mention that some of these cars have no keys? But never fear, Frank the key maker is here to make a key for the car. A key from Frank costs $26, too.
If you place the winning bid, you have until 4 p.m. that day to get the car towed off the lot. The vehicle must be registered within 10 days. The city only takes cash or credit only; no checks.
The stories about some of the cars are almost as interesting as the people bidding on them.
“Some of these cars have expired tags. Moraila says. “They will sit in our lot for 30 days in case someone wants to claim it. If no one claims it, then it goes up for sale.
“But we have some cars in here simply because someone wouldn’t turn off the car alarm. If a car alarm go off for 45 minutes or more and someone complains, we tow it because it is declared a public nuisance. On the other hand, some have collected more than five tickets and some are here because someone died in the car in an accident and the parents or significant others don’t want to see the car anymore, they just want to collect any personal items and let someone else have it.
“Every vehicle has a story.”
Moraila says the cars that don’t sell go to firefighters for practice using the jaws of life, for police dog training to sniff out drugs, or are the vehicles used as DUI display cars that you see in the medians of different freeways around the area during the holiday season urging you to not drink and drive.
But cars aren’t the only items being sold at the lien sale. Bicycles are bundled in sixes. And lockers – yes lockers – like the ones you see in high schools, are being sold, too.
In fact, Fredrick Williams and his wife Carlyce French bought two locker pallets; one for $10 and one for $5.
“I’ll put these in the back of a truck and just drive around industrial parks, seeing if any businesses need any lockers,” he says. “I’ll sell them for $20 apiece.”
Williams and French are from Long Beach and they have been coming to the lien sale for two years. He still remembers the first car he bought at auction – a 1997 Mercedes – for $400. He sold it to a man in Marina del Rey for $1,200.
“I look for low mileage cars,” Williams says. “I don’t mind if the car has a lot of junk on the inside. Carlyce and I just clean them up.
French says she enjoys the auction, especially if she is coming out to try and find a car for a family member. “I remember when I lost my car because of parking violations,” she says. “I like to help people. I think it’s a blessing.”
Another regular at the lot today is Ramon Ferrell, 40. He makes the drive from Santa Clarita twice a month. Ferrell has been coming to the auction for as long as it has been going, since he was just 15.
“The first auction I won (actually someone did the bidding for him) was a car for $100,” he says. “I cleaned it up and sold it for $800. I love this auction game. I buy the cars and try to sell them for double. Long Beach is the best auction, but I go to L.A., Compton and downtown L.A. to those auctions, too.”
The auction usually starts with the bicycles and lockers being sold first, then the buyers move to a small part of the lot that has four cars in it. One is a Ford Fiesta, one is a Toyota SUV with heavy damage to the driver’s side. Moraila explains that these cars have a market value of more than $4,000. Cars with this type of value are kept on the lot for 120 days before they are sold.
On the back window of each car are letter symbols or the word “salvage.” If there is an I on the back window, then the car has an expired registration; an O means the car has five or more tickets. If “salvage” is on the window, that means the car has been declared previously totaled.
Moraila stands under an umbrella with a loudspeaker in his other hand; the auction is about to start. He doesn’t spend more than 45 seconds to one minute auctioning the cars. The Ford Fiesta is quickly won for $1,200; the heavily damaged Toyota SUV surprises everyone with a winning bid of $6,600. “That’s way too much for that damn car,” Prerez says.
An old Volkswagen Jetta sells for $100; a white Mercedes C240 goes for $1,000 and a navy blue 2000 BMW is won for $3,000. Hondas, Fords, VWs and an Infinity or two are sprinkled around the lot, too.
By noon, the auction is over. But how much money did the city make and where does the money go? Moraila says the money goes to the city’s enterprise fund. “We make a significant amount for the city, but I won’t tell you how much we make.”
However, according to city auditor Laura Doud’s recent report on the Fleet Services Bureau, it was revealed that revenues from lien sales average more than $2.75 million per year, or $106,000 per auction, in the past three years. The bureau has come under fire from Doud for its lapses in record keeping, but it says it is improving in those regards.
Paul Ellis, a 20-year veteran of the auction wars, walks out of the sale without a car – something he is used to. “I really like the classics,” he says. “I snagged a ‘67 GTO a few years ago and I won’t give that up for anything.” Ellis has his eye on a VW bus and a 1960s-era VW Beetle; he asks Moraila when they will be coming to auction and is told next week.
In his best Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonation he replies, “I’ll be back.”