Find Seized Vehicle Bargains at Government Auctions

Have you ever wanted a boat? Not a canoe or a rowboat, mind you, that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about something substantial, something you could live aboard and use for commercial fishing or other maritime enterprises . . . a shrimper, trawler, tug, or freighter, say. A nice dream, isn’t it? Unfortunately, most times the cost of a toy like that is virtually guaranteed to keep your dream boat just that . . . only a dream.

And likewise, the idea of owning an airplane is out of the question for the average person, even when you consider the moneymaking possibilities of bush-piloting, backcountry transportation, and such. The outrageous price tag pretty well dictates that–for most of us–our only flights will be those of the imagination.

But owning a live-aboard boat doesn’t have to be just a dream. And piloting your own airplane doesn’t have to remain in the category of a fantasy. Why not? Uncle Sam, Your Friendly Auctioneer describes the fantastic bargains to be found at U.S Customs Service auctions of abandoned and confiscated import goods. What I’m about to reveal to you here is closely related to that article, but has a different twist: It’s about auctions of seized vehicles –usually boats and planes–courtesy of Uncle Sam and his various long arms: the FBI, DEA, USCS, BIN, and a number of other acronymic law-enforcement agencies.

Want some examples? How about a 40-foot commercial lobster boat with a V-8 Detroit diesel for $1,600 . . . or a 56-foot trawler for $6,500? Maybe you’d like a slick little 52-foot motor sailer for only $7,000? Tell you more, you say? OK. Recent Government Accounting Office figures show that the federal government has in storage–right now–some $82.1 million worth of confiscated boats, planes, and other ex-smuggling vehicles! With that kind of inventory to choose from–at unbeatable auction prices-who’s to say that your dream machine isn’t just waiting for you to sail or fly it away for (relative to what such things normally cost) peanuts?

How Do Seized Vehicle Auctions Work?

Here’s how: An agency–the Drug Enforcement Administration, let’s say–makes a bust, and a boat- or airplane load of imported marijuana falls into the hands of the law. A routine search for the owner is run, and the vessel is placed in storage . . . pending litigation to decide who owns what (creditors often enter the picture at this point). If the courts determine that the craft is now government property, an auction is announced . . , but not too loudly, as it turns out. In fact, most of these sales are advertised in the local papers only.

So the trick to having access to these government sell-offs is to know about them. And with the large number of law-enforcement agencies involved, that can be quite a trick indeed. Until recently, a serious would-be bidder had to call each of the agencies frequently to keep abreast of the what, when, and where of the different sales. But that’s all changed now.

“Nabbing” Auction Information

These days, there’s a boat-brokerage firm in Fort Lauderdale, Florida that’ll do all the phone work for you (for a price, of course). The outfit is called the National Auction Bulletin, and consists of a handful of folks who spend their days with phones stuck to their ears and their fingers on typewriter keys .. . putting out a twice-monthly information newsletter that wears the same name as the business (“NAB” for short). In 1983, NAB listed more than 300 boats and planes set to be sold at 70-some auctions in 50 different cities. And in addition to the basic bulletin, NAB offers services such as inspection reports for potential bidders who can’t visit certain storage locations in person.

Here’s an example of what you can expect to find in a typical NAB entry:

56′ Bay Trawler M/V “Thomas E”
w/335 hp Detroit Diesel Engine.
U.S. No. xxxxx.
Seizure No. 81-5201-xxxx.
Deposit of $5,000.

Once you learn to read the abbreviated entries, you’ll see that the listing above gives the size and type of boat, its registered name and number, the size and type of engine, the year of seizure (first two digits of the seizure number), and the deposit required to qualify you as a bidder. Not all auctions stipulate a bidding deposit, and a deposit doesn’t constitute a bid, or even a minimum-required bid. (In the case of the Thomas E, the big net-dragger was appraised at between $18,000 and $25,000, and was sold to the highest bidder for a mere $6,500.)

Locations of Government Auctions

A scan of the last few issues of NAB shows that auctions were held in California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, Oregon, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island. Though the highest number of auctions are held in coastal and border areas of the country, the sales have to follow the smugglers . . . and with all the things Uncle Sam has decided to deny entry to, smugglers are just about everywhere these days. So, almost no matter where you live, you’re likely to eventually find the boat or plane of your fantasies at one of these auctions. And if the vessel of your dreams isn’t stored nearby, mail-in bids are generally accepted.

Caveat Emptor 

If you decide to participate in an auction, keep in mind the age-old economic wisdom of caveat emptor, or “let the buyer beware”. No, that’s not to say that the government’s out to stick you with a lemon . . . just that there’re a few game rules you’ll want to know before plunking down your hard-earned loot. Let’s run through the sequence.

With a copy of NAB in hand, you call or visit the auctioning agency and make an appointment to inspect the craft you have your eye on. Usually, you won’t be allowed to start the engine(s), but you can poke around to your heart’s content. If you doubt your own skill at appraising the condition and value of a Douglas DC-3 with twin Pratt & Whitney 1,350-horsepower radial engines, bring along an aircraft mechanic. On the other hand, if your target is a boat–and you really want to know what you’re getting into–bring a snorkel, mask, and swimsuit so you can inspect the submerged portions of the hull . . . or hire a marine surveyor to do it for you.

In short, know exactly how much that craft is worth to you before the auction begins . . . then set a limit above which you won’t bid . . . and stick to it! Also, be sure you know the policies of the agency doing the selling. For example, the U.S. Customs Service requires a 25% down payment on the total price of the sale at the time of purchase . . . in cash or certified check only (of course, if you already paid a bidding deposit, that could be put toward the down payment). You’ll then have a specified time–usually one to five days–in which to come up with the balance (also in cash or certified check). If you don’t pay the balance on time, the customs folks will keep the sale item and your 25%!

On a more positive note, though, most of these government auctions are “absolute”, meaning that the highest bidder takes the goods . . . even if the top bid is only $100 for a vessel with an appraised value of $20,000 or more. (In some cases, however, the auctioning party reserves the right to set a minimum bid, especially when a lending institution has a lien on the craft.)

To sum up the bargains that’re available at these “smugglers’ sales”, the Government Accounting Office figures that Uncle Sam gets an average of 39% of the appraised value of the vehicles he auctions off. That’s only an average, mind you. You could do much better.

Making It Happen 

If you want to give it a go, the first step is to sign up for the National Auction Bulletin.

Bargains afloat and bargains aflight . . . they’re out there within your reach, so happy bidding!