Auctions are a great way to acquire some reasonably priced items, but you have to know what you are doing. Many auctioneers in the United States adhere to Missouri Auction School rules, which mean that they talk fast, moving up the price very quickly.
It is the auctioneer’s job to make as much money off an item as possible. If you want to buy something at an auction, it’s up to you to pay attention, so you don’t get caught up in the excitement and pay way more than you planned.
We’ve bought a lot of stuff at auction for pretty good prices. To get the most from an auction experience, there are some simple ideas to follow.
Here are some auction rules to remember:
- Check auction bills. Auction bills are posters on which the contents and locations of auctions are printed. In small towns especially, you can find auction bills on community bulletin boards at local banks, restaurants, gas stations and grocery stores. Local papers also have smaller versions of auction bills printed as advertisements within their pages. You can also find the names of local auction companies and access their websites to see what the next auction has to offer.It helps to look at auction bills in advance because you can see if there is something in an auction that makes it worth your time to attend. Auction bills also give you an opportunity to judge what kind of auction it might be. A bill that lists a bunch of antiques might draw in antique dealers who could bid high for the furniture and crockery, but ignore the box of blankets that you really want. Estate sales often contain the entire contents of a house, so you might find everything from a box of cleaners or yarn all the way up to a new HD television.
- Arrive early at the auction. Plan to be at the auction site at least an hour in advance. Get your auction number as soon as you arrive, so you don’t have to stand in a long line waiting for a number while the auction begins. While you sign up for your number, find out the conditions of the auction. Sometimes, the auctioneer is paid a percentage of the total bid on an item, which means whoever is hosting the auction pays the auctioneer. At other times, the auctioneer tacks a 10-20% fee on whatever the winning bid was. In this case, you pay the auctioneer. By knowing the conditions in advance, you can plan your bid accordingly.
- Look at the stuff up for auction.Make sure items with motors work or can be fixed for a reasonable price. If you want furniture, take time to look it over thoroughly, sit on it, and check for cracks and dings. Decide if the furniture’s condition is worth your time to fix.We once found a desk at auction that looked like it was on its last legs. The exterior coating was broken up on it, and it was encrusted with bird droppings after having spent over a year stored in a rickety shed. We could have passed that desk up as hopeless, but it was made of solid wood and looked like it might be salvageable. A winning bid of $26 dollars, new hardware and some refinishing effort on our part yielded a lovely addition to the furniture in our home.
Poke through the boxes at an auction, because sometimes great finds can end up in a box under a pile of rubbish. We once found a brand new cone-shaped applesauce maker in a box with some other junk. We got the box for $3. The strainer was worth $27. We still use the strainer to make pear butter every autumn.
Make a note on your auction number card of the lot numbers of stuff and contents of boxes you are interested in.
- Watch the people around you. You can usually tell the hot stuff at an auction by the size of the crowd around it before the auction begins. You may or may not be interested in buying the crowd-pleasing item, but it is fun to watch the bidding frenzy when it comes up at auction.
- Decide on a money limit. As you look at an item you are interested in, decide in advance how much you are willing to pay for it. Write that amount next to the lot number on your auction card. Take into consideration the condition of the item, the retail cost of walking into a store to buy that item, and any auction fees you might have to pay if you have the winning bid. Coming up with a monetary figure now helps you save gobs of money during the heat of battle.
- Work together.If you go to an auction with your spouse or a partner, work together so you don’t end up bidding against one another for the same item. The worst case of this we ever saw was an auction in which a side table was the focus of a fierce bidding war. There were two bidders on opposite sides of the room. As the bidding spiraled higher and higher, the auctioneer suddenly shouted out, “Hey Frank, isn’t that your wife bidding against you?” The crowd laughed, but the couple felt rather sheepish, because they had to pay a much higher price than they might have if they hadn’t bid against each other.It helps to choose one person, husband or wife, who has steel nerves and can stop when the bidding limit is met. The other half of the team can keep an eye out for upcoming items to bid on, check back frequently with the bidding half of the partnership and pick up winning items.
- Pay attention to auction. If you really want to bid on an item, pay attention to the flow of the auction. Often, auctions are arranged in rows, and the auctioneer travels up and down the rows, but not always. Sometimes, an auctioneer will sell bigger items at a specific time, such as noon. We have seen more than one potential bidder disappointed because the auctioneer jumped around a little and sold the bidder’s desired item when he wasn’t looking.
- Get into the auctioneer’s view. Here it comes, that set of china you’ve wanted all your life. The first thing you should do is be in the auctioneer’s direct line of site, if possible right in front of him. Standing off to one side means your bid might be missed by the auctioneer or his assistants. It doesn’t matter that you bid on the item. If the guys in charge didn’t see your hand up, you don’t get the china.
- Don’t bid first. As we’ve said before, the auctioneer is in the business to make money for himself and his client. He will start the bidding high. If you have patience, and no one else takes the bait, the auctioneer will have to lower the opening bid, which means possibly less money out of your pocket. We have seen a wooden table start out at $300. No one took that offer and the price of the table fell to $50 before someone accepted that first bid. Eventually, the table sold for $160.
- Accept the junk you get. When bidding is very slow, you sometimes see other boxes of junk added to the box you want in order to “sweeten the deal.” Make a fast decision whether the box you want is worth all the extra stuff you didn’t plan on buying. Personally, if we really want something, we take the whole lot, sort through the boxes at home, keep the good stuff and donate or throw out what we don’t want.
Sometimes, people will come up to you and offer money for something that was in your boxes, which you aren’t really planning on keeping. If you are lucky, the money offered covers the cost of your box, and you get your treasure for free. It is bad form to leave your unwanted purchases behind. You bought it, so take it with you and deal with the unwanted at home.
- Bid fast.One of the great benefits of already deciding the highest amount you want to pay for something is that you don’t have to think about a bid until you get to your limit. So, bid with confidence and make your answering bid as fast as you can. Often you can win the high bid on an item by portraying yourself as a person who will stop at nothing to get what she wants. Bidding fast scares your fellow bidders and makes them think twice about whether they want to get into a bidding war with you.We used this tactic very effectively more than once. At a school auction in Montana once, we spotted a large, commercial grade, heavy duty rolling bookcase, used by public libraries around the U.S. It was a little scratched, but otherwise in good condition. We decided on a top bid of $40.The rolling bookcase came up for bid late in the auction, and our only competition was the superintendent of the school district. We didn’t accept the opening bid of $50, so the opening bid price fell to $8. We and the superintendent bid back and forth fast until the price got to our bid of $24. The superintendent sensed that we were willing to go a lot higher, so he stopped bidding and we won the bookcase. The superintendent told us after the auction that particular bookcase cost the school district $450, new.Another time, we bid fast on a “first day of issue” Apollo 11 stamp with an accompanying letter signed by the postmaster general in 1970. The last price we bid, $17, won the stamp. We looked determined to have it, and our competition dropped out. We don’t know what the stamp is worth, but we figure it’s worth more than $17, and worth a lot more to us personally because our family likes astronomy.
- Stop at your limit. You place a limit on your bid in advance, so you don’t get carried away and spend more money than you planned, or than what the item is worth. Respect your own decision and bow out of the auction when you get to your limit. There will always be another roll top desk, or ceramic bowl, or chainsaw, but nothing hurts more than knowing you just spent $200 on a used microwave that would have cost you $99 new at a local box store (we’ve never done this, but we’ve seen similar transactions at auctions).
- Pick up your stuff immediately.If you are awarded your item, give your auction number to the auctioneer, and then claim your stuff as soon as possible. If your purchase is small, pick it up immediately. Larger purchases will have to wait until the auction moves on and the area around your purchase clears. Put your stuff in your vehicle immediately, or carry your small items with you if you are soon to bid on other items. You hope the people around you are honest, but it isn’t always the case.We went to a small town auction once where someone bought a baby crib and left it unattended for half an hour. In that time, someone else loaded it up and drove off with it. The safest place for your purchases is in your locked vehicle.
- Enjoy yourself. The number one rule for attending auctions is to have fun. It’s great entertainment watching other people’s stuff find new homes. Often, you can learn a lot about the value of furniture, antiques and other belongings by attending auctions. And, it’s really fun to see someone’s face after they just won the treasure of a lifetime at a good price. Pack a lunch and sunscreen, pick an auction and have a great time.