A common question at my business is, “Where did you get that?” and a common answer is an auction.  For those who haven’t been to an auction, here’s a little guide to help make it, I hope, less confusing.

Auctions can be exciting, fun, and, at least until you’ve won on your bid, free entertainment.  I’ve never been to one that charges just to watch.  I’ve been to hundreds and although the rules will vary a little from auction house to auction house, most operate pretty much the same.  When you show up, there will be some place to register where they’ll record your name, address and phone number and give you a bidding number.  This is the time to be sure they’ll take credit cards. Some places give you a permanent number that you’ll use every time you visit, others have you re-register with every auction.  It is by this number that they will track what you’ve bought, so if you have the winning bid, hold the card with the number up high and easy for the auctioneer to record (i.e. hold it right side up so they can read the number).

If you have the time, always preview.  A good and honest auctioneer will point out any flaws in the piece, but with hundreds of items up for sale, they can’t know the details about any particular piece, nor, frankly, is it in their best interest to point out every shortcoming.  Most auction houses will have a day to preview before the sale and be open before the auction itself for you to preview the item.  Most auction houses advertise in the classified section of the paper, so that’s the best way to know what, where and when.

Everything is “as is, where is”, meaning that you bear the responsibility for knowing about what you are bidding on.  The auctioneer may have tested the item, and will tell you so, but there are no guarantees.  One of my favorite auctioneers once said, “Every electronic in this box is as-is.  If you get it home and one of them is working, it didn’t belong in that box.”  This does not imply, however, that there aren’t great deals on working items to be had.  My wife and I have had our freezer that we bought at auction running for about a year with no problems.

Bid boldly.  Thankfully, I’ve never scratched my nose and accidently bought a sofa.  The auctioneer has no interest in taking a mistaken bid (it is more work for them) and you want to be sure you’re standing out from the crowd.  I usually hold up my bidding card when I want to make a bid.

What will you pay?  Most auction houses have a “buyers premium” of 10% that they add to the price of your winning bid.  Depending upon the auctioneer, bidding can be fast and furious and the old saying “he who hesitates is lost” turns out to sometimes to be “he who hesitates pays more than he thought he was going to”.

Don’t wait for the bottom to bid.  If $25 is a fair price, others will know that too and it probably won’t sell for the $5 you’re hoping for.  You might was well show everyone you’re serious about buying it and bid what you are willing to pay.  Of course it goes without saying, be careful about being caught up in the bidding.  I figure that at every auction I get something for less than I expected to pay and I pay too much for something else.  It evens out.

Two phrases you’ll want to remember are “choice” and “3 times the money”.  Sometimes there will be several pieces in a lot.  “Choice”, not surprisingly, means that the winning bidder gets to choose which (and how many) of the items in the lot they bid on, the price is for each item in the lot.  The second phrase means that the bidding price is for a single item, but you are purchasing all of them.  Four chairs at “4 times the money” means you’ll be buying all four chairs at four times your bid.

Pay.  Be prepared to pay that day for the item you won and to take it with you when you go.  Most auction houses can’t store items for very long (there’s more coming in).  Have fun, support recycle and reuse, play fair, buy something interesting, and don’t bid against me.