How to buy anything
online battles over collectible plates to real-world bidding wars for national
treasures, auctions are one of the hottest retail venues going.
Auctions combine competition with commerce, spectacle
and spending, not to mention the drama.
But whether you're buying fine art or a used car, smart auction bidding
starts well before the main event.
The formula is simple: Study everything you can about
the item for sale. Research the price history of similar objects.
Set your own price range, and don't get caught in a bidding war.
Know the reputation of the seller. Then, whether you're logging
on to eBay or sitting in the front row of Sotheby's, you're armed
Buyers should "make sure they have done their
research," says Leslie Hindman, co-author of Adventures
at the Auction: The Ultimate Guide to Buying and Selling at Auction -- in Person
Go online to learn what similar items are
fetching. Talk to dealers and auction houses. Become familiar with the way appearance
and condition affect value. "It's just like you're looking at real estate,"
And get neutral professional help. For art and
valuables, many dealers will lease their services, either by the hour or for a
percentage of the sale price, to advise you on the object you're considering.
For a car, take a mechanic or auto dealer with you.
will vary depending on the type of auction. Police and auto auctions are advertised
weeks or months in advance. But frequently, potential buyers have only an hour
or two to look over the merchandise. Often at police auctions, "things are
sold in lots, rather than individually," says Mona Vallon, senior police
property manager for the San Diego Police Department.
police departments don't test or guarantee the merchandise.
into account the fact that an item may or may not work," says Vallon.
departments are using third-party sites to test, refurbish or certify their merchandise
to sell online. A popular site called propertyroom.com
serves hundreds of departments.
With auto auctions, potential
buyers can't put the car up on a rack, a move that would reveal a host of potential
problems, says Jeff Ostroff, CEO of CarBuyingTips.com.
Instead, use your eyes and ears. Check the lines of the car
from different angles. Is anything out of alignment? Are there signs of rust under
the hood or on the floorboards beneath the carpet? Is there any evidence of after-market
welding? Do the doors fit and close properly? Does the paint match perfectly?
have an elcometer, a device that measures the depth of the paint, says Ostroff.
Normal paint is "three to four mils," while a repaint is likely to measure
12 mils, he says.
Next, check out the vehicle identification
number with Carfax, a company
that compiles data on autos, to learn if it's ever been seriously damaged. Carry
a cell phone with you and contact a friend to check it for you on Carfax while
you scope out the car, advises Ostroff.
Another tip: Major
body panels will have the VIN etched into them. Do all the numbers match? Or are
you looking at a Frankencar, pieced together from parts of various autos after
Ostroff's last bit of auto advice: "Never buy
a car without the title," he says. "There's nothing but trouble there."
the other end of the spectrum, top auction houses make it much easier to get information
and examine the items for sale.
Sotheby's typically puts items on public display for
five days before the big event. "You can pick it up, touch
it," says C. Hugh Hildesley, executive vice president for Sotheby's.
Auction houses also encourage buyers to bring an independent expert.
"Rule No. 1: Make sure you've thoroughly
inspected what you're going to bid on," says Hildesley. "It's very dangerous
to bid on something that you haven't inspected beforehand."