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How to buy anything at auction

From 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.

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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 and ready.

Your homework
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 and Online.

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," says Hindman.

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.

The rules 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.

Many police departments don't test or guarantee the merchandise.

"Take into account the fact that an item may or may not work," says Vallon.

Some departments are using third-party sites to test, refurbish or certify their merchandise to sell online. A popular site called 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

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?

Pros 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 a wreck?

Ostroff's last bit of auto advice: "Never buy a car without the title," he says. "There's nothing but trouble there."

At 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."

-- Updated: Sept. 18, 2005




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