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How to buy anything at auction -- Page 2

In addition, auction-house specialists who catalog items are a good source of information, says Hildesley. Not only do they know the objects, but they can compare them to similar things they've seen.

When you buy from an online site, often all you have to rely on is the word or description of the seller. Ask the seller to fax or e-mail additional pictures if you need them. Request any records. Has it been maintained? Sold previously? Appraised or graded? Ask about flaws and its condition.

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Reputation counts
To find a reputable auction house in your area, Hindman suggests talking to people who work in bank trust departments. They work with estates, so they know the terrain.

With online auctions, it's more difficult to evaluate sellers. Read comments from previous customers. What kind of a track record does the person have?

"I would watch the type of product the person's offering," says Tom Lane, chairman and CEO of "If they switch from low-priced items to high-priced items overnight, I'd be a little suspicious."

Get the seller's address, recommends Susan Grant, director of the Internet fraud watch program for the National Consumers League. "Lots of time people don't have a physical address for the seller."

If you're buying a big-ticket item, such as a car, get the seller's OK to see it in person, says Ostroff. But get as much information as you can before you go. And never meet with the seller alone.

Protect your wallet, too. If you pay by credit card, you retain the right to dispute your purchase. But you're also giving a stranger your credit card number. If you opt to use a feature such as PayPal, the No. 1 choice for eBay buyers, ask your card company what happens if you fund the account with your credit card and then have to dispute a purchase.

Never wire money.

"Once you wire money, it's gone," says Hani Durzy, spokesman for eBay Inc.

If the item is being shipped, ask for a tracking number so that you can confirm the shipment.

If you choose to use an escrow service, make sure it's legit, such as Fake escrow services are one of the hot new scams, says Ostroff.

Before bidding at a site that claims to be selling merchandise for a police department, call the department and verify.

In cases of fraud, some sites, such as eBay, will guarantee purchases under certain circumstances. Find out what the rules are and what safeguards are offered by the site.

But even with guarantees, an unhappy purchase doesn't always rise to the level of fraud. In that case, the site may ask you to work something out with the seller. Best solution: Learn as much as you can about the seller and the merchandise before you bid.

The rules of the game
Auctions are a game. If you want to win, you have to know the rules. Just to make it interesting: No two auctions are exactly alike.

Some general guidelines: The bid won't be your total price. There are usually buyers' premiums, based on a percentage of your winning bid. There may also be shipping charges and taxes.

Some auctions will allow you to take the merchandise that day. Others have a waiting period or conditions you must meet. With an online auction, often the seller sets those terms. Ask ahead of time.

"Don't be caught by surprise after you've won an auction," says Durzy.

If it's an auto or police auction, chances are it's cash only. With most, money is due on the spot and all sales are final.

The one auction constant: Once you've offered the winning bid, you're obligated.

Before you go to the auction, set a limit on how much you want to spend. If your objective is a good deal, what would you pay for the same thing elsewhere? Factor in your time, shipping or travel expenses and set a limit.

"Bid with your head and not your heart," says Vallon. "There's always going to be another one, whatever it is."

Vallon has seen buyers pay several hundred dollars for bikes that were worth $4,000 to $5,000. She's also seen kids and their parents get so carried away they end up paying more than retail.

If you are buying fine art, jewelry or antiques, look for quality.

"It's better to buy one really good thing than 20 mediocre things," says Hindman.

And if you're a collector, says Hildesley, "be absolutely sure you're in love with the object you're going to buy."

Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.


-- Updated: Sept. 18, 2005




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