Live Auctions: A Beginner’s Guide

live auction

EBay and its competitors have renewed the popularity of auction-style sales, but many online auction devotees have been too busy or too intimidated to try the real thing – a live auction. They are the equivalent of football fans who have never seen their team play in the stadium.

Even if you have never used a computer as a tool of commerce, live auctions can be fascinating experiences, especially if you’re interested learning the monetary value of things or seeing an alternative form of commerce in action. Plus, auctions are full of hidden treasures, great deals, and the excitement of competition. If you haven’t yet attended a live auction, give it a try!

Start by browsing or auction listings in your local newspaper to find upcoming auctions in your area. Pay attention to the types of things that will be auctioned. Some auctions offer everything from food to books to cleaning supplies; others specialize in real estate, cars, or very specific types of collectibles. Storage auctions can be an adventure, as laws in some areas require a single bidder to buy everything in a unit after only a glance at the merchandise. Charity auctions are interesting to attend but rarely offer great bargains; bidders sometimes bid higher than the item’s true value because the money goes to charity.

Once you have found an auction that interests you, find out the auctioneer’s policies. Some require a deposit for a number. Some charge sales tax, which in some states can be waived if you are purchasing items for resale. Some post a separate time for previews. Many accept cash as the only form of payment. For home auctions, find out if it’s just the actual home for sale or if the contents are up for bid, as well. You might want to ask how long the auction is expected to last; some can go on for most of a day.

Do your best to arrive at the auction early or come during the preview time to get a good look at the merchandise before bidding. You might find some hidden damage to items, or you might find something valuable buried at the bottom of a box lot. Whenever you see something of interest, decide how much you’re willing to pay and determine to stop bidding at that amount, even in the excitement of competition. It may help to carry along a notebook to write down what items interest you; if you write down your intended maximum bid, keep the notes hidden.

If the auction house has more than one auctioneer calling at a time, decide what items you want most so that you can stay in that area. The auction house we visit most frequently has one room for small items, one for large, and one for box lots; we usually bid on the box lots, items (sometimes related, sometimes not) jumbled together in a box and sold for a single price. We have found some great surprises in box lots – cereal bowls exactly like ones we were searching for in stores, a newer-looking twin of the stuffed bear my niece had loved literally to pieces (whose replacement was nowhere in stores when my sister went looking for one), and vintage Barbie dolls buried under doll clothes and sold for $0.50 for a carload. My family once met a man who found an unusual cookie cutter in the bottom of a $0.50 box lot; he sold that single item on eBay for more than $1,000.

Once you see something you want to bid on, find out where to get a number. Look for a cashier in a small booth resembling a box office or, at an on-site auction, a fair food stand. Auctioneers will usually ask to see your driver’s license, at least on your first visit, before giving you a numbered bidding card. If you have a friend or family member bidding for you in a separate area of the auction, ask for a duplicate number so that you can pay for everything at once. For real estate and similar auctions, where the bids go high, some auctioneers require that bidders be approved prior to the auction date.

When bidding begins, listen carefully to get a feel for the auctioneer’s style. Some start at the lowest price and bid up; others start at a price near what they believe the item to be worth and drop down when no bids are received immediately. Also pay attention to what happens to items that receive no bids. Some auctioneers will add additional items to the lot, so you may get more than what you intended (or may miss seeing something you want get added to the pile). Some put aside unwanted items for a future auction or for bidding on all items without bids at a later time. (I filled my station wagon for $0.50 by bidding on all the things left over at the end of a box lot auction.) If you wait too long to bid on something you want, you might miss out, or you might get a better deal in the end.

Timing is also crucial for other reasons. If you bid too soon, you may pay a higher price or appear so eager that someone else decides to bid on whatever you want. If you wait too long, you may be overlooked, find yourself bidding more than you had intended, or see the item be put aside for not having any bids.

Listen for bid increments. If the auctioneer typically jumps from $4.00 to $5.00 to $7.00 and you don’t want to pay any more than $6.00, you’ll want to be the bidder whose turn comes at $5.00 or you’ll have to choose between raising your maximum by $1.00 or seeing the item go for $1.00 less than you were willing to pay. Assuming two people will bid, you might try to figure out how many bids will take the auction to the highest amount you’re willing to pay and then either bid first or wait until someone else bids so that the bid increments don’t jump out of your range. However, your calculations might become pointless when more than two people bid or other bidders wait longer than you to start bidding. You may also be able to get an idea of how high to set your maximum bid by watching the other bidders to see what interests them and how high they are generally willing to bid.

Other bidders can be your competition, but they can also be friendly and helpful. If you are bidding on a box lot that goes out of your price range, consider offering the winning bidder the amount you are willing to pay for the particular item you want in the lot. You may find that he or she had bid on the lot for an entirely different item, and you have little to lose if the buyer says, “No, I want to keep it.” I have bargained with another bidder to split the lot he had just won – he wanted the sewing machine; I wanted the toys. I have also had a fellow bidder buy one CD out of a box lot I had just won for the entire price I had paid for the lot; I got the lot for free, kept the things I wanted, and sold the others online – not a bad deal!

Once you are done bidding on everything you want, take your number back to the cashier, who will add up all the items you’ve won, take your cash, and give you a receipt. Be sure you have enough cash to cover what you’ve bought and enough space in your vehicle to get your things home. Items left at an auction (without prior arrangements) are usually considered abandoned.

After you’ve attended your first auction, you might decide it’s not your style, or you might be hooked instantly. As with many new activities, you might just need a little practice to get good at bidding. Whatever is the case, a live auction is worth at least one visit. Even if you don’t find a bargain, you can enjoy a new and interesting experience for only the cost of getting there.

Image courtesy of kellogg

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7 Responses to Live Auctions: A Beginner’s Guide

  1. scfr says:

    Thanks – This article was very well-written and informative. How do auctioneers typically get their commission: Is a buyer’s premium added on to the winning bid amount, or do they take their cut out of the sales price?

  2. Shannon Christman says:

    The source of the commission varies by auctioneer. Most take a commission from the sellers, but some have started to charge buyers a portion of the commission, as well, to entice sellers to bring more good stuff to sell.

  3. mark says:

    I enjoy storage unit auctions. You never know what you are going to find in one of those boxes.

  4. fjp says:

    You can also bid in live auctions from your PC just like you were there in person. Check out for a listing of webcast live auction events.

  5. vren says:

    I find that there are so many people that are trying to resell on eBay these days that prices are much higher than they used to be. It’s hard to find the great bargains you once could.

  6. Ryan says:

    A new approach to real-time live auction is coming soon. During beta release all listing fees will be waived. site domain is Any comments are gladly welcome.

  7. Jim says:

    Some good advice. HOWEVER, some advice that may be illegal.
    At auction, there is a general rule: No one sells anything, except the auctioneer. There is a reason for this.

    You can not form any kind of agreement with another bidder, as it may stifle the potential bidding. This is called “collusion” and it is a felony, under the Sherman Act, which carries a $350,000 fine & up to 3 years in jail for an individual or a $10 million fine for a corporation.

    If someone outbids you on the item you want, you might ask if they intend to sell it and ask for their business card or phone number. However, don’t discuss the particular item or price or anything else at the auction. It could appear that you are in collusion with them. Remember, it is the auctioneers job to get the Best Price for the items. Anything that causes someone not to bid on something that they might have otherwise bid on, is unethical and possibly illegal.

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