Auctions are a fun and very cheap way to buy furniture.  But they can be daunting to a newcomer.  So here are some tips that I wish I’d known!

1. The prices are a guide

Things can go for a lot more (or a lot less).

So you may discount something that has an estimate of $3000, and then no-one bids $100.  Or you may set your heart on an item with a low estimate.  The ‘bird cage’ below had an estimate of $25.  I determined to have it (I had visions of it as a fabulous light above a table), and was prepared to pay $300.  It went for $650.

In another auction, when we lost out on a pair of antique french chairs that went more than five times the estimate of $600, a pair of baronial chairs, with a many thousand dollar estimate wasn’t bid on at all.  In a rash moment, the man stuck his hand up and we got them for $100.  The look of horror on his face when he realised that we had them was priceless.  We hadn’t even examined them!

However – they are glorious now: check out the story of their transformation here.

2. Buy what you want and need (not what is going for a song)

Linked to my advice above – it is very easy to get carried away with items that are unbelievably reasonable. You may well end up with two dining sets, four sofas and a bed.  What are you going to do with them?

These are the things I ask myself.  I try to ask them BEFORE I’ve purchased.

3. Research your item so you know if it’s a good price

Don’t get so carried away that you pay more than retail price at an auction.  It pays (literally) to know what things are selling for in the shops.

Generally, it horrifies me that an antique mahogany dining set (table and chairs) costs less than an IKEA pine equivalent.  Mahogany just isn’t fashionable at the moment.

But check to be certain – it also gives you something by which to set your upper price limit.

4. Auction fees

Once you know how much you’re prepared to pay, don’t forget to factor in the auctioneer’s fee.  These vary from 15% to 20% and higher.

If you’re prepared to pay $600 for something.  Does that include the additional fee?  Because if you bid $600, you may end up paying $720 when it includes the fee. 

5. Different styles and ways of bidding

The best way to bid is in person at the auction.  You can see the other people bidding, catch the mood, see how serious others are and when they hesitate.  Sometimes you can tell when one more bid on your part will clinch it, and when the other party is prepared to pay whatever it takes.

You can usually also leave absentee bids, where you leave you maximum on a form and the auctioneer bids on your behalf.  If you really want an item, you risk losing it. 

Finally, you can often bid by telephone (some auction houses have rules about minimum bids if you do this).  Which means that you can bid even while at a friend’s party.  Dangerous if you have a drink in hand…

In terms of bidding strategy, you can either wait and see what others do, gauge the level of interest and then bid towards the end.  Or you can bid so firmly and strongly from the start that you put others off with your determination.  You won’t fool the seasoned players, but you might fool novices. 

6. Getting it home

If you are buying large items, you usually have to take them very quickly – usually within 24 hours.  So be prepared to organised trucks or removalists at short notice and at inconvenient times.  Remember to factor these costs into the true cost of buying the item.

7. If it’s not what you want after all?

Finally – if you get it home and you realise that it really isn’t what you hoped it would be?  Don’t just live with it.  Either sell it at the following auction (where you bought it).  You may lose the auctioneer’s fee, but you shouldn’t be too much out-of-pocket. 

Or, sell it on Ebay.  Sometimes, I’ve made a substantial profit doing this.

And there of course, lies a business opportunity.  But that’s another story…