What do I need to know as a first-time auction attendee?
November 1, 2012 5:20 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in attending an auction in the Southern California area. I've never been to an auction before. Advice? Tips?

I've never been to an auction before, but they seem really fun and I'd like to try one out around Los Angeles.

I'm not interested in any big money items (no cars, fancy pieces of furniture or art or anything like that). I realize that may limit me to a lot of household junk, but I'm curious anyway. Auctions specific to certain interests (I saw one for pinball machines, for example) could be cool, too. I wouldn't buy anything at that kind of auction, but it would be fun to see.

Are there any auction attendees out there who are familiar with the Southern California area with any tips for a newbie? Or any general auction advice for a first-timer would be great, also.

posted by dede to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (7 answers total)
I've been to the sort of estate auction that they have in more rural areas under a big tent. I am not sure if this is the same as the sort you are talking about, but here was my experience.

- get there early and walk around looking at stuff, make note of the condition you think things are in. If it's not a fancy auction you may be able to touch stuff and look at it.
- there may be a lot of boxed lots which are like "ten assorted math books" "one box kitchen stuff" which can sometimes be fun and sometimes be nothing. It's good to start small
- usually you have to register for a number at the beginning and they will tell you what the rules are (what they accept for money, it may be cash only; when you have to bring the things home, it may be immediately or there may be other options)
- people may have put it bids on some of the items beforehand, so if there is a thing that maybe you bid on and then someone who works there seems to be bidding against you it may be because they've gotten bids from other folks. At fancy auctions people can do telephone bidding and other stuff
- sit somewhere where you can see and hear. You will tell after a while where the people who are professional are and where the people who are just there to look at stuff and talk to people are
- if it's a country auction someone will be selling food, if it's not, I have no idea
- usually there is no break and things just go go go so you can sometimes tell by the lot number when it's coming up and plan bathroom trips accordingly

The big thing is to think ahead of time about how much you want to spend on something and not get too caught up in the frenzy of it. With something really collectible like pinball machines, I expect there would be a lot of people who were collectors there but I think it would also be fun to see the stuff they had and maybe do some observing without any real attempts to buy. I liked going to the ones in Vermont because it was just fun to look at other peoples' stuff.
posted by jessamyn at 8:01 PM on November 1, 2012

I've bid in one auction IRL (and done some preliminary research on quite a few more). It was for work, buying pro audio & video equipment (from an A/V company in another city going out of business), so my approach was probably quite a bit more serious then yours would be - I didn't wanna hear months and months worth of grumbling from my boss if he thought I overpaid for something, and I had a hard-line limit to what I could spend total. But overall I made out really well, and here's some things I did & some of what I remember:

Study the catalog (usually available with pictures at the auctioneer's website) & do research (especially pricing research) before you go. Note the stuff you're most interested in & note what your maximum bid on each item (a.k.a. "lot") will be.

Take advantage of the "preview", which is when the auction house will let you look at the stuff in person. Target your noted items first, and look as closely as you're allowed to. This may very well change what your maximum bid will be, or whether you're really even interested in the piece or not. Revise your notes as needed.

The preview was super-useful for me, because auction houses aren't necessarily all that organized about stuff or careful with their appraisal. It's also often hard to tell much about an item from a description in the catalog or a single picture on a website. For example, one lot was listed as an "equipment carrying case", and in the picture it looked kinda beat, so I wasn't super-interested. But then I opened it up and discovered that it contained a couple of pieces of expensive pro-level lighting control equipment, along with some expensive specialized cables. Apparently nobody else bothered to open up the case, or knew what the equipment inside was, because I got it for a song (relatively speaking) - although I did get some odd looks from people in the auction who were clearly wondering why the hell I was actively bidding up such a piece of junk.

When coming up with your maximum bid, remember there's going to be a buyer's premium added to the final price, and possibly sales tax. This info should be available on the website, along with (VERY important) acceptable methods of payment - personal checks, for example, may not be acceptable (but I think ALL auctioneers like cash). You pay at the end of the auction before you can pick up the stuff you've won.

Also remember that you're ideally supposed to take stuff with you immediately, or the auction house may allow like a 24-hour window for getting your stuff (again, these terms are usually available on the auction house's website), so have a plan in place for transporting what you've won ASAP.

The auctioneer's super-fast chatter was a little tough to grasp at first, but it didn't take too long before I got the hang of it.

I think I had to pre-register and pay an entrance fee. When I got to where the auction was, I had to check in, I was given a bidder number (but no paddle or anything like you may have seen in the movies), and a paper copy of the catalog (no pictures) with the lots listed in the order in which they would come up for auction. Which was not the same order in which they were listed on the website, so the first thing I had to do was find the lots I was interested in in the new in-order listing.

While some bidders did some kind of minimalist finger raise or something, most of the bidding was done by a fairly obvious raising of the hand - so no worries about the comedy-movie cliche where someone scratches their nose and accidentally wins a $2 million sculpture or something. When I won something I had to announce my bidder number so the attendants could make note of who won. It was a big auction, a wide variety of stuff (and a lot of it - the whole thing took like 9 hours with no break, and they actually brought in a "relief auctioneer" towards the end of the day), so they were mostly OK with people wandering in & out as they felt like it. I dunno if this is generally the case, so maybe park yourself on an aisle seat near the back if you think you might want to sneak out during the proceedings.

One reason to pay attention to the catalog (including the order in which lots come up for auction) and to be kind of a hard-ass about your maximum bid is that similar items aren't necessarily all grouped together - i.e. if there's 10 DVD players in the auction, they'll do 4 right in a row, then some other stuff, then 2 more, then a buncha other stuff & etc. etc. etc. So what can happen is that people who really really really want a DVD player will go for the early ones, and bid the price up pretty high, and by the time the later ones show up everybody who really wants one has gotten one or gone home, nobody's much interested anymore, and so they'll go cheaper.

One thing that was actually kind of not fun about the auction I participated in - and keep in mind this was a fairly specialized auction and a lot of the bidders were clearly either pros or semi-pros, and therefore keeping a close eye on the bottom line, so YMMV - was a regular pattern where the auctioneer would attempt to start the bidding at a kinda-high-but-not-unreasonable price, get no takers, drop the price, still no bids, again and again and again until he was at "dirt cheap", and THEN the bidding would start, and often quickly pass the initial asking price. This got to be kind of grueling over the course of the day, to the point where the auctioneer was often getting snarky and/or essentially begging the bidders to knock it off. No dice. (I can claim relative innocence in this - it was mostly the guys looking for video cameras who did this, and I wasn't interested in those. But there were a LOT of video cameras in the auction.)

Hope this helps.
posted by soundguy99 at 9:22 PM on November 1, 2012

The auctioneers do this every day and they really just want to get it done and have all the goods cleared out. This sometimes lets you get bargains, but sometimes they pressure you into agreeing to things you may not want. For example, they may be auctioning off ten similar items - say ten heaters. Whoever wins the auction can take one, two, three or all the heaters. You want a heater, so you bid. The auction's over, the winning bidder takes three, and the auctioneer implies that you should take one at the price of the last bid. No. You weren't willing to bid that high. Don't take one. Actually, it's often smarter not to bid at all, because you can often talk to one of the auction staff later and buy one of the heaters at that price or less. Also, you're not driving up the price that way.

Watch out for the source of the things on auction. Auctioneers often bring in goods that are excess or damaged stock from other sources, or even things that were purchased cheaply specifically to be put on auction. So if you don't know how to tell a sink with a standard drain fitting from one with a left-handed Mongolian double-tuck-and-twist, you probably shouldn't buy it.

If you're going to be buying anything heavy, arrange transport before the auction. The auction house might be able to recommend people, but it might not, and your goods will not necessarily be stored in a secure area. Even if they recommend people, check that they charge a fair market rate.

Ask how long the auctions tend to go on for. You might want to bring a folding chair and water if they hold them in a warehouse. Also a book.

The same things go on auction all the time. Be conservative in your bidding and don't worry about missing an item you were bidding on. Check prices on Ebay for comparable items.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:51 PM on November 1, 2012

Auctions like the one you want to attend (general merchandise) usually do not have catalogs, but will have several hours beforehand to preview.

•Be careful, take notes and have a visual concept of what you want to bid on and where it is in the auction hall. Don't expect them to go methodically table to table. Pay attention or you will miss your items. Items are typically grabbed at random by runners who bring them up to the auctioneer or point to them or hold them up when they are being auctioned.

•Beware of "Box lots". Sometimes people will move or hide items by burying them deep in a box, so if you are relying on remembering "the box with the blue teapot sticking out", its contents may have shifted during handling.

• Be aware of what you are bidding on. If there are 2 or 3 or more items you may be bidding on each item. This is sometimes referred to as "X time the money". e.g. if there are three and you bid $15.00 intending to pay $5.00 each you may have bid $45.00 because it was "3 times the money."

• Don't get swept up. Auctions can be addicting, and things may be going cheap, but you still have to get them home.

Have fun.
posted by Gungho at 6:19 AM on November 2, 2012

Frequent auction-goer here: Don't get in a bidding war. There will ALWAYS be another auction.
posted by cass at 8:34 AM on November 2, 2012

Ha! Co-owner of a pinball machne purchased by partner at auction! It's fun at first but can't remember last time either of us has played it. It was a great deal but a few feeble attempts at selling it made us realize we hadn't done our research before hand.

Everyone gave great info already. Know your dollar limits before hand and don't go over. Chairs are often "saved" early by individuals so bring something to hold your space (like a jacket or notepad), or a chair of your own so you can get up and walk around. Auctions can go on for hours depending upon the type and so you may not want to stay all day, or what you are interested in may not come up.

If you are thinking about re-selling something that you buy at auction, do your homework first or you may end up with a pinbal machine in your utiity room like me!

Enjoy and try it!
posted by Kitty Cornered at 11:12 AM on November 3, 2012

I go to a lot of auctions. One site that keeps me up to date on what sales are going on near me is auctionzip.com. You can also get on individual auction companies' mailing lists.

When you get to the auction, find the registration table. They'll ask for your driver's license, so they can enter you in their database so they can find you if you win something and try to skip out on paying. They'll give you a number, usually printed on a piece of paper, and (sometimes) a list of the items up for sale in the order they're selling.

Then go browse around and look at the items you think you might want to bid on. I usually decide at that point what the max I'm willing to pay for something is, and stick to that when it comes time to bid. This keeps me from getting caught up in a bidding war. Yes, you will sometimes lose something you kind of wanted by something silly like $1 or $5, but in the end having a limit for yourself keeps you from ending up with a lot of junk you don't want.

When it's time for bidding to start, find where the auctioneer is. If it's an auction where everyone walks around from item to item, he or she will start near the registration table. If it's an auction with seating, try to get as close to the front as you can, so you can see what you're bidding on. The auctioneer, as mentioned above, will often start with a high number, then drop it, and people will wait till it starts getting ridiculously low before making a first bid. When you want to place a bid, raise your hand and make sure the auctioneer or one of his helpers sees you. If you bid at $20, for example, his patter will then be something like "20, gimme five, gimme five." He's looking for the next bidder, so you don't have to raise your hand again until someone has made that $25 bid. THEN it will be your turn to bid at $30 if you want to. The first few times until you get the hang of it, the auctioneer may tease you if you mistakenly try to bid on an item that you already have the top bid on. Just smile good naturedly. They're pretty understanding of mistakes until the bidding is closed. Everyone was a noob once.

Most lots will be a single item. But when a lot includes multiple items, you need to listen carefully for a couple of different styles of bidding. The simplest is that the whole lot will be sold for "one money". This is the same as if you were bidding on a single item. Top bid gets it all. If there are multiples of the same item, though, the auction may be "choice". This means the top bidder gets to choose X out of Y items, and pays the bid for each of them. So if it's choice of five chairs, you have the top bid at $5, and you want three chairs, you will pay $15 total. If the lot is "times the money" you pay the top bid times the number of items. So if the top bid is $5, and there are 20 items, you pay $100. If a lot doesn't sell, the auctioneer may toss it in with the next lot on the list. Which means sometimes you end up with stuff you don't want in order to get stuff you do want. When this happens to me I just swing by the Goodwill on the way home and donate the unwanted thing.

When you win an item, the auctioneer will then ask for your bidder number and his assistant will write it down. This assistant periodically runs the list over to the registration table, so you can pay and leave without having to stay for the whole auction. It's best to keep your own list of what you've won, so you can double check that you're paying for the correct items when you check out. You usually pay at the same desk you registered at. Pay attention beforehand to whether the auction takes credit cards. Some are cash or check only. Some have a buyers premium, which is a 5%-10% charge on top of your bid price. Some charge the premium for credit cards but not cash sales. Know how/what you'll be paying before you start bidding, so you don't cut your budget too close.

If someone else wins an item you want, it's considered perfectly kosher to make them an offer for it. You're most likely to have luck when someone buys a big lot of the same item. So if they won a lot of 10 chairs and you want 2, they might be open to selling those two to you. I once got a library book cart for $7, because the bidder who won the lot only cared about the laminating machine that had been sitting on top of the cart.

posted by MsMolly at 10:44 AM on November 5, 2012

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