December 1, 2015

How to Buy at an Auction


A live auction experience is just pure entertainment. At twenty years old, I was drawn into my first auction with no knowledge of what to expect. Knowing that I needed furniture for my sparse, college apartment, and this college town didn’t sport any thrift stores, I was desperate.  Not only was it a cultural experience, but it furnished my college space for under $50.

From the fast talking, “couldn’t understand a lick of what he was saying” auctioneer, to watching people with unique personalities from all walks of life, I was hooked. Fortunately, I wasn’t in much of a hurry that cool, college afternoon because if one is in a hurry, an auction is not the place to be to unbury second hand treasures.

Personally, I recommend every one of you going to an auction at least once. Even if a trash to treasure lifestyle isn’t your thing, auctions are a melting place of American culture. I can just sit back and watch the interaction among the people and have a blast for zero money output.

I recommend thrifting and yard sales for finding small, miscellaneous items, but if you are on the hunt for large ticket items and have specific purchases in mind, an auction is your place. Most auctions have preview hours before the sale begins, so that you can see exactly what they are offering. With everything from heavy machinery, tools, fine art, antique furniture, cars, land, and office equipment to knickknacks, glassware and everything in between, many auctions offer an entire household’s estate.

Tips to shopping at an auction

Things to understand before the auction begins:

  • Know what kind of payment they accept. As soon as you arrive, you will register for your number; you give your name, address, number etc, and the kind of payment you will use. If it’s your first time shopping with a particular auction company, you may not be able to use a check until they verify your good for it. As always, cash is King.
  • Mentally set your maximum purchase amount and stick with it. A winning bid is binding – that is why they get your address and payment information before hand. Part of the fun of auctions is the thrill of the bid, yet that emotion can get you into trouble if you don’t stick to your budget. Listening to auctioneers is so much fun because they create a sense of urgency. They can make the ugliest items seem like it’s going to be swept out from under you. I’ve found myself wanting to wave my stick high just to snatch up that “treasure” that I don’t really want or need.
  • Do your homework and research before buying. This is advice for those purchasing larger ticket items. Know exactly what you are buying before placing a bid. Once an auction reveals its list of items for sale, research, research, research. If you’re interested in a  fine art piece, or 1920 antique furniture item, search E-bay or Craig’s list, and compare prices.  You will be able to get that item much cheaper at an auction. By becoming an educated bidder, if the bidding climbs high, you’ll know it’s emotion speaking and not facts. Since I didn’t register for china or silver when I got married, I have found some nice silver pieces at auctions. Having no idea what the going prices were, I blindly bid. Fortunately, my cheaper nature got me a great deal, but I didn’t know that until I got home and googled its value. An educated guess would have been much better.
  • Most items are sold “as is” with no refunds or returns. If buying equipment or electronics, make sure you plug it in, and test it before hand. With a large ticket item, such as a car or machinery, spend hours making sure it’s going to run how you anticipate. You can find amazing deals at auctions, but if the $1000K tractor you just bought doesn’t work how you want it to when you get home, that’s no deal.
  • Auctions are not created equal. Just like a yard sale, you will be able to tell the quality of the items immediately. The address and area of town its located in will also give you a clue, but don’t always judge a book by its “address.” You will be surprised at some of the treasures hidden in smaller homes, and typically, you’ll get better deals since people don’t flock to those auctions. But again, if you are looking to furnish a house or need multiple items, heading to nicer neighborhoods will just yield you more choices since they have more stuff.
  • Rummage around in the boxes, and see what it being sold. Since I am a “for fun only” auction attender, I never have time to preview items. Once I get to an auction, I’ll look all around to see what is up for grabs. Typically, treasures are buried amongst the trash, so if you want to take full advantage of your time, dig a little before you decide if the auction is worth staying.
  • Understand the difference in selling by “lots” or per item. The auctioneer’s job is to move items. Since they are selling entire houses full of stuff, they will often mix in the junk and create “lots” of items, just to get rid of things. Notice my “auction” picture above. My eye caught some of the camping pots – that would be a lot of like kind items, but who ever ended up buying it had to also purchase the lot before that didn’t sell. If a lot doesn’t sell, they will just combine it with the next lot.  So be prepared to head right to Goodwill. Realize you may be buying a box of crud, but your one treasure will be worth it. Now that doesn’t always happen, but sometimes it does. My best example happened awhile ago when I wanted to purchase one specific book in a box. Typically with smaller items, such as book, you must buy it as a lot. I ended up purchasing fifteen books for $2. I took out my book, and went directly to a used book store where I received $10 for the ones I turned into the store. Making money on the deal was just gravy. That was the first time I realized, the huge market in buying and reselling items at flea markets etc.
  • Schedule in  a chunk of time. Like I said earlier, auctions take time. It’s not like a yard sale where you just go in and buy. They move from lot to lot and just like kindergarten, you wait your turn. But again, it’s all about the experience. Now, if you arrive and find out most stuff is junk, that’s not worth your time…just leave. With that being said, you can move something closer to the beginning of the line. Don’t just skip everyone, but I started realizing people will move items of interest to the front. It took me awhile to realize this was acceptable practice. Now, you can’t just insist they auction off the vintage sleigh bed, if they are in the middle of the “tools” lot, but when they are auctioning miscellaneous items, you can surely grab your item or box and move it up on the table. This happens all the time.

I will think of a bunch more suggestions, but hopefully, I didn’t scare any of you first time auction people away.

Just go for the fun of it. That’s what I do. Look for things like these vintage, white jars…and rejoice when you purchase a lot of seven of them for only $11.

Auctions, auctions….shopping at auctions.

Have any of you had any auction experiences?

I’d love to hear about it. (Continue reading the comments for more great perspectives on shopping at an auction.)


  1. I went to my first auction on New Year’s Day this year. SSOOO fun! You’re right- everyone needs to go at least once. It’s quite entertaining! I saw some great, American-made solid wood furntiure sold at AMAZING prices, and I definitely would have scooped some up myself if our home had any room for new pieces. I scored a hand-carved African mask and…get this… a cast iron skillet that makes kitty-shaped cornbread. haha. Best novelty cookware ever :) I can’t wait to go to another auction, and this time I’m taking the husband- he’ll love seeing the swords, old tools, and war memorabilia.


  2. I love going to auctions and have been blessed to get some great deals at them. I’ve bought everything from gorgeous handmade quilts to furniture to jewelry. My husband and I are planning on going to a few this summer just for fun!


  3. I grew up going to auctions. Love them! Our $1,700 entertainment center was “stolen” from an auction for…. well, you’ll have to guess. 😉 I’m also still using a crockpot I bought at an auction about 18 years ago! Our children are fascinated by the fast talking, and my pulse always quickens at the excitement of bidding. Fun!


  4. Years ago, when our house wasn’t full of inherited furniture, my husband & I went to “several” estate auctions. They’re almost the best – the absolute best are the auctions where a business or farm are being liquidated. There’s a ton of fun stuff, and it IS fun to watch the auctioneer and bidders “work.” We got an antique four-poster bed for one daughter; as her sister had the great-grandmother’s bed, we didn’t want her to feel left out. The one thing I still regret not being able to get (due to price) was a plantation bell – the big one that rocks back & forth in its housing. But, I’ve survived fine without it!


  5. I have been going to ag equipment auctions with my dad since I was a little girl, and I love them. Here in rural California, you truly see a cross-section of society, from the organic guys in their birkenstocks and hemp pants to the German Baptists in their flat brimmed hats and plain clothes. I still go with my brother, husband, and Dad, and it’s one of my favorite times with them.

    It is hard to restrain your bidding in all the hullabaloo and excitement. I notice that when there are multiple like items (like 5 identical late model tractors or something) that the antsy sorts bid first and high, and that the farther you go down the line, the cheaper the items get. Maybe this is true at an auction house too.

    If you like that vintage industrial look and have a creative eye, ag auctions are a great place to find stuff, though they’re usually at the end of the auction. But it’s good to be careful that you can actually unload the items you don’t want at the other end and find someone to take them. Goodwill doesn’t usually take stuff like used poultry feeders (a metal scrapyard would be my choice), and most people don’t have a forklift in their backyard.

    Loved this post. Makes me itchy to go to an auction.


  6. My husband & I used to go to a lot of auctions. It was our cheap entertainment when we were first married and we still love finding “treasures” or great deals. After our first baby I did some buying and then selling on ebay. After 4 kids(under 9) it’s harder to go. It’s always on our summer to do list to go to more auctions. Our oldest boy (7 yr) loves watching all the auction/pickers shows with his dad. I’m a sucker for old canning jars and have a nice variety in my collection. My best deal was an old bench for $3. Someone had sat on the bench during the auction and loosed the back so no one wanted it. With a little wood glue it’s good as new. Everyone always comments on it cause it’s a unique piece and I of course have to tell them I got it for $3.


  7. I used to work as a realtor for a Auctioneer/Realtor. Slowly I was roped into setting up auctions. Lots of hard and often times dirty work. Take notice of the people hanging around the auctioneers prior to the auction. Usually these are the family members, antique dealers or collectors. Most auctioneers will introduce the family if it’s an estate auction. Watch when the family starts buying because they can run items up pretty fast. What you might think would look adorable on your shelf or living room sometimes holds great sentimental value to them and they are buying a memory. Try to get there early to look things over, even stop in while the auction is being set up. Beware at the end of auctions! They want that stuffed moved out and start selling things by the row. I know. My boss would sell it to my husband for a buck, put it on my number and forget the fact we hadn’t bid on it.


  8. Pat Kleinmaier says:

    We used to love going to auctions, but have gotten out of the habit of late. The last one we went to we got there late and the weather was getting bad so they were selling off entire tables of stuff for around $5.00. we bought one and filled up the car! We had a yard sale shortly after that and sold a lot of the stuff and made tons of money off our purchase. We also got free stuff that people who bought other tables of stuff didn’t want some of it and said we could have it.
    We also bought the contents of a storage area of a garage once. That was great fun to go through. I got an old hand quilting stand whichI plan to one day donate.
    I had my own auction before moving to NC. It was a fast and easy way to get rid of everything. I will do it again when we ever move as at a yard sale you don’t get the money an auction will bring and you have leftovers.


  9. I used to go to cattle auctions at the sale barn with my dad when I was little. I would sit as still as possible because I always thought if I accidently raised my hand the auctioneer would think I was bidding.


  10. Laura Kathryn says:

    My husband often attends auctions for farm equipment but I’ve never gone to one but I want to….it will have to wait until we NEED something..we are on a spending fast….preparing for what we believe may be a tough year…especially if the governor cuts more jobs and salaries of state employees. Anyway, my husband and I watched “The Ultimate Gift” the other week and in the bonus section they advertised the Ultimate Gift family experience book,etc. Were you in that video? When I saw it I really thought it was you! Loved the movie and its message….especially when he visits Gus’ ranch for the gift of work. :) My husband has pondered getting out his cattle prod for some slow moving girls…. :) Have a great week!


    Jen Reply:

    You have a great eye. That was me in the extras of The Ultimate Gift. :) I helped in the brainstorming process of creating the Ultimate Gift Experience kit for families. I also was an extra in the movie – it was great fun, and came about because my brother is the Executive Producer of the movie. :)

    And yes, we all need a few of those cattle prods…..haha


  11. My husband and I used to go to auctions in the summer, but we’ve not been able to find them since we moved. They were great entertainment, plus we learned a lot from the old timers in the audience.


  12. House Pretty says:

    My husband and I have gone to several auctions, all by the same auctioneer. The auctioneer’s family all works at the auction, and it is the equivalent of a dinner theater, minus the dinner provided (we brown bag our own).

    That is where we got a black wrought iron chandelier that my husband is going to install in our vaulted ceiling in our living room. We also got our dresser there, the painting above our fireplace, our coffee table in our living room, gardening tools, two white with flowers teapots I fell in love with, a really nice dresser we used as a TV stand, a cameo necklace I also fell in love with, a crystal butter dish…the list goes on!

    ps. Sorry it was such a long list, I just get so hyper excited when I get good deals.


  13. this post brought back so many wonderful memories. I have been to alot of auctions but am by no means an expert or experienced. We just loved to go. We have many things in our home that we scored or spent way too much money on. That’s okay though the memories are priceless! I never knew about your tip though “With that being said, you can move something closer to the beginning of the line.” Where I come from I’m not sure if that would fly but I might have to try the next time. I also laughed about someone referencing the $1 or $5 lot or row near the end. We have friends who pretty much live for that part of the auction. They love the treasures they get! But really who needs a box of in set toilet paper roll holders! ha!


  14. My x hubbys uncle was an auctioneer but never went to one of his auctions. I just couldnt seem to muster the enthusiasm in others to go and I wouldnt go alone. I personally would love it.. Thanks for sharing wonderful times.


  15. Um, “Know what kind of payment they accept”– little typo there.

    I really liked this article and the auction hints you give. I do not have much of a chance to go right now– but when I do I will be sure to re-read this for all the great hints and information. Thank you!


    Jen Reply:

    Ugh – I can’t believe all those people read it and no one pointed that out….the downside of no editors on the payroll, and lack of editing time. 😉


  16. My first auction was two years ago and I took my three kids (then 4, 2 and 6 mos.) I even managed to buy a couple things! I think auctions are a lot of fun, but have to stay away unless I have great self-control or actually NEED something! :) Also, the ages of my kids has kept me from being too crazy!


  17. I love my auctions and then taking stuff home and going through it and seeing what are in the mystery boxes as i call them. Because where i go they sometimes auction of the whole table for a dollar or two so i take the whole table and see what i get i have found very interesting stuff i love it i am a auction junkie now.


  18. Annette Holbrook says:

    Okay, okay… I’ll go! You make it sound so fun and simple.

    Growing up in NE Wisconsin, I never heard of auctions. I lived in Southern Connecticut for 15 years and just assumed I couldn’t afford to go to auctions. (I had only seen things on TV, like Southeby’s Auctions.) Now, I’ve been living in Upstate NY for 10 years and have been holding out since I arrived. I’m certain I’ll be one of those women who gets all swept up in the emotion of it all…

    If I become an auction junkie, can I blame it on you?? 😉


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