Everything You Need to Know to Shop an Auction Like a Pro

Looking for a mid-century dining set or crystal chandelier? Want to create a salon style art wall, quickly and on a budget? Are antique musical instruments are your Achilles heel? Then you should go to an auction! They’re great places to find interesting- and affordable- furniture, art, and a host of other items for collecting, decorating, and renovating.  And although they may seem complicated and intimidating, they’re actually very easy to navigate, and not all that different from online auctions like eBay. Today’s post gives you the low-down on attending auctions, and by the end of it, I promise you’ll know everything you need to shop auctions like a pro.



Find an Auction

Googling for auction houses in your area is the most obvious starting point, but many other business and organizations have auctions: business and estate liquidators, schools, hospitals, local government, and even non-profits.  Keep an eye out for auction announcements on craigslist, on community bulletin boards, and classified ads in daily and weekly newspapers. Ask these organizations how to get on their email list for upcoming auctions.

Tip:  Many auctions happen on a regularly scheduled basis: bi-monthly, third Saturday of the month, every Tuesday, etc.  Put these on your calendar as a recurring appointment, with a reminder a day or two ahead of time, to make it easy to keep track of when they’re coming up.

Check out the Catalog

The best way to ensure your trip to the auction is a success is to do some advance planning. Start by visiting the auction’s website a few days ahead of time to find out what will be offered.  Most auctions will post a list of items to be sold, along with (sometimes, but not always) pictures and details about the items. This is known as the catalog, and it contains information such as description, size, condition, or even anticipated sale price.   Items are sold as lots, and each lot will have one or more items in it. It’s a good idea to keep checking back regularly to see if the catalog is updated, as these are often a work in progress right up to the time of the auction and lots may be added, removed, or changed.

Tip: Always look at the entire catalog even if it sounds like it might not be up your alley; the first 100 lots in a farm auction might be power tools and tractor parts, but the last 20 could be a trove of antique farmhouse furnishings that turned up in the back of the barn being emptied out.

Research the items that interest you, then make a list of the lots you want to bid on. Next figure out the max price, or total cost, you are willing to pay for each item, along with your max bid for each item.  Max price and max bid are not the same thing. Max bid is the most you are willing to bid on the item, while max price is the total cost you are willing to pay to get an item home.  Auctions charge a buyer’s premium, which is an additional fee of 10-15% tacked on to the hammer price (that’s the winning bid price). Auctions also may also charge state and local sales tax. If you need to rent a truck or hire someone to deliver it for you, that will also add to the cost.

Let’s say you have the winning bid on a dresser at $100, and there’s a 15% buyers premium and 8.75% sales tax on the hammer price, plus $50 for the delivery guy;  the total cost of that dresser is $173.75, a significantly larger number than the winning bid.  Jotting down your max price and max bid next to each lot number is a great way to know when to stop bidding, and to know when you really scored.

Tip: Print a copy of the catalog to bring with you. It’ll save you a buck or two over buying a copy at the auction.

Know the Terms and Conditions

Understanding the auction’s policies and processes is just as important as knowing what is for sale. If you are a winning bidder, you’re going to have to pay for your item and get it home.  Every auction has its own terms and conditions, and can vary considerably from one to auction to the next.  You can typically find this information on the website for the auction, but if not, call the organization running the auctions to get a handle on the following details:

  1. What forms of payment are accepted? Is there a surcharge for paying with a credit card?
  2. What is the buyers premium?
  3. What sales tax is charged?
  4. When must items be paid for?  Upon winning, at auction close, or at pickup?
  5. When can you pick up items you won?  Are appointments required?
  6. What is the deadline for pickup?  Is there a storage fee if you can not pick up an item by the deadline?

Tip: Regularly scheduled auctions also usually have regular pick-up hours.  Add those hours to your calendar on a recurring basis as well, to minimize scheduling conflicts for item pickup that could result in costly storage fees.

Register as a Bidder

When you arrive at the auction, you’ll need to register as a bidder and get your bidder number.  Generally a drivers license or equivalent form of ID is required.  If this is an organization with recurring auctions, you will only need to do this once and you’ll have the same number for subsequent auctions. The person running the registration desk will usually give you any special information needed to participate in that auction.  If no one is manning the registration desk, or you have questions about the auction in general, don’t hesitate to ask another staffer to assist.  If it’s close to the start time, they may be a little harried and juggling a handful of last minute tasks, but auction staffers are typically friendly and willing to help any way they can.

Tip: Keep each auction’s paperwork and bidder number in its own folder, and tuck your catalog printout and notes in there too before heading out.

The Preview

The preview is where you can cast an eyeball over the items you are interested in. This is a very important step!  Most auction items are sold as is, where is, no warranty, and all sales final. Parts may be broken or missing, appliances may not be in working condition, and table tops may be stained, scratched, or gouged. You may also find that the “small cabinet” in the catalog is actually the size of a refrigerator, or visa versa.

Some auctions only permit previews before the auction and no one is permitted to view the items after the auction has started, and others permit viewing both before and during the auction. Usually the date(s), times, and policies of the auction are listed on the auction’s website.

Tip: Don’t be surprised if you change your mind about what items you want to bid on once you see them, dropping some and adding others.  But be sure to come up with a max price and max bid for any new items that interest you.

Attending the Auction

And now the fun begins: bidding time! Some auctions take place in a muddy field and others are in an auction room or a warehouse, but they all have a few things in common: an auctioneer, an assistant pointing out the lot up for bid, and the bidders.  The auctioneer will announce the starting bid, and if there are no takers, he will lower the price till the bidders jump in.  To bid on an item, just wave your bidder number.  If the reserve or minimum bid is not met, the auctioneer will announce that they will pass on that item. When the bidding is over, the auctioneer will whack the gavel and announce “Sold to bidder XYZ.” If you are the winner, refer to your notes or ask an auction staffer how payment and pickup is handled. It’s really just that simple. The biggest thing to remember is always know what lot is up for bid.

Auctions move insanely fast. Depending on the number of interested bidders, an auction will cover anywhere from 45-60 lots per hour.  That’s right, almost one per minute! Make sure you know what lot numbers you are interested in and that you are paying attention to what lot is currently up for bid. It’s really sad to miss that one special item you specifically came to bid on, simply because you tuned out for just one minute to read an email or chat with the person sitting next to you.  Ask me how I know.

Tip: Determine the approximate time your lots will come up for bid by estimating the number of items per hour that are being auctioned, and divide your lot numbers by that.  Let’s say the auctioneer is going through 50 lots per hour, and you are interested in lot number 102. At that rate it will take 2 hours to get to your lot.


Sometimes there are silent auctions going on at the same time as the live auction. You can write in your bid for a box or tray of related or seemingly random items.  I love the silent auctions, they can be an opportunity for serious buried treasure.  Auctions that specialize in fine art and antiques may also be liquidating the less fine items of an estate, like wrought iron patio furniture and vintage collectibles in a silent auction.  Be sure you know what time the silent auction ends, and be standing by ready to pounce with another bid if necessary right at closing time.

Auctions are pretty low-to-no frills affairs.  There may or may not be chairs for the bidders, and it is entirely possible the chair you sit in is an item in the auction.  Comfortable shoes and layered clothing are always a good idea.  Auction spaces can be drafty, freezing cold, or extremely hot, and layers will let you adjust accordingly for the duration you are there.  Also, because auctions can last for several hours, consider bringing snacks, something to drink, and reading materials or that knitting project you have been working on. And finally, do chat with the other bidders. There is often a bit of a festive atmosphere at auctions. Not only does being social with others make you part of the community, they may know about other auctions in the area as well.  Not every one at an auction is going to be bidding on what you are bidding on, so there’s not necessarily a competitive edge to staying aloof.  You’ll see many of the same people over and over, and you’ll start to develop a sense of what it is that they like to bid on, and can fashion your own bidding strategy from there.

Tip: Some auctions are known for the seriously good food available onsite. One might have homemade pie, another might have “the tamale lady”, and a rotating selection of food trucks may be at another.  Call or email the auction ahead of time to find out.

And there you have it, everything you need to know to shop an auction like a pro.  Comment below if you have any auction tips of your own that you’d like to share. I’d love to hear them!

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