How to Buy Like a Pro at Country Auctions

To the uninitiated, auctions can be intimidating. When you combine big crowds, a fast-talking auctioneer, a jumble of items, and a competitive atmosphere, it’s easy to lose your cool. Country auctions, in particular, have a more informal feel and dynamic pace than the auctions we typically see portrayed on TV or in the movies. Forget the high-brow auctioneer with his gavel presenting one item at a time to a somber crowd seated in padded chairs. Country and small-town auctions are loud, social, fast-paced, competitive, and — once you get used to them — a lot of fun. (See also: Police Auctions: How to Buy All the Stuff Police Seize)

Here are a few tips and tricks to help first-timers get their bearings in the auction world and score some great deals in the process.

Go for It

Don’t be intimidated by the maddening crowd or fast pace of the auction; dive right in. Once you have your bidder number, don’t be afraid to use it. Hold you number high and clear when you’re ready to bid, and if the auction staff doesn’t notice you at first, give a little shout.

Be Committed

Don’t bid if you aren’t serious about scoring the item. Bidding just for the fun of it only drives up the final price for someone else.

Keep Your Cool

Don’t jump the gun and bid at the first figure the auctioneer throws out. Auctioneers often start out high to see if there’s interest. If not, the price of the item goes down until there’s an active bid. Don’t be the guy or gal who bids immediately — you’ll never know how low the price would have gone.

Ditch Your Ego

The benefits of the auction process (for the seller, anyway) are its speed, its ability to liquidate everything completely, and the way it taps into the psychology of buyers. Bidding is competitive, and it’s in our natures to want to win. Often buyers get caught up in this desire for victory and end up paying much more for an item than intended. Sideline your ego, have a maximum price in mind for each item you bid on, and realize you can’t win ‘em all.

Be Aware

When registering at an auction, you’ll be given a bidder’s card or paddle that reflects your unique bidder number. Be careful with it. Fanning yourself with your bidder paddle during a hot summer auction is the fastest way to accidentally end up with a set of Strawberry Shortcake curtains or VCR circa 1989.

Get Comfortable

Depending on the volume of what’s being liquidated and the speed of the auctioneer, an auction might take awhile. Large household or antique liquidations are sometimes spread over two days. It’s easy to lose patience as you wait for the auctioneer to get to your item. I’ve seen many a diehard buyer fold at the eleventh hour. Bring a strong cup of coffee, take a walk, grab a snack, or set up a rotating “auction watch” with friends or family.

Be Fair

Household auctions can be jumble of miscellaneous "stuff" that camouflages a few real gems. I’ve see less-than-scrupulous buyers take a valuable item and bury it in a box of junk. These folks hope their treasure isn’t noticed by other bidders and that they can score the box for a minimal price. Don’t be one of these people. Auctions are competitive, but dirty tactics just bring down the entire process.

Enjoy Yourself

Where else in our modern world are prices not set in stone and controlled by a bar code? Where else can buying be so interactive and social? Auctions let us peer into someone else’s world for awhile — to be archeologists exploring the material histories of other families and previous generations. The whole process is so much richer than shopping from a catalog or big-box store. Enjoy yourself — but don’t forget the coffee.

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Meg Favreau's picture

I grew up in rural New England, and when I was in high school, my mom took me to an auction of old theater items -- vintage clothes, big rubber monster masks, etc. We got some amazing costumes for cheap, and the experience of attending the auction is one of my favorite memories.

Guest's picture

I used to attend some musical instrument auctions and found an important tip. If you don't know what the value of an object should be you can get a good idea by watching the professionals, the dealers buying at wholesale. Dealers buy at auctions. They know what the retail values are. They cannot afford to spend more than about 1/2 of their resale estimate. So, watch the dealers. When they stop bidding you know that is likely about 1/2 retail cost. How do you know who are the dealers? They do not want you to know who they are and what they are doing because they would rather you buy that widget you want from them, not the auction house. Therefore they all sit or stand near the back of the audience out of sight of the other buyers. Also, the auctioneer and crew knows who they are. You have to wave a large number, but the dealers will only make subtle gestures to make their bid without getting unwanted notice. Just going to an auction to watch all these dynamics is interesting in itself.

Guest's picture

I'd have to point out that driving up prices on auctions you don't want is a legitimate and often-used tactic. Remember, the more money you make everyone else spend on the lots you don't want, the less they have to spend on the ones you want.