15 Auction and Bidding Tips for Beginners

Do's and Don'ts for a Successful Auction With No Regrets

Auctioneer with Large Crowd of Buyers
Rich Legg / Getty Images

For collectors and bargain hunters, there’s nothing like the excitement of a live auction. Auctions are equal parts sport and shopping. They're also prime sources for furniture, artwork, and accessories. Learning how to bid at an auction is just one step. If you're looking for beginner auction tips, read these do's and don'ts before you bid.

10 Tips for What to Do at a Live Auction

  1. Do attend the preview. You should attend the preview to inspect the goods even if you’ve seen photos in an auction catalog. Make sure it’s possible (and won’t cost too much) to repair damaged pieces. Make note of box lot numbers and contents if you’re planning to bid on them.
  2. Do set a maximum you’re willing to spend. Set your limit for each item of interest, and then stick to it. It’s all too easy to get caught up in auction fever and bid far more than you intended. If you doubt your willpower, attend with a friend so you can keep each other accountable.
  3. Do check the payment terms before the day of the auction. Make sure the auction house accepts checks or credit cards if those are how you plan to pay. Ask about deposits and extra charges also. At some auctions, you have to put down a refundable deposit when you register to bid. Some also add a buyer’s premium to the hammer price, which is your winning bid.
  4. Do double-check box lot contents. It’s not unheard of for unscrupulous bidders to switch the contents from box to box. Check on the morning of the auction if the official preview took place on a preceding day.
  5. Do register for a bidder’s card. You can’t participate without one, so do this as soon as you arrive.
  6. Do dress appropriately. Make sure to dress practically, especially if the auction is being held outdoors or in a barn. Dress in layers if there’s no temperature control, and be prepared to walk across muddy or uneven ground.
  7. Do pack a folding chair. Have one in your car just in case all the seats are taken by the time you arrive.
  8. Do expect the best deals in the afternoon. As early-morning bidders run out of money and energy, you’ll have less competition for the winning bid.
  9. Do start bidding when your item is up. Auctions move fast. If you hesitate too long, the hammer may come down before you’ve worked up the courage to bid.
  10. Do secure your purchases. Make sure to bring your purchases to your vehicle or otherwise secure them if the auction requires immediate payment and possession. If you leave your purchases unattended while you visit the snack bar or restroom, you won't get a refund if someone pilfers part of your stash. Lock purchases in your trunk or put them under cover so you don't tempt parking lot thieves.

5 Tips for What Not to Do at a Live Auction

  1. Don’t wait until you’ve won to check on pick-up and delivery options. At some auctions, you’re required to take possession immediately. Others charge storage fees if you can’t take your purchases with you when you leave.
  2. Don’t show excitement. Stay calm during the preview when you find items you want to acquire. You don’t want to announce your intentions to other bidders. You may end up increasing your competition if you call attention to specific pieces. If they didn’t notice your favorites at first glance, don’t give them a reason to go back for a second look.
  3. Don’t ​get into a bidding war. If you get caught up in beating the other bidder, you may end up wishing you’d lost once the auction ends and you’re committed to a high price.
  4. Don’t jump the gun. Don't shout out your maximum bid as soon as the bidding starts. The auctioneer will increase the price incrementally until there are no more bids.
  5. Don’t bid if you’re not sure you want to buy. If yours is the winning bid, you’re committed to the purchase. You can’t change your mind after the hammer falls.