HAVE FUN AT THE AUCTION
This is intended as a basic primer for those who have never been to an auction, or for those who have been to a few, but didn’t feel they got the most out of the experience. I’m certainly not an expert, but over the past 20+ years I’ve been to hundreds of auctions of all types. And many of the tools and supplies in my shop were purchased at auctions. Along the way I’ve scored some incredible deals; and made some really bone headed mistakes. For purposes of this article, I’m only going to talk about auctions where one might find tools or supplies, not real estate, vehicles, etc.
TYPES OF AUCTIONS:
Woodworking tools and supplies can usually be found at two types of auctions: commercial and personal property (aka estate sales). Commercial auctions usually involve a business liquidation, or asset reduction. Personal property, or estate sales, are just what the name implies: the personal items of an individual who no longer needs them. They may be deceased, moving into a retirement facility, downsizing, etc.
Business Liquidation: There are several reasons a business may liquidate. The owner may be ready to retire and couldn’t find a buyer for the business as a whole; sales were so poor they couldn’t afford to keep the doors open; or the IRS/State is selling it for back taxes. Knowing why a business is being liquidated can provide some hints as to what to expect at the auction. In the first two situations (owner retiring or poor sales) it’s a good bet the owner has been shopping around his equipment in an effort to sell anything he can and raise some cash. If so, some of the best pieces have probably already gone out the door. What’s left is what he couldn’t get his price for, and decided to take his chances at an auction. This doesn’t mean there won’t be some really good items to choose from. As a hobbyist, you may be very happy with a tool that a commercial operation couldn’t use. There are usually plenty of hand tools (e.g. clamps, screwdrivers, wrenches, socket sets, etc.) because other commercial operations already have a decent supply of these if they have been in business for awhile. Wood is another item you may find plentiful. If the wood is neatly bundled by species and size (i.e. 200 bf of 4/4 Cherry in 8’ lengths) it will go high. However, if there are racks of miscellaneous boards, with a little bit of everything thrown in, you may be able to get a bargain. As hobbyist we can use small quantities of whatever we have: a cabinet shop can’t. Be wary of small power tools (routers, miter saws, drills, etc.) as they have usually been “well used”.
A business being sold to satisfy a tax lien presents a different situation. In all likelihood, the tax agency walked in one day and shut everything down. That means everything is probably just as it was when the seizure occurred. The good news is that all the equipment is still there and being sold. The bad news is that it’s total chaos and you may have to help the auctioneer figure out what’s what if you are interested in something. (Example: you want that nice raised panel door set of router bits in the wooden box, but it’s missing one bit. You go over to the router table and discover the bit is still in the router, because it was in use at the moment of the seizure. You may have to explain it to the auctioneer, and probably move it yourself.) NOTE: It is extremely rare to find an auction crew that knows anything about woodworking equipment. You won’t believe what they call some of the items they are selling. The same goes for manuals and any accessories that go with machines or other equipment (e.g. jigs and fixtures). It’s unlikely the owner is cooperating with the auctioneer to make sure everything goes smoothly, so you may have to do a little digging on your own.
Asset Reduction refers to a business that is selling unneeded equipment or supplies that are no longer necessary for the ongoing operations of the business. If they’ve changed their production or business model for some reason, and just don’t need this stuff any longer, then you might find a good deal. On the other hand, it might be stuff that is totally worn out, or damaged, and they’re just trying to salvage a few dollars out of it. Be careful!
Personal Property / Estate Sale: These are very different than commercial auctions. To begin with, most of the tools and equipment will be “hobby class”, not commercial grade. And they will probably be old, and not in such great shape. So look them over very carefully. Second, it’s not just tools and equipment. It will include everything they owned, so be prepared to stand around for hours while they sell Grandma’s lace doilies, that collection of 78 LP albums from the 50’s, kitchen utensils, knick-knacks, and everything else. You may get lucky and the shop stuff goes first. But more than likely, they’ll throw a few pieces in throughout the day, with the bulk of it being the last things they sell.
Like commercial auctions, estate sales occur for different reasons. The most common reason is that the “old folks” have passed on and left the family with all this stuff that no one really wants. So what are they going to do with it? Have an auction, of course. Normally, this is good because it means someone who will really appreciate and use it (that would be you) can buy it and give it a good and loving home. But there are a couple of things to be aware of and watch out for. First, someone in the family may have been interested in woodworking and coveted Grandpa’s tools. If so, they have probably gone through and picked out all the good stuff for themselves, and left the junk for the auction. Sometimes at auctions like this I try to figure out what’s missing. There’s a big square spot right in the middle of the shop where something obviously sat for many years, but isn’t there now. Hmmmmm! Wonder where that table saw went?
Second, a common scenario is that Grandpa died quite a few years before Grandma, and all his stuff has been sitting in his old shop, rusting and decaying, until Grandma’s time came. This is not always the case, but it often is. In this situation, I cannot overemphasize the need to look everything over very carefully, and know what you’re looking at. Sometimes neglect can do more harm to a tool than hard use can.
Another, less common, reason for estate sales is to settle the unpaid debts of the deceased. Since everything the deceased owned should have gone into the estate, the relatives should not have removed anything prior to the sale. This may or may not be the case! If the family has not removed anything, this can lead to some interesting bidding wars at the auction. Often family members will have significant emotional attachments to particular items, and feel they must have them, no matter the cost. And if two or more family members feel the same way about a particular item, the best thing to do is stand back and watch the fireworks. Forget about getting it yourself. Unchecked emotion has no place at an auction.
WHAT TO DO AT THE AUCTION:
As mentioned earlier, there will usually be an amazing number of items at an auction, especially personal property, or estate sales. If you’re lucky, the tools and equipment will be grouped together in a separate area, and easy to view. I’ve been to auctions, however, where items were thrown on tables as the workers brought them out of storage, and everything was co-mingled on long tables, with no order. And that’s how they will be sold once the auction starts.
My advice is to get to the auction early. I always try to arrive at least an hour before it is scheduled to start. The first thing I do is register and get a bidder’s number (sometimes referred to as a “paddle”). If you’ve never been to an auction, this is a key step. You have to have a number to bid, and you have to register to get the number. There is no charge for this, and it’s simply a matter of providing your name, address, and phone number, and showing your driver’s license. If you plan on paying with a check, ask them if you need to get approval before bidding.
Next, start looking at the items and making notes to yourself on those you are interested in. Examine each item as if you were Sherlock Holmes looking for clues. I carry a magnifying glass, small flashlight, pad of steel wool, and tape measure with me. If the item can be easily disassembled (e.g. a hand plane), then do so and look it over carefully for any damage or missing parts. NOW is the time to determine the maximum amount you are willing to pay for something: not once the bidding starts. I also carry a small notebook and write down a dollar figure. Just before that item comes up I check my notes. If the bidding exceeds my maximum amount, I stop bidding. This takes a fair amount of self-discipline, and you have to be willing to part with that special tool you had your heart set on, but it will help keep you from overpaying and regretting it later.
Once you have gone through all the merchandise and examined every item you think you might be interested in, turn around and go back through in the opposite direction. You’ll be surprised at what you missed the first time. A lot of “smalls” are laid out on long folding tables. If you went down one side of the tables on your first pass, go back on the other side. And look under the tables. Sometimes they will put a larger, or heavier, item on the ground under the table. It’s easy to miss down there. It things are still in a building (e.g. a shop, barn, lean-to, shed, etc.), look up. Many times you will find things stored in the rafters that you might not have seen otherwise. This is especially true for lumber.
Once the auction starts, pay attention to what they are selling. Good auctioneers will try to group similar items together and stay on one category until it is finished. If so, you can keep looking at the items you’re interested in until they get closer to them. I continue to walk the entire time I’m at the auction, except when I’m actually bidding. I’m always amazed at what I find on my 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, etc. pass. And sometimes I’ll reexamine an item I put on my list the first time, only to discover some flaw, or decide I really don’t want it, or adjust my maximum bid.
When you go to an auction, dress to get dirty. It’s common to find boxes or buckets of miscellaneous items all lumped together, with plenty of sawdust, dirt, grease, and maybe even a few insects. When you look at the top layer of stuff, you may not see anything of interest. But look deeper. More than once I’ve found a hidden gem further down. And chances are, no one else has bothered to dig through it because they weren’t willing to get dirty. When this happens, carefully put the gem back on the bottom and pile all the other stuff on top of it. Hey, if no one else is willing to dig through it like you did, that’s their problem.
HOW AUCTIONS WORK:
Hidden Cost: Buying something at an auction is not as simple as pointing at it and saying, “I want that.” You have to pay close attention and understand how it is being sold. For starters, when you register and get your bidder’s number, find out if there are any hidden cost. This usually occurs as a “buyer’s premium”, which appears as a percentage added on to whatever you bid. For example, a 10% buyer’s premium will add $10 to the cost of an item you successfully bid $100 for, meaning you end up paying $110. I recently saw a man bid $18,000 for a motorcycle, and ended up paying $19,800 when the 10% premium was added on. Ouch! Be aware of this and factor it into your bid. Not all auctioneers charge a bidder’s premium, but it is becoming more common each year.
A second type of hidden cost is tax. Depending on the type of auction, tax may or may not be charged. At most estate sales, the auctioneer is selling “on behalf of” the owner, so no tax will be charged. If you go to an auction house, where a lot of merchandise from different owners is being sold, you will probably pay a tax, since the sale occurred at a “place of business”. One key way to determine the type of sale, and whether a tax will be charged, is to see whom checks are to be made out to. If made out to the owner, then no tax should be charged. If made out to the auctioneer, then a tax probably will be charged.
Box Lots: At auctions where there are numerous small items of very low value, the crew will throw things into a small, flat box and usually sell the box as a unit. The auctioneer might say something like, “Selling the box” when he starts the bidding. This is to expedite the auction process, rather than selling 25-30 small items, one at a time. This may or may not work to your advantage. If there are several items in the box you want, you may get them for one price, usually lower than you would pay for them individually. On the other hand, if there is one item you want, and someone else wants another item in the box, you might get into a bidding war. There are a couple of ways to handle this: first, don’t be afraid to pick out the one item you really want and ask if they can sell it individually. I usually do this by handing it to one of the crew members who is helping the auctioneer. Most auctioneers are happy to do this because they think it will bring a better price. Some have a rule that if you request a specific piece, then you have to open with a minimum bid (e.g. $5). The other way to handle this is more risky, but sometimes works. Once you see there is a bidding war, back off. Let the other bidder win. Then approach the buyer and ask if they would be interested in selling anything in that box they really didn’t want. If they say yes, tell them what you want and make them an offer. Here’s where your negotiating skills really come in. I’ve bought many items like this, and I’ve been turned down many times. But it’s worth a shot.
Choice: When there are multiple units of the same, or at least similar, items, the auctioneer might put them all together and sell “choice item or items”. Hand planes are a good example of this. Most auctioneers don’t know the difference between a #8, a #2, and a compass plane. They’re lucky if they know it’s a plane and not a saw. So when there are a bunch of planes to sell, they might spread them all out on a table and announce, “buyer’s choice, take as many as you want”. This means if you are the highest bidder, you can take one, or two, or all of them, paying the same price for each one you take. (Ex: there were 12 planes on the table, you were the high bidder at $15, and you took four planes. Your cost will be $15 x 4 = $60.) But what if you weren’t the high bidder? Assuming the high bidder didn’t take the ones you wanted, you still have a shot at it. The auctioneer may ask if anyone else “wants one at that price” (the winning bid). If you want it and are willing to pay that for it, say “yes” and grab it quick. Or the auctioneer may open the bidding back up for choice again, and repeat the process. They will usually do this two or three times, depending on the item and how many there are. Finally, he will say something like; “selling all for one money,” meaning the high bidder gets everything left for one price. (Ex: there are five planes left and you bid $27.50. You get all five planes for $27.50, not $27.50 each.)
Times the money, buyer takes all: This is an approach I don’t particularly care for, but it happens and you need to be careful. If there are several matching items, perhaps even part of a set (Ex: 4 matching chairs), the auctioneer may sell one unit, but announce, “selling one, buyer takes all, 4 times the money.” Whatever you bid for one chair, you have to take all four, and pay 4x your winning bid. I’ve seen many people get confused, and angry, because they thought they were buying only one chair, or thought they were buying all four for one low price. Another example of why you have to pay very close attention to what the auctioneer says.
As is, where is: Most auctioneers are very diligent / careful to remind everyone that you are buying items “as is, where is”. Quite simply, when the auctioneer says “Sold”, you own it. It’s too late to look it over and find you don’t want it because it has a broken piece, or wasn’t quite what you thought it was. The time to thoroughly inspect it is long before the bidding starts. “As is, where is” also means you have to move it. So before you buy that “Old Iron” 36” band saw that weighs 2 tons, make sure you know how you’re going to get it home. Don’t expect the auctioneer or their crew to help you. As soon as the auction is over, they’re gone. Another aspect of “as is, where is” means you own it, and have to pay for it, whether you take possession or not. The auctioneer is no longer responsible for it. Let’s say you’re at a fast moving auction, working its way down a long row of tables with multiple small items. Along the way you’ve bought two or three items, but because you were interested in more, and the auction was moving quickly, you didn’t bother to pick your items up. Opps! They will probably be there when you come back for them, but if they aren’t, don’t bother complaining to the auctioneer. They were yours to take care of the second he said “sold”. And you still have to pay for them!
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED AT THE AUCTION:
Well, maybe not funny, but here are a couple of stories that illustrate the strange things you might encounter at an auction.
When I lived in another state, a small business was liquidating everything. The owner was retiring, and had not found a buyer for the business. He sold high end equipment and supplies for both metal and wood working. The auction had been underway for maybe 30 minutes, and I noticed the owner seemed to be getting more and more upset, and pretty angry. Prices were going fairly low, especially compared to the sticker prices he had on everything. Finally, he yelled out something to the effect of, “You people are a bunch of thieves! You’re trying to steal everything I have. This auction is over. Everybody out!” Well that was certainly unusual. The auctioneer finally got the man to walk outside with him and they had what looked like a fairly heated discussion. The auctioneer was explaining that he couldn’t expect to get full price for something at an auction, and that once the auction had been advertised in the paper (which it had) and had begun, he was legally bound to continue under state law. It was advertised as an “absolute auction”, meaning everything must be sold at whatever price it brings. Nothing was on reserve.
The auctioneer came back inside and resumed the auction, but the man went to his car and sat there for awhile. He was very agitated and acting irrational, so I kinda kept an eye on him to see what he was going to do. For all I knew he might come back in with a gun and start shooting, and I sure didn’t want to appear on the 6 o’clock news covered in a sheet. Fortunately, he drove off after a few minutes and the auction continued safely.
As I mentioned earlier, family members may end up bidding against each other at an estate sale over an item they are emotionally attached to. Such was the case at an auction I went to a couple of years ago. An elderly couple had both passed away and all their possessions were being sold. Among the guns was a very ordinary, run-of-the-mill, 22 rifle. Normally this type of gun would go fairly cheap. But this particular gun finally sold for $2,200. Here’s the story: The old man was an avid hunter, and over the years had taught several of his grandchildren to hunt. Each one started out with that 22 rifle. Two of those grandsons, now in their 40’s, were at the auction, and both had a strong emotional attachment to that particular gun. When the bidding first started, there were several people interested. But when it quickly went above $100, most dropped out, leaving only the two grandsons. The auctioneer realized he had a golden opportunity, and began raising the bidding in $50 increments, until one cousin finally dropped out at $2,200. When it was over they smiled and hugged each other, so no hard feelings. I was just glad they weren’t interested in his woodworking tools.
Sometimes things can get heated at an auction, even when emotional attachment isn’t a factor. I was at an auction once and two men were bidding on the same item. The bidding went back and forth between just the two of them several times, and I noticed that one of the men seemed to be getting angry. All of a sudden, he shouted some obscenity, and lunged at the other man. Sure enough, a full-blown fist fight broke out right there. Eventually the auctioneer’s crew got it broken up and the offender escorted off the property, and the auction continued. But you never know what’s going to happen at an auction, so stay alert. I don’t think the other man had any idea what was about to happen: he was just bidding on an item.
Last story. Earlier I talked about box lots, where everything in a box is sold as one unit. I was at an estate auction where a deceased woodworker had a lot of stuff which was mostly run-of-the-mill, but also included a few really nice, old pieces. Like most auctions, there were several long folding tables, and things were spread out everywhere. I noticed one man seemed to be picking things up, examining them carefully, then taking them somewhere else before putting them down. I kept watching him and realized he was “stacking” a box. He was putting all the high quality items he really wanted into one box, hoping to get it all for one low price. But there were a couple of items in there I was interested in, so I began taking those pieces back out and putting them somewhere else. Eventually, he would find them and move them back to his box. When the bidding finally started, I asked the auctioneer if he could sell one or two items separately. The other man objected, and everything in the box went as one unit. I stayed in the bidding for awhile, but quickly realized this guy had deeper pockets than I did, and dropped out. But just before the auctioneer said “sold”, a third bidder jumped in and eventually he got the box. Apparently he had been watching our little “dance” and patiently waiting. What I call “stacking” is fairly common at auctions, especially where there are a lot of small items, so if you’re interested in something, keep checking to make sure it remains where you think it is.
Have fun at the auction, and good luck.