mad anthony

Rants, politics, and thoughts on politics, technology, life,
and stuff from a generally politically conservative Baltimoron.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Auction hunting, and not bagging anything...

Last year, on the way up to my parent's house in NJ, I stopped to pick up some stuff I won in an online auction in Philly. I paid about $1200 for a number of items, which included a flash RAID array that I sold for a grand, several ruggedized laptops that fetched as much as $300 each, and 5 HP computers that were so new they had 2 years of warranty left on them.

This year, I also made a stop on the way to the 'rents for Easter to pick up some online auction items. This time, though, it was $130 worth of gift shop merchandise from an Amish Country gift shop - mostly glassware like shot glasses, pint glasses, and mugs. If I'm lucky, I may be able to double or triple my investment, but I suspect it's going to be a long, slow grind, and might mean setting up at a traditional flea market instead just selling it at the ham-radio and electronic themed hamfests I normally sell at.

Sadly, this is pretty much the summation of my auction experiences of late - not very good. I've been going to auctions for years, as well as bidding on (non-ebay) online auctions where you bid online and pick up in person. From fall of 2011 to the end of 2012 I had an unusually good run - in fact, my eBay sales last calendar year - mostly stuff I bought at auctions but also a number of items I found at yard sales - was enough that I ended up getting 1099-k'ed by Paypal, resulting in an unexpected tax bill.

Being successful at the auction game, like much of life, is a combination of 3 things - luck, skill, and effort. Luck is a combination of the right auctions being nearby at times you can get to them, with the right items, and without anyone else who knows what they are worth. Skill is knowing what to bid on, how to resell it for a profit, and knowing how to spot hidden gems. Effort is going to enough auctions, being willing to drive a little, take reasonable risks, and store and sell what you buy.

The irony of luck is that a buyer's good luck is often the result of someone else's bad luck - many of my finds have been from estate sales, bankruptcy sales, or other places where my new beginning comes from some other beginning's end. But the other half of luck is who else shows up - I remember one auction in December 2011 that included the assets of a doctor's office that had closed - on many items not only was I the only bidder, but I was telling the auctioneer what the items were so he could write up tickets. The flip side is when someone with deeper pockets shows up - I went to a computer store auction in Lancaster, PA a few months back where a young Asian guy in a fitted cap wanted pretty much everything I wanted, and was willing to pay amounts for them where I didn't think I could make a profit. Often, the difference between walking home with a truckload of profitable merchandise and walking out with a couple items and a feeling that you just wasted a day is one person showing up or not. Or on someone making an entirety bid - I recently was high bidder on a number of items from an aerosol can plant - including 150 cans of canned air for $35 - I probably could have gotten $450 at hamfest - it's something I bought some of several years ago at an auction, quickly sold out, and haven't been able to find more of cheaply since. Sadly, there was also a $100,000 entirety bid for everything - so I'm still airless. Luck can also come into play in stranger ways - last year I bid on the contents of two boxes from the estate of a guy who had a recording studio. I paid $40 because I had seen an $80 and a $40 item in the box. What I didn't realize was that there were also several remotes for reel-to-reel tape players, 2 of which were worth $70 a piece - and one that was worth $270, that was so rare that nobody had sold one on eBay for months before I listed mine.

Timing is the other half of luck. It's made more difficult by the fact that I have a day job, one that pays me far more than even the best year's crap-hunting profits. So I need to work around that, and sometimes that means missing an auction I really want to go to. Family obligations is also sometimes an issue. This year I will be missing one of my favorite semi-annual auctions, one I look forward to every year and that I've probably been going to twice a year for the last 3+ years- Penn State's computer surplus auction. Alas, I'm going to a conference for work that week. While the career value and cost of what my employer is paying to send me to the conference far exceeds what I'd make, it's still disappointing, because I actually enjoy going there, even though it usually means driving through rural PA in the dark at 2am with a truck full of stuff that hits me every time I go around a turn.

Effort means going to a lot of auctions, something I try to do, and bidding on a lot of online auctions. It means knowing how to work the search on auctionzip to find non-obvious listings, religiously checking the websites of a number of online auction companies, and going to auctions that only have a hint of promise. Some of my best finds have been in auctions that were poorly advertised or that I only guessed might have stuff I wanted. The well-advertised auctions with lots of pictures tend to be the ones where most things sell for too much, because everyone went there. Effort also means going the distance - many of my really good finds have come at the end, when lots of other people have called it quits (or run out of money). The Penn State auction I mentioned earlier starts at 5pm - and usually runs well past midnight.

Skill is knowing what to bid on. In today's world of smartphones, skill doesn't mean as much as it used to, because everyone has a smartphone. But skill is knowing non-obvious items, the stuff people wouldn't think to look up, as well as finding valuable items in box lots or "contents of shelf/cabinet/room" type lots.

Besides the money I make from auctions, it's my hobby, and it's gotten me a number of cool random items that grace my house, from the 24" Lenovo widescreen that graces my desk (from a defunct VA dotcom called jobfox) to the Herman Miller Aeron chair in front of it (from an FDIC auction of First Bank Americano) to the Detoxify neon sign in my living room (from Record and Tape Traders). It's how I spend my vacation days. Without much inventory, and with some time out of town coming up, I've been taking a break from eBay, and it's weird not spending my nights writing descriptions or packing stuff. It's not the end of the world - it's not like I need the money to eat, and now that the weather is starting to warm up I'll probably be finding some inventory at hamfests and yard sales. And I know eventually a good auction will show up - this certainly isn't the first dry spell I've had, and it won't be the last. But hopefully, soon, my luck will return.


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