Dos and Don'ts of eBay Shopping

Decorating by way of eBay? Here's how to get exactly what you want — without getting burned.

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For the budget decorator or the high-style seeker, eBay’s virtual mix of home treasures never fails to satisfy. But with 113 million worldwide eBay auctions running at any given moment, how do you navigate past junk and scam artists while still snagging bargains?

Here are the dos and don’ts of shopping on eBay:

Do read the entire item description.
Marian McEvoy, author and design-industry veteran, will never forget the purchase that drove this lesson home. "I found a fabulous wing chair for my living room — gorgeous fabric, one-of-a-kind design, and it was a great bargain." A week or so later, a mysterious package arrived in the mail. "I opened it, wondering what in the world it could be, and there it was: a doll chair," she says with a laugh.

"Read every word in the item description and e-mail the seller with any questions," McEvoy says. If the listing doesn’t include measurements, is vague about the condition or origin of a particular piece, or leaves out any other information you consider pertinent, use eBay’s "Ask seller a question" button to pin the seller down on those details. If he or she doesn’t respond in a timely manner, forget the auction and move on. There are millions of more fish in the eBay sea.

Don't assume sellers can spell.
Careless spelling mistakes can easily be turned to your advantage. If a seller types "Crate & Barell dish set" into a listing, those searching for "Crate & Barrel dish set" will never see it, which leaves the field wide open for you to snag the set.

Hint: Use an asterisk when you search for particular words to find both correct and misspelled terms. For example, searching "art dec*" will yield both the correctly spelled art deco listings as well as the items listed as "art decco."

Don't overlook potential.
Auction offerings aren’t always pristine, but don’t let that stop you from rooting out gems for your home. "There are thousands of great lamps on eBay," McEvoy says. "Many of them simply need a $15 rewiring job or a new shade." Don’t let frumpy fabric or a garish color scare you away, either: "If the price is right, interesting but beat-up items can be given new life and still be a bargain." Look for furniture you can reupholster or paint, old frames you can have fitted with new glass, and frayed textiles you can cut up and use as tablecloths or pillow covers.

Don't assume all sellers know exactly what they're selling.
Most sellers on eBay are understandably ignorant about which design periods their items belong to. It’s not unusual to discover Federal furniture listed as Colonial and vice versa, so be sure to search for both terms. Melanie Haiken, a longtime eBayer in San Rafael, Calif., collects pottery that's distinguished by a "bake oven" mark on the bottom, so in addition to browsing the general "Pottery & Glass" category, she plugs that particular term into the search box and — bingo!

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