Dos and Don'ts of eBay Shopping

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

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!

Do know from whom you're buying.
The saying "All you have is your reputation" couldn’t be truer than it is on eBay. Some eBayer sellers use their cloak of Internet anonymity to rip off buyers, provide shoddy service or sell sub-par merchandise.

One eBay seller, for example, specializes in Rachel Ashwell "Shabby Chic" goods. Unfortunately, she’s also notorious for hawking Ashwell’s low-end Target line as the real deal, inflating prices and sometimes taking payment but never shipping the buyers’ items. A quick browse through the seller’s feedback rating (the numerical link next to the seller ID) will clue potential buyers in to her scheme, saving them cash and disappointment.

If a seller has little eBay history or a feedback rating that's less than 98 percent positive (or even if it's above 98 percent but recent feedback has been negative), proceed with extreme caution, says Marsha Collier, eBay for Dummies author. To bring negative and neutral feedback right to the top (it's often buried in dozens of less-critical reviews), try entering a seller ID into this handy tool.

Do price out items before you bid.
Do your pricing homework first, or you may spend more for a brand item that actually costs less in the store. "Always price things at retailers' websites first," says Marsha Collier, author of eBay for Dummies. Before bidding, check matching items listed on eBay and use the "Completed listings only" box in "Advanced Search" to see what comparable items were sold for. Above all, decide how much something is worth to you, then set a budget and stick to it.

Don't waste money on worthless goods.
Sadly, fakes and other inflated items are rampant on eBay. Never bid on something — especially an antique, collectible or pricey brand-name item — until you've taken steps to verify its authenticity. Forget this advice and you'll waste money on items that, despite their seemingly can't-beat prices, wind up being no bargain at all.

  • If you're bidding on an antique or other valuables, see if the seller has included a certificate of authenticity or a professional appraisal in the listing.
  • If he or she says the goods were produced by a certain manufacturer or sold by a particular retailer, look for a picture of the label or maker's stamp.
  • If something is "rare," but has several identical items listed, you can bet it's a knock-off.
  • If you want an original, be on the lookout for tip-off words such as "-like" "-esque" "-style," "modeled after" and so on.
  • Finally, remember that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

      Don't be frightened of freight shipping.

      "If you're shopping for furniture or other large items, check local listings first," suggests Matthew Patrick Smyth, a New York City interior designer who frequently uses eBay to source items for clients and for his own home. The site's "Advanced Search" tool lets you hone your hunt to items within a certain distance of your ZIP code so you can pick them up in person or have the seller drop them at your door.

      But if you root out a treasure that's cross country, don't let the distance stop you from bidding if it's a piece you'd regret passing by. Even sellers who specify "local pick-up only" can often be persuaded to sell to a distant buyer who's willing to dispatch a freight company to retrieve the item. Freight companies to investigate include FedEx, Greyhound, Craters & Freighters, UShip and FreightCenter.

      Do scrutinize shipping charges.
      "Whether you’re shopping eBay or Pottery Barn, shipping is a fact of life," Smyth says, "and if the price is right, you can still get a deal." But not if it turns out that a $5 tablecloth has a $30 "shipping and handling" charge. Some unscrupulous sellers try to pad their profits by charging exorbitant shipping, so whether you’re after a set of napkins or a 300-pound armoire, be sure to nail down the shipping price before you bid, says eBay Home & Garden senior category manager Jeannie Reeth. If the listing doesn’t specify those charges, e-mail the seller to ask.

      Don’t bid right away.
      It’s a common mistake: You see something you have to have, bid on it right away and keep upping the ante whenever someone outbids you. You may win the auction, but chances are you’ll pay more than you want to.

      "Don't let the whole world know how desperate you are," says author McEvoy. "The key word when bidding is wait." Think of it as a game of strategy: Keep your poker face on for as long as possible, and then put in your best bid at the last moment so your competitors don’t have time to knock you out of the winner’s seat.

      If you’d rather not be chained to your computer or have to set your alarm to catch the end of a 4 a.m. auction, you can either set a higher maximum bid amount or use a "sniping" service to do the dirty work for you. Some services charge a flat fee, while others tack a small commission onto winning bids.

      Do set an odd maximum bid amount.
      "Most eBayers bid in even increments, say $15 or $27.50," says Collier. By setting your maximum bid at an odd amount — $15.01 or $27.67 — you can gain the edge. "I see people win auctions by just a few pennies all the time," she says.

      Don’t leave purchases unprotected.
      While eBay’s free Standard Protection Program will cover your loss up to $200, there’s a $25 deductible, and the policy doesn’t apply to all purchases. Buy shipping insurance for anything delicate or valuable. Whatever you do, don’t buy from sellers who demand wire transfers, which offer no protection and are a red flag for scam artists.

      Do broaden your buying horizons.
      In addition to eBay USA, the company has auction sites in more than 12 other nations — from Argentina to the United Kingdom — all of which welcome international bidders (get tips on international buying). McEvoy has imported beautiful cabinets, sofas, tables, rugs and textiles from sellers as far away as China, England and Belgium. And eBay veteran Lisa Faust, of Portland, Ore., who frequently site-surfs internationally, says, "I've never had a bad sale, and communication hasn't been a problem. In fact, I think foreign sellers often try harder." Shipping can be pricey, but favorable exchange rates may make up the difference.

      The site also hosts live auctions from prestigious dealers worldwide at LiveAuctions.ebay.com.

      Do shop eBay's Stores.
      Although eBay is famous for its online auctions, the site also supports more than 200,000 eBay Stores with very reasonable fixed prices for millions of items, from light bulbs to bedding. "Because they have such low overhead, online ma and pa merchandisers can sell their goods for close to wholesale," says Collier.

      Big-name retailers such as National Geographic's NOVICA and Sears maintain eBay storefronts to unload overstock, and thousands of other sellers have turned selling outlet-store wares online — last season's Williams-Sonoma offerings, for example — into a cottage industry. What's more, eBay Stores are the place to buy art and other items directly from the artists and craftspeople, without paying a middleman.

      • For $1.65, you can insure items shipped via the U.S. Postal Service for up to $50 against loss or damage. And for $6.40, you can insure them to $500.
      • If you pay through eBay's PayPal site, your purchases may be covered for up to $1,000 against fraud under the Buyer Protection plan.
      • If all else fails, "it never hurts to ask a seller for a refund or discount when your purchase is damaged or not as described," Collier says. "Responsible sellers want to keep buyers happy."

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