How to buy furniture at auction like a pro

Following on from my blog post last week about what to expect when buying furniture at auctions, here are some very important tips you should know before embarking on your bargain shopping spree at your local auction house…

Measure up! I have a little notebook I take around with me everywhere with all the important dimensions of our home in.  You never know what you’re gonna find on that day, so although you might go in thinking, I need a desk that is ‘xyz’, you may get there and find a gorgeous mirror and end up wondering what the heck is the distance between ‘abc’ instead.  I asked, Catherine Hockley, director of our local auction house, Andrew Smith & Son, to share some tips on finding something that is the right fit for you: “Our salerooms are very large and so some items look small in them – always bring a tape measure, or borrow one from us, and make sure that the item you are bidding on will fit through your door or up your stairs.”

She also goes on to say, “Check the condition well before you buy, for wobbly legs or sticking drawers etc.  Most things can be easily mended, but make sure it is within your capabilities or you will end up paying for restoration.”

The type of auctions I frequent generally have two types of people shopping there, (massive generalisation, but please, roll with it…) either dealers, or, people like myself, who are buying for their own personal use.  You may find that you can often bid higher than the dealers as they have a profit margin that they have to equate for, whereas you are just bidding up to how much you think an item is worth to you.  There are always times when you get it way off the mark however, and an item you thought within your reach, goes above the valuation price, upon which you just have to take consolation in the fact that you’ve obviously got good taste, as so many other people wanted it too.  I find the unpredictability all adds to the fun though!

Whilst you should always set a budget before going into the auction to reduce the risk of spending too much, or getting flustered in the moment, do consider stretching it a little bit.  There is absolutely nothing like ‘auction regret’! We once lost out on the PERFECT dining table as we had set a strict budget of £100, and it then went on to sell for £108! Once it’s gone, it’s well and truly gone, and we were SO annoyed with ourselves for losing out on what would have been, even at £108, an absolute bargain and a beautiful table to boot.

When working out your budget, you must remember that you have to pay a buyers premium on top of your winning bid amount. Here is what Catherine told me, “Many a customer has had a shock when it comes to pay as they have forgotten to add the commission to the hammer price. Factor this in when you work out what you can afford. We charge 24% including VAT and this is typical.”

Another element to factor into the cost is how you will transport your winnings home.  Catherine warns, “Check the terms and conditions before you bid as there is usually a very quick payment and collection window.  You may be charged storage if you don’t collect your items within this period.”  So when I first started going to auctions at 17, I would often end up making a rather sheepish phone call to my Dad to come and please collect me, six dining chairs and a coffee table, because there was no way I could fit it into my Metro!  Now I’m older, no longer living with my parents etc and like to pretend I’m a little bit more responsible, I try and factor these things in BEFORE we purchase.  For instance, the weekend we had a super successful haul of our king size bed (£19), dining table (£160), and chest of drawers (£65) we budgeted the cost of hiring a van before we set our upper limits on the furniture.

chest of drawers girls room how to buy furniture at auction
Part of our weekend haul where we picked up this solid wood chest of drawers for £65


If, like us, the idea of sitting in a room for hours full of vintage furniture and collectables with young children makes you tremble like a zebra in a lions den, you’ll be pleased to know in most cases, there is a way of avoiding that.  Once you’ve viewed the furniture and found something you like, before the auction begins you can register your maximum bid for the item at reception.  This is often called commission bidding and means that the auctioneer will call out your bid on your behalf, to compete with any other bids in the room.  If your bid wins, you will then be notified of your success and you’ll need to arrange collection of the items.  If they receive two commission bids of the same value, the auction house will usually give the bid that came in first preference, so it’s a good idea to register your maximum bid amounts as soon as you can.

And finally, it is easy to get carried away with the excitement of bidding and purchasing.  Catherine advises to “be aware that at the fall of the hammer you have entered into a legal contract, and you cannot change your mind.”  In particular, take note of lots with multiple items.  Sometimes you may bid on a picture frame without noticing the other 6 in the box were also included (it should state this in the catalogue).  You do of course, have to take all the items within your winning lot away with you, whether you want to or not!  Happy Bidding!


Picture frames at auction - how to successfully buy furniture at auction
Look out for lovely frames with horrible artwork, they often go for an absolute steal and you can just replace the art!

Are you thinking about buying furniture at auction? If you’ve got any questions, do let me know in the comments below…


Related Blog Posts:

11 steps to buying furniture at a real-life auction

How to furnish your home on a low or non-existent budget


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