What Am I Bid?
How to get the best buys at an auction.

By George DeVault
Posted January 12, 2006


Going to an auction is a lot like watching a major league baseball game. The whole experience is much more enjoyable and productive if you first know -- and thoroughly understand -- how the game is played. So, here’s the lineup, the windup and the first pitch.

“Who’ll give me a thousand dollar bill to go?” barks the auctioneer.

You are the batter, standing alone at the plate. Keeping your eye -- and ear -- on the ball, you wait for the perfect pitch.

“Five hundred, then. Let’s go!”

The person throwing the ball is the auctioneer. Pitches usually come hard and fast, right down the middle of the strike zone. But be on guard for the occasional slider, change-up or curve ball. You don’t want to swing at anything high and outside, or you will quickly end up bidding much more than maybe you had to.

Remember, it’s not the auctioneer’s job to load you up with a lot of bargains. Auctioneers work on commission. The more money they get for an item, the more money they make.

“Two-fifty! Folks, it’s worth four times that!”

Because auctioneers can’t see or hear everything and everyone from the podium, they often have helpers called ringmen. Like infielders, ringmen cover all of the bases and runners.

“I got a hundred!” yells a ringman from one side of the crowd.

“Two!” shouts another from the other side.

“I got two. Two-fifty. Now three. Now four. Five, five, five,” chants the auctioneer.

Quietly taking it all in, like the umpire behind home plate, is the clerk. Instead of calling balls and strikes, the clerk writes down the final bid and the bidder’s number.

“Six-fifty. Now seven. Now eight.”

And then there are the other bidders. Think of them as outfielders, the spoilers on the opposing team. Blink, wait a split second too long and they can -- and will -- reach a gloved hand over the outfield wall and turn your guaranteed home run into an instant out.

“I got nine. Nine-fifty. Now 10. Ten hundred. Who’ll gimme eleven? Eleven once? Eleven twice? All done? Sold!”

There are basically three rules at any auction: “Know what you’re doing. Know when to bid. Know what you’re bidding on.” Price is largely determined by just three factors: Condition, condition, condition. So says the man who has sold thousands of auctions over a 55-year career, everything from farm equipment and farms to antiques, businesses, auto garages, contractors, dairy cattle, race horses, livestock of all kinds, machinery and machinery dealerships, household auctions and estate auctions.

His name is Donald Lee DeVault. He is my 82-year-old father. And since I was a little child I’ve marveled at how he could consistently ask an opening price that was about the real worth of an item, drop down to where people start bidding and then work the bid right back to where he began -- and often beyond. He is exactly the kind of auctioneer I would want to sell my auction: Extremely knowledgeable, painfully honest and tirelessly hard-working.

“I try to get everything I can get for the seller,” Dad explains. That may be one of the reasons he was asked to sell the Junior 4-H cattle auctions for decades at the Delaware County Fair in my hometown of Delaware, Ohio.

It’s also what cost Dad his first auction job after just five months at the stockyards in Marion, Ohio. One of the biggest meat packers in the area was used to buying cattle as cheaply as possible. Then this new auctioneer showed up. “I made him pay more than he felt he needed to pay,” Dad recalls. The buyer complained to the boss: “Hey, I can’t make any money off of that DeVault.” Rather than get fired, Dad quit.

“You absolutely can’t play favorites and this guy wanted to play favorites. He was buying fat, finished cattle. He just thought I hung on too long. Somebody else got them and he started bellyaching.”

Getting the most for your money
(a.k.a. How to keep the wool out of your eyes)

Here is some of Dad’s advice on how to get the best buys at an auction:

“For a person who has never been to a sale, go with someone who has been to a few auctions before. Then just kind of stand back until the bidding gets started, see who is doing what.” Or, as Yogi Berra once put it, “You can observe a lot by watching.”

Dad agrees. “Basically, if people know what they want, have some idea of its value and pay attention to what is said, they can get some good buys at an auction. Representation means a lot. Listen to what the auctioneer says about the condition of the item for sale, its age, what’s been done to it, how it works or doesn’t work.”

The first step toward any auction is to register at the cashier’s office. You will be asked for identification, usually a driver’s license, and assigned a bidder’s number that is printed on a big cardboard card. Don’t lose the card. That number is the only way the auction clerk has of keeping track of what you buy.

Bring money. Cash still makes no enemies. Checks are another matter, which is why some auctioneers insist on a recent letter from your bank. To solve that headache, credit cards are being accepted at more and more auctions.

Each sale begins with the auctioneer saying a little bit about the owner, the reasons for the auction and the overall condition of the items for sale. Then there are the terms of sale. “What you see is what you get. You buy it where it is, as is.” Finally, there are warnings against writing bad checks and stealing, both of which are common problems at any auction. “If you write a bad check or or steal anything, we WILL prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law,” is how Dad usually put it. Other auctioneers are less gentlemanly. At an auction in Delaware state a few years ago, one auctioneer brandished a baseball bat. He threatened to beat thieves with it, then call the police and maybe an ambulance. It figures. That was an annual farm machinery consignment auction.

Bidding -- “If you know what you’re doing, sometimes you can start the bidding.” Dad’s emphasis is on “sometimes.” It’s usually not a good idea to be the opening bidder. “If you’re willing to bid a thousand, don’t give a thousand. Go a couple of hundred. Follow the chant. Learn to know what they’re saying. The main thing you want to listen to is the number. Ignore the filler between the numbers. If you’re certain that you want to buy an item, you definitely have to be the last bidder,” he says

Know about what you want -- and what you want to pay. With livestock, learn all you can about breeding before you ever make a bid. If you’re in the market for a tractor and other machinery, do your homework first. Check out new and used prices. Evaluate the condition of tires, sheet metal and how the engine runs. Look at the number of hours on the engine. Calculate what you might have to spend on repairs.

Know your competition. “At a farm auction, there are apt to be a lot of machinery dealers. They don’t necessarily want everybody to know what they’re bidding on. They’ll wink or wiggle a finger, have a hand on their hat or take their hat off to signal a bid. It’s pretty hard to know about some of these things, especially when you have two or three ringmen working the sale.”

Know your auctioneer. “Every auctioneer is a little different. It pays to know a little bit about your auctioneer. Look for an auctioneer who is known for honesty and forthrightness. If it’s a local person, a lot of people probably already know what the auctioneer is like. If not, ask around,” Dad says. “Some auctioneers joke around and some won’t. A little humor goes a long way. A lot of people go to auctions for entertainment. If you keep people in a jovial mood they will spend more money, usually. Not always. We always tried to have a good time with people.”

Make a habit of reading auction notices in the daily newspaper or regional farm papers and magazines. Keep an eye out for the logos of local or favorite auctioneers. Cardboard sale bills that were once a common site on rural telephone poles and in feed stores have largely been replaced by the internet. Today, most auctioneers have websites that often include photographs and detailed descriptions of major items coming up for sale. Another good guide for your bidding is Dad’s favorite TV program, “Antique Roadshow,” the most popular program on public television.

Since auctions don’t deliver, come prepared to haul home whatever you’re likely to buy. Don’t count on meeting some kind soul with a big heart and an empty pickup truck or trailer. Remember, once you buy an item, it’s yours. So, depending on its size and portability, keep an eye on it until it is paid for and safely in your vehicle.

Be somewhat wary of consignment auctions, since they consist of things that people just want to get rid of. You can get some good buys on new items at consignment sales, though. I once bought a brand new John Deere 550 rotary tiller at an out-of-state consignment sale -- for about half the new price. The tiller had sat on the dealer’s lot for three years because its 50-inch width was too small. Landscapers and farmers all wanted 60-inch tillers. The dealer finally just got tired of looking at it. Estate auctions, on the other hand, always bring out a good crowd -- even in the middle of haying season.

Lastly, don’t count on bad weather to keep the crowds away and the bidding low. In more than half a century of selling auctions, Dad only had to cancel a handful of sales due to ice storms or blizzards. “Weather is not the factor one would think.” If anything, he adds, bad weather brings more people to an auction because they figure everyone else will stay home where it’s warm and dry.

Yes, auctions really are a lot like basball, Yogi-isms and all: “If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s going to stop them. When you come to a fork in the road ... Take it. It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”