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How to find good deals at government auctions

While it’s certainly possible to find real deals at government auctions, there are also many pitfalls to avoid. The following tips can help you keep your wits about you and stay safe. By Laura T. Coffey.

Government auctions can seem awfully intriguing. After all, these are places where people can bid on seized and surplus cars, homes, boats, jewelry, furniture and other property – sometimes for a fraction of the regular cost.

While it’s certainly possible to find real deals at such auctions, there are also many pitfalls to avoid. The following tips can help you keep your wits about you and stay safe.

1. Brace yourself for a buyer-beware scenario. The items up for grabs at government auctions can range from brand new to utterly beat up – and don’t count on being able to inspect anything very thoroughly. You likely wouldn’t be permitted to test drive a car, for instance; at most, you might be able to turn the key to make sure it starts.

2. Don’t cave in to auction fever. Many people attend government auctions, so the competition can be intense. If you get carried away in a flurry of bidding, you could end up spending more than you should.

3. Beware of outright phonies. Some auction organizers claim to be associated with the government when they aren’t at all. To avoid falling for such schemes, contact the agency allegedly being represented to make sure the auction is legit, and view ads that refer to “the government” in a generic way as red flags.

4. Plan a reconnaissance mission. Visit a government auction to get a sense of what it’s like. Don’t do any bidding on your initial visit – just figure out how the auction operates and note how much money people are willing to spend.

5. Know the rules. Before you participate in an auction, find out whether you could be on the hook for entry fees, prebid deposits, buyer’s premiums (fees paid by the winning bidder), taxes or shipping costs. (Warning: Shipping costs can hurt.) Also know what forms of payment are accepted and what return policies exist, if any.

6. Ask about previews. Just say no to bidding on high-dollar items if you won’t be allowed to examine them ahead of time. Also, find out what level of inspection will be permitted – for example, will you at least be able to turn the computer on or start the car’s engine?

7. Attend the preview if at all possible. Check out items that interest you as carefully as you can and jot down their makes, model numbers and condition.

8. Do some homework. Armed with the information you gathered at the preview, visit Web sites such as BizRate.com and eBay.com to get a sense of how much people typically pay for such items. For car pricing, check out NADA.com, Edmunds.com, Kelley Blue Book or Consumer Reports.

9. Inquire about warranties. If you buy a new item at a government auction – whether it’s a blender or a car – the item’s warranty may be in effect for you. Call the product’s manufacturer to find out.

10. Check reputable sources. Many auction guides are not at all worth the $50 to $70 they’ll cost you – especially when they only provide links to government Web sites you can find and visit on your own for free. Here are some reliable sites to check: 

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