Farm Auction Tips
by Wesley Hunter of Seymour, MO
When I can pull myself away from the farm and I’ve got a few dollars to burn (both rare circumstances alone, nevermind occurring simultaneously) I’m an avid auction-goer. To me, a good farm auction is a fun social occasion and an educational experience to boot. And if I can get a few good deals while I’m there, so much the better. I wouldn’t by any means call myself an auction expert, but as a student of many things I think I’ve picked up on a few keys that I can pass along profitably. It probably goes without saying that buyer beware, etc., and I’ll assume that you’ve got your wits about you enough to not get caught up in a bidding war. So what follows are a set of tips and tricks – call them “rules” if you like that – I have observed and used in my own auction-going experiences. May they be of good use to you as well.
1. Look beyond the big auction services. There are three or four big auction services that deal in my immediate area, the ones with big spreads in the city newspaper detailing upcoming auctions. Of course, these are almost always heavily attended. But there can be some great auctions put on by the smaller services that are well worth attending, even if you have to dig around a bit to find them. No, they may not have the depth and breadth found in the larger auctions, but they tend to be less highly attended and prices can be a good bit lower. In my neck of the woods these are usually advertised via flyers at the local feed store, the smaller area newspapers, and sometimes through other auctions (such as our weekly Amish produce auction).
2. Look beyond the farm auctions. There are some great things to be had at general auctions if you know what to look for. Lots of folks have perfectly functional hand and garden tools that go for a song because the main auction draws are the four-piece oak bedroom set and the Buick. And lots of folks have even a small assortment of perfectly usable homesteading “antiques” that can go for reasonable prices if they’re not the main draw, things such as stoneware crocks and butter churns and corn shellers and miscellaneous tools and the like. Of course, if the auction is listed as an “antique auction” you may as well not waste your time unless you have a sizeable piggy bank or you know of some useful but obscure item that nobody else is likely to want or can even identify, since “antique” auctions tend to pull in the people who can afford to pay more than those of us who are buying for actual use.
3. The weather means nothing. I’ve been to auctions on beautiful days that were nearly empty or that cleared out quickly (presumably so folks could get on the lake for the rest of the day), and I’ve been to auctions on beautiful days that were packed. A couple of years ago I went to an auction during a day-long downpour, thinking that the rain would keep everybody else away. Apparently, so did everyone else: the auction was packed.
4. The crowd, too, means nothing. A large crowd doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve got lots of competition. There’s a fair chance that a lot of them are after the furniture at the estate sale, or are just there for the big tractor, or have their eyes on that Precious Moments collection. Myself, I’m usually up against the folks who want to take a perfectly good cream separator and let it rust in their front yard, or antique dealers who buy that corn sheller so they can mark it up and sell it to someone else who will mark it up and sell it to someone else who will mark it up and… But you never know what the other folks will be bidding on, nor how high they might be willing to go. What’s more, the crowd gradually thins out over the course of the auction, so that by the time you get to the end and they finally sell that thing you’ve had your eye on all day there aren’t many people left to bid against you, and many of them are probably feeling like they’ve spent too much already. So don’t let a big crowd intimidate you.
5. Take a friend. I’ve never actually done this, unless I count my wife who, despite her many qualities, is no help at all at auctions. But a friend can help you look over items for sale, may notice things you had overlooked, and can even bid in your stead should the auction break into multiple rings. Be sure to return the favor.
6. Be observant. A while back I was at an auction with two hay elevators laid out among the other equipment in the yard. I had no way of knowing if they worked, and I wasn’t about to drag one to an electrical outlet so I could plug it in and test the motor, but walking around I noticed a large stack of square bales in the barn’s hay mow, so I surmised that they must be functional. I got one for a mere $20, which was in the ballpark of 90% off the going rate for used hay elevators in the classifieds (if you could even find one). I had an adventuresome time getting it home in my little S-10 pickup, but that just added to the charm. Eavesdropping is a further component of the “Be Observant” rule. You can learn a lot just by being in the vicinity of the (usually) old-timers as they discuss the auction wares.
7. Patience is a necessary virtue. If there’s something you’re particularly interested in, you should probably expect that it won’t be sold until near the end of the auction. But if you don’t arrive until after the start of the auction, it will have been among the first things sold. So show up early and plan to stay late.
8. Dig through boxes. I collect old farming books (because I actually make use of them) and happened to find at one auction a box of old books in great condition. But covering the books was a pair of fuzzy neon green socks, a small metal pitcher, a bunch of empty York Peppermint Patty tins, and some sorry looking little church hymnals. Had I not dug I’d have never even seen the farming books. I covered the books back up, in my mind hiding my valuable find, but in retrospect perhaps I should have put the books on top, because who in their right mind would bid on a box of defunct old farming books?
9. Don’t be the first bidder. This requires, first of all, knowing how this particular auctioneer operates. Some will call out a number and try to get the bidding started at that number. This is fairly straightforward. But some will call out a number and immediately ask for bids at the next increment up. For example, he may start out at $5.00 and go immediately to trying to get a $6.00 bid, but he doesn’t actually have a bidder at $5.00 yet. (This is just a difference in style, not an attempt at deception.) It’s vital to know if this is the kind of auctioneer you’re dealing with. As long as you – and everyone else – hold off, he’ll have to drop the starting bid down to get things going. This is true in any case, of course, but don’t be fooled by the auctioneer’s style; know for certain that bidding has started before you jump in. In the event that the auctioneer drops the starting bid way down to get things going you can throw out this rule and be the first bidder, but in my experience someone else usually starts the bidding before it gets to this point.
10. Beware of high starting bids. This is part corollary, part reinforcement of the above rule. On big ticket items (vehicles, tractors and big equipment, real estate) the auctioneer will often try to start bidding at what seems a reasonable final price, I expect both as a psychological trick to get bidders to associate the value of the item with such numbers and perhaps in the hope that maybe, today, there’s a sucker in the crowd. But this initial asking price is by no means necessarily reflective of the actual value, at least not the value that will be put upon it by the bidders present The best example I can give from personal experience is that of buying our farm. We purchased our farm (house, barns, and 25 acres) at absolute auction (i.e. no reserve price). Prior to going to auction it had been listed with a real estate agent for $135,000. So the day of the auction, the auctioneer, eternally hopeful and understanding his job, tried to start the bidding at $125,000 – knowing full well, of course, that nobody would bite at that price. So he went down, down, down until the bidding finally opened at around $40,000. In the end bidding finished at $81,000, a far cry short of that initial attempted starting point. Sometimes final bids approach and even exceed the initial suggestion, but don’t count on it. Don’t let the auctioneer determine something’s value. And it bears repeating: never be the first bidder!
11. Be a sly bidder. This works two ways that I can see. First, know when and how to slow the bidding down. If it’s only you and one other person bidding on an item, don’t be afraid to offer less than the next asking price. If the current bid is $20 and the auctioneer goes to $25, offer $22.50 instead. The specifics will vary based on the dollar amount of the current bid and the bid increment ($5, $10, $20, what have you), so use your good judgment and common sense. If the auctioneer is asking for a bid $50 higher than the current bid, for example, don’t make a counter bid only $5 higher.
The second way to be a sly bidder is to make a counter offer higher than the current asking bid. This works by beating your opponent to the punch. Really all you’re doing is tapping into that phenomenon that we humans have of a preference for certain round numbers. Exactly what these numbers are will vary with the item and the particular auction in general, but $10, $20, $25, $50, $75, and $100 are fairly common. Here’s an example. Let’s say that you and another person are going for an item and that you reasonably expect he won’t go higher than $50. Bidding is going in $5 increments: $25, $30, $35, $40. It’s your bid, and the next asking price is $45. If you bid $45, the other guy bids $50 and gets it (we’ll assume $50 was your cap, too). So instead of bidding $45 when asked, you cry out triumphantly “50 dollars!” and it’s yours. Of course, this won’t always work, but I’ve seen it happen successfully more than once. You may win because you beat your opponent to the punch, or you may win because nobody wants to bid against a nut job who offers more than the current asking bid. At the very least, it shows that you mean business.
There is, I suppose, a third way to be a sly bidder, but I wouldn’t bank on this one. I once bought a nice two-wheeled garden cart for $25 because I was standing right behind the man who opened the bidding at $20. When the auctioneer motioned to me over his right shoulder, the opening bidder apparently thought it was still his and stopped bidding. Just pure dumb luck on my part.
12. There are deals to be had, but don’t expect everything to be a steal. Another way of saying this is to know when a good deal is good enough. I’ve let things slip by at great prices because I wanted to see if I could get them for as little as two or three dollars less. Specifically, this happens to me when there are many items on a table or in a row on the ground and they’re being sold as “choice” (i.e. the high bidder gets to choose whichever item he or she wants). I tend to make the mistake of analyzing high bids and the items chosen by those bidders, and trying to project what the items I’m interested in might go for. Sometimes I step in in time and get it, but not always. Few are the auctions that I come home from without lamenting to my wife that “I should have…” The takeaway: when you find something you’d like, determine what you’d be happy to pay for it, and if you get the chance to buy it at that price then take it. So what if you pay a few bucks more than you might have otherwise? If you wait, you run the very real risk of losing it entirely.
13. Stay to the end. This is when the real deals seem to come. Much of the crowd has started to disperse, some folks are feeling like they’ve already spent too much, and often enough there are some jewels tucked away in the corner of that farm shed. No, these aren’t the big ticket items, but when you’re just getting started you can get some perfectly serviceable tools, fasteners, and general miscellaneous items for a pittance. As a bonus, near the end things start to get lumped together into large lots, and you never know what use you might find for all those odds and ends, nor what might be hiding in that big pile. I don’t know of a better way to build your own farm’s miscellaneous junk pile than by buying one dirt cheap at auction from another farmer.