Buying at Auction

If you don’t know the tricks used at auctions, you are certain to get hurt. Most auction agents have no regard for your feelings. They want a sale and they don’t care who they hurt.

If you are inexperienced at home buying, you should avoid auctions altogether. The financial loss of a few hundred dollars on wasted inspections is bad enough, but it is nothing compared to the emotional damage of discovering that the home you love was never in your price range.

If you want to take the risk, here are seven rules to protect yourself and minimise the damage.


Rule 1. Believe nothing and check everything

With auctions, always assume the agents are lying to you. Sure, some may tell you the truth, but if you treat everything they say with suspicion, you won’t be as easily hurt. There are so many lies told that you can’t afford to believe anything until you have checked it out thoroughly.

Rule 2. Understand the 'quoting' lies

Experienced buyers know that agents under-quote the selling price by about 20 percent. So, if the agent says “Bidding to start from $300,000”, the price is likely to be somewhere around $360,000. If your maximum price is $320,000, be careful. You could spend money on inspections, get your heart set on buying the home and all to no avail.

If you cannot get a straight answer from an agent about the price, or if you are certain you are being misled, you can – as a last resort – ask the sellers about the price.

Unlike many agents, most sellers are not interested in deceiving you. They just want you to buy their home. They do not want you to be misled or to lose money.

You can write to the sellers at the home. If the home is vacant, you can write to them care of their lawyer. Ask the agent for a copy of the contract of sale. The owners’ details will be displayed. There is a sample letter for this purpose in the Appendix. If you receive no reply do not attend the auction.

Rule 3. Tell the agent nothing of importance

If you don’t feel comfortable with the agent – and the chances are that you will never feel comfortable with an auction agent – tell them almost nothing. Just ask questions. Be strong. Answer any questions by saying, “We are not sure what we intend to do.” Be vague. Use expressions such as ‘maybe’ or ‘might’ or ‘perhaps’ or ‘we are unsure’.

Just remember that this is the person who will deliberately mislead you before the auction with the quote, at the auction with fraudulent bids and after the auction by telling you how ‘lucky’ you are. You can’t afford to trust such agents.

Rule 4. Know the true value

The time and cost of basic research can pay handsomely. Obtain the sales details of similar homes in the area. In Melbourne and Sydney you can purchase inexpensive ‘post-code’ price guides [Call (02) 8268 8200 in Sydney or 1800 817 616 in Melbourne]. Similar information is also available in most areas through local councils.

If you feel you have a good chance of buying the home, you should consider contacting a registered valuer for an accurate and unbiased opinion. The money spent on a valuation is well worth the risk. Contact the Australian Property Institute (details in Appendix).

It would be far easier for everyone if all homes had an independent valuation before they were sold. Both sellers and buyers would have the benefit of independent and unbiased information. However, a valuation, while unbiased, is still only a guide. If you love the home you might willingly pay more than the ‘value’. But at least you have the benefit of a valuation on which to base your decision.

However, a valuation, while unbiased, is still only a guide. If you love the home you might willingly pay more than the ‘value’. But at least you have the benefit of a valuation on which to base your decision.

Rule 5. Get legal advice
Some homebuyers try to save hundreds of dollars and in doing so they risk thousands. Don’t let this happen to you. If you are keen to buy a home at auction, consult a lawyer before you sign anything or spend any money. A home costs hundreds of thousands and a lawyer costs hundreds. And remember, the last person to take advice from about a real estate auction is the auction agent. You can have your lawyer speak to the agent on your behalf. Some lawyers will even accompany you to the auction. Good lawyers are great value when buying a home.
Rule 6. Do not bid too soon

The most important rule at an auction is NEVER BID UNTIL THE PROPERTY REACHES RESERVE. Until then, it is not for sale and it makes no sense to bid on anything that is not for sale. No matter how much pressure you receive, do not play into the agent’s hands by bidding too soon.

Dummy Bidding

Agents are so desperate for early bidders, they will do anything to get the bidding up from its low beginning.

Some will plant dummy bidders in the crowd. Or pay ‘dummy bidders’ to pretend to be buyers. Others will just ‘pull’ bids from walls or trees. This is fraud. It is justified by the use of a thin legal line known as ‘the vendor’s bid’, which means that a seller has the right to bid on their own home provided that the auctioneer declares this – which is almost never done. Even if the auctioneer does declare the vendor bid, ‘dummy bids’ are never declared.

The television program, Money, once did an expose` on dummy bidding. Hidden cameras filmed an agent boasting how he paid dummy bidders. Later, a reporter asked him if he ever paid dummy bidders. His answer was “No. Never”. The TV program showed two scenes – one with him proudly describing his deceit and the other with him denying it publicly.

Dummy bids are a central part of the auction system, despite the denials of agents and Real Estate Institutes.

But dummy bidding stops once the home reaches the reserve price and is ‘officially’ for sale. And that is the only time you should bid.

The Reserve Price

The reserve price is the lowest price the agents have been able to ‘crunch’ sellers into accepting.

And this is where auctions really favour you as a buyer. You will know the sellers’ lowest price, but no-one knows your highest price.

With the attention on the sellers’ lowest price, buyers save thousands at auctions.

Rule 7. Keep your highest price a secret

Once the home reaches the sellers’ lowest price (the reserve), it is going to be sold to the highest bidder. Let’s say $320,000 is the reserve and your highest buy price is $350,000. Under no circumstances will you exceed your highest price (you can’t afford to).

But you are very likely to be the highest bidder long before you reach your highest price. If there is another bidder whose highest price is $330,000, then you will buy the home at the next bid above $330,000 which will most likely be $331,000. And you will save $19,000.

Thousands of buyers are paying thousands of dollars below their highest prices at auctions. All because the agents do not understand the principles of negotiation. As one buyer said, “It is like stealing money from the sellers. Why do the agents let this happen?”

The losses for sellers and the wins for buyers are caused because the auctions start at a low price instead of a high price. And when something starts low, the chances are that it will finish low – or at least lower than it would have finished if it had started high.

The above is an extract from the book Real Estate Mistakes.

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