Christian Financial Advice and Biblical Stewardship
FREE ebook: Getting Through the Storms of Life

Buying on EBay: A Primer

  • Mary Hunt The Cheapskate Monthly
  • 2005 28 Jan
Buying on EBay: A Primer

I didn't get the guy's name so I'll just call him ... Guy. He was a caller on one of those what's-your-legal-problem radio talk shows.

It seems Guy was the successful bidder for a motorcycle on eBay. He dutifully mailed the seller a $15,000 money order who immediately cashed it as payment in full.

And then, wouldn't you know it, on the journey to deliver said motorcycle to Guy, the seller was in an accident-the motorcycle was declared a total loss. The seller pled no money and no way to make a refund. After a few questions like "Did you have a contract?" the attorney host declared the news not good for Guy. You can kiss your bike and the money goodbye!

Think of eBay as the mother of all garage sales. Millions of transactions occur each day involving individuals, big companies posing as individuals, liquidators posing as home-based businesses and a few shysters and scam artists thrown into the mix. It can be the best or the worst place on earth depending on your temperament and personal discipline.

I am not an eBay expert. But I have devised a personal system that has worked well for me. Out of more than 100 transactions over a 5-year period, only one has been disappointing. And even that one was not a total loss.

If you are unfamiliar with the basics of eBay go to and read the instructions on the opening page. Or click on "Sell" for selling tutorial. They explain it far better than I could.

I cannot speak to the art of selling on eBay. But I hear from those who sell that it is easy, but fees are high. So beware.

Buying on eBay is quite simple. And potentially dangerous. That is why you need to devise your own system that requires a strict code of personal discipline or you could find yourself deeply in debt, up to your eyeballs in other people's junk ... or worse.

Create rigid boundaries. There are mainly two things I buy on eBay. One is a particular brand of clothing and the other is a specific type of fabric. My rule is to stay away from everything else.

Do your homework. Take the clothes that I buy on eBay. I know this line inside and out. I go to a local department store to touch and try on. I know the specific colors by name, how the sizes run and the difference between what this designer calls a "tunic" and a "top." When a piece from this line shows up on eBay, I know exactly what it is and how it fits.

Ditto for fabric. I study the goods at a local quilt shop. I know just about everything there is to know about the types of fabrics I use to make quilts and other gift items.

Know your prices. Not everything on eBay is used. Or old or even cheap. Lots of things offered on eBay are readily available in regular stores. You have to know your prices or you will get burned. I know for certain there are sellers on eBay who go to local stores (fabric stores in my situation) and buy goods at full retail and list them for more on eBay. That makes me crazy. Before you bid, slip over to and type in the item. If it's available anywhere for new, you'll find out the lowest price.

Set your limits. My specific type of fabric retails for around $9 a yard. It's good stuff. And my eBay limit is $5 a yard. And the clothes line I enjoy? My limit is 50 percent of the retail price provided the item is "new with tags." If not, my limit is much lower.

Before you place a bid, decide the maximum you are willing to pay. Period. Then be disciplined enough to stick to it.

Know your seller. This can be tricky. First, each auction is time sensitive. You could have 9 days to work on this or only a few hours. Seller's do not give their names or telephone numbers. You know approximately where in the world they are and you have an email address.

Before I enter a bid on anything, I send the seller a quick email message. I make it brief and friendly and say I'm thinking about making a bid. I may have a specific question or I might simply verify the shipping and handling amount. My primary purpose is to hear back from this seller. I want to know if this is a regular person as opposed to some big machine. A quick personal reply tells me a lot. No response tells me a lot, too. In that case I assume it's some big liquidator trying to unload stuff that's been returned to department stores. Or worse. I could be wrong, but my personal rule is that if a seller isn't able to respond to my email, I am unable to bid on that auction.

Read the seller's "feedback" before you bid. These are the comments that previous buyers have made about their transactions with this seller. This is a very good indicator of what you can expect. I will not deal with anyone who has less than 98 percent positive feedback.

No debt. I absolutely would not go into debt to buy something on eBay and I hope you share that standard. I do use a credit card to pay from time to time if a seller does not accept a personal check. If you cannot figure out how to pay for your eBay purchase without creating new debt for yourself, stay away from eBay.

Count the entire cost. Your winning bid may not be your full price. You have to factor in the shipping and handling, the cost of the money order if that is the way you must submit your payment and the cost of insurance if you opt for that. This can be tricky.

I once bought a brand new lamp with a silk shade for 99 cents. Wow! But hang on. The shipping and handling was $39.99. Had I not noticed that and had someone outbid me, I could have been in a lot of trouble if I'd bid this up to what I was willing to pay.

Fortunately, I checked the shipping ahead of time and knew what this seller was up to.

© 2005 The Cheapskate Monthly. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

  "The Cheapskate Monthly" was founded in 1992 by Mary Hunt.  What began as a newsletter to encourage and empower people to break free from the bondage of consumer debt has grown into a huge community of ordinary people who have achieved remarkable success in their quest to effectively manage their money and stay out of debt.  Today, "The Cheapskate Monthly" is read by close to 100,000 Cheapskates.  Click here to subscribe.