A Winners Guide To Buying on eBay

How to bid on ebay

“Your profit is made when you buy, not when you sell”

I’m not sure who said it, but I often think about this saying when I’m considering an investment.  It took a little while for this to sink it, but it does make pretty good sense really.  Paying a premium for something just because you want it. or because you think it might make money in the future is never a good idea.  Paying a high price for something that is likely to decrease in value over time is even worse.

In this post I’m going to show you how to bid on eBay and buy the things you want for well below retail cost.

How to bid on eBay

I have to confess that I was seriously addicted to watching stuff on eBay for a while.  I didn’t buy a lot, but I spent a huge amount of time watching items, reading descriptions, following the last stages of auctions and analysing the results.  Honestly, it was better than television!

After a couple of weeks watching different items I decided to jump in and buy those things that I had been so eagerly following.  Turns out my research addiction paid off and I made a tidy saving by putting some of my observations to work.  Here are 8 eBay buying tips that really helped me out.

Do your research

There can be a lot of price variation on eBay, so check the going rate of the item you are looking to buy by filling in the search box, clicking on the advanced search feature and checking completed items. You should get a list of prices from past auctions featuring your item.  Make sure you are very specific about the item you search for, you need to be able to compare apples with apples.  The alternative is to ‘watch’ auctions featuring the exact item you want to see what happens.  This is slower, but I found it a lot more fun!

If you are planning to buy something from a seller that offers the same thing regularly (as an auction, not as a ‘Buy it Now’ item) you can also use the advanced search feature to help you determine your maximum bid. Type exactly what you want into the search bar, then click on advanced search and look for completed sales by that seller.  Whatever the lowest price paid for the item was in the past is your maximum bid, all you need is a little patience and you should snag your item for a good price.

Incorrectly described items

It is really interesting to watch the difference in price an item will fetch on eBay simply because of the description given.  Personally, I’ve found that items that are well described tend to do a lot better than those that are not.  Fewer photos can also have this effect and cause people to bid low.  It really doen’t take much effort to message a seller to get a few extra details, but people don’t like doing it much.  If you can take this extra step and get the details you need for peace of mind, it can really help with successfully buying on eBay.

A tactic that can work quite well, but requires more effort on your part is to look for items that are miss-spelt or are assigned to the wrong categories.  Again, you best friend here is the search bar, so try a few variations in spelling of the item that you want and see what turns up.

Look for odd finishing times

The funny thing about eBay is that the time you list your item will also be the same time the auction ends.  The trick here is to identify days and times when least amount of people will be browsing ebay.

  • Did you know that eBay traffic in the USA peaks on Sunday evening?  More specifically, the time the highest number of people are browsing and buying on eBay is between 8:00 PM eastern time and 10:00 PM pacific time (that is a spread of 8 hours, over 5 time zones).

If you are bidding on an item during this time, you are already playing against a lot of competition.  Try looking for items that are listed at times outside this range, for example items ending late at night or early in the morning.  Times when people are often in transit between work and home are also good to target, as are times when prime time shows are airing on television.  It is pretty easy to see this effect when you look at past auctions, so investigate ideal buying times for yourself as well.

Another handy tip is to find items that are finishing very close together, often the first will see a lot of action while the second (literally finishing only minutes later) won’t see as much as the focus wasn’t on it and buyers generally can’t afford to bid on multiple items at once.

Short listings

This can work well for sellers as it can create the feeling of scarcity and start a bidding war.  If the item gets missed, it can work very well for buyers as there isn’t a lot of time for people to find it.

Unfortunately on a seller can see how many people are watching their item, it is possible to get an idea of how many people you are bidding against.  The best way I have found to check if a lot of people are watching an item is to look at the number of bids to date and see how many different people have placed a bid.  If you want to check a little further, you can also bid with a price that is lower than what you would expect the item to sell for (and are willing to pay yourself), them see if the price is beaten by others.  If there are a lot of people watching, you should see at least a few bids occur above your own, if not it could be a quite sale.

Bid late

Bidding early seems logical and makes buying on eBay very simple, but doing this generally just drives up the price.  Late bidding is a pretty basic tactic and one that is probably implemented by many people that have used eBay more than a couple of times, in fact there are websites around that will even help you do it.  When you’ve found an auction you want to bid on, select it as one you want to ‘watch’ and it will appear on your watch list.  If you have a smart phone, get the eBay app and use this to keep an eye on things (warning: you will likely find yourself glued to your phone).

Make a note of the finishing time in your computer and/or phone calendar so you don’t miss it and determine your final bid price well ahead of time. All you really need to do then is check into eBay a few minutes before the auction ends and place your bid (the later the better). This is a pretty common tactic, so don’t be surprised if you are still beaten at the end.  It really comes down to the number of bidders and how late you can get your bid in without it going past your final price.

Local pickups

The difference in price for items that are listed as pickup only is often very obvious to see, unfortunately they also tend to be located where you are not.  When looking for an item, try filtering for this postage option first as it can save you big dollars on large items.  If there are great items available, but none near you, you might be lucky enough to know someone located close by.  If so, you could ask if they will collect it and then forward to you.

Alternatively, you can try contacting the seller to see if they will allow a courier to collect it from them.  If they agree, it is then just a simple matter of getting the courier to take it to a post office, or a transport service that can get it to you.

This can also work where people are quoting large amounts to send you an item.  Sometimes they do it to increase the overall sale price, but other times it is just because they hate the hassle of sending stuff.  Try offering to arrange postage yourself to cut down on cost.

Newer sellers and those with poor feedback

Ok, this is not always the best option as there are some dodgy people on the net, but it is worth remembering that a sellers feedback rating is not always a perfect reflection of the items they sell.  Sometimes there is just no pleasing some people and they take it out on a seller, the least you can do to help them out is take advantage of this (ha!).

eBay Sellers with poor feedback often get fewer bids and lower sale prices, which is why most people bend over backwards to help you out and keep a perfect score.  Don’t discount someone with very few sales, or a feedback score that is not 100% (but then it it probably worth drawing the line at the low to mid 90’s as well).  Take a couple of minutes to check the feedback and see why the seller got the poor feedback, it may put your mind at ease.  if it does, you could be in for a better deal, if not just move on to the next seller.

Things you can easily improve on that others won’t

People are lazy.  They don’t generally like to go to extra effort, which is why a fully loaded item will generally sell very well, where a basic item may not.  Often, the difference is just a simple matter of adding these items yourself (and it is likely you will find them on eBay as well).  If you don’t mind getting numerous items in the mail instead of one and can handle a bit of assembly, then it is possible to save money by buying an item in pieces or upgrading in this manner.  It doesn’t work in all cases, but it can be a viable option so keep it in mind.

I really hope that this short guide has helped you learn a little more about how to bid on eBay.  If you have any other successful tips that you would like to share, please let me know in the comments.

Image by Sam Howzit

  1. I used to sell a lot of stuff on ebay and the odd finishing times is a good trick. As a seller, I would go out of my way to have everything ending at the “good” times.

    The misspelling tip is a good one too. I’ve heard of people who just buy misspelled items and then resell them correctly spelled. Although, it can work against you too, if the item is commonly misspelled then it might sell higher as a misspelling. Crazy!

    • Thanks for the feedback Ashley, I figured it would work in reverse the way you described as well. Interesting to hear that people make money with misspelt items as well, but it does make sense.

  2. Thanks for the tip on Sunday eBay traffic. I’ve been doing a little selling there and this will help me know when to time the auction expiration.

  3. This was fascinating. i’ve only bought a few items on ebay, and never through the auction process!!! i liked the tips.

  4. Good tips. I didn’t realizing the issue around when auctions end. That is also important to take into account when putting something up for sale from overseas, when you are in a different time zone.

    • Very true, if you are looking to sell many of these tips should work just as well in reverse.

  5. I love buying on Ebay. I love the thrill of the chase, and I love winning! Real auctions are much more fun, but virtual Ebay auctions can be fun too. I love bid sniping and I love winning something for a great deal. Good tips in your article!

    • That sniping can be really addictive can’t it? It is dangerously exciting and you really need to be solid on your ceiling price. Lots of fun though!

    • Sniping a bid in the last few seconds is really rude and fairly unethical if you have not placed a bid previously.

      I buy and sale on Ebay enough to be very familiar with practices. I consider it ethical behaviour to place a bid as soon as I find an item I am serious about buying, and after that initial bid I think sniping is necessary to win. But refusing to bid at all until the last second is inconsiderate to others. You need to let people know there is other interest in an item.

      • I disagree that sniping in the last few seconds is rude and unethical if you haven’t already placed a bid. If there’s an item I want, the last thing I want to do is alert other potential bidders that there is interest by placing an early bid. It’s just human nature to think that if someone else will pay a certain amount for something, you just might be willing to pay a little more.

        People often look to others to let them know whether something is “good” or worth their money. (Look at all the sites that let people review their purchases for the benefit of others, such as amazon.com.) The very fact that there is even one bid signifies that an item is desirable to at least one other person and perhaps deserving of other bidders’ attention and money. However, an item with no bids can be perceived as overpriced or otherwise undesirable and lead other bidders to pass it by in favor of something “better.”

        Also, bidders often get emotionally attached to an item if someone else is bidding and will keep on increasing their bids until they’re bidding more than an item is reasonably worth, just to keep someone else from winning the auction. If you don’t believe this, check out the bid history for auctions where several bids have been placed. You’ll often find that at least two bidders have started low and increased their bid by a dollar or two at a time, trying to outbid each other, until the auction ends at an amount greater than the item is worth. Sniping keeps those “emotional bidders” at bay and keeps the final price lower for the winner.

        My goal is to get the items that I want at the lowest price possible. I use a sniping program for every item I’m interested in, and win the auction much more often than not. I’m a polite person and do my best to treat others well in my everyday life. However, it’s not my duty to politely notify everyone else on eBay that I intend to win an auction by placing an early bid, thereby potentially driving up the price and/or attracting “emotional bidders.” I’m not going to put my own best interests second to those of a random stranger who might decide they’re interested in an item I want.

      • Thanks for you comments Ari and Val,

        Signalling your intent to bid is a nice courtesy, but it sounds like Ari plans to snipe at the end of the day. those 3rd party services are open to everyone, so ultimately it is still a matter of highest bid wins. you could still outbid others if you bid early, you just have to be prepared to pay more than they are.

  6. Great job highlighting how to bid on Ebay. the one time that I purchased something for myself on Ebay, the seller never sent my item, and I had to get a refund. fortunately, it was not difficult to obtain. Helpful post.

  7. Thanks Roshawn. Shame you had such a bad experience, but unfortunately there are others with similar stories too. As you experienced, the support by eBay isn’t too bad if this happens, so it gives me a certain level of comfort buying there. Hope you try again and have a better experience next time!

  8. Great tips MC – I havent bought anything off of ebay for quite a few years but I know that it can be pretty addicting. Everything I bought from there was a pretty good deal, but I just feel like when I want something, I either need it right then or can wait forever, so I dont usually look towards ebay. Maybe I should start.

    • Hey Jeff,

      It can be a hassle waiting for the things you want, so I don’t get everything on eBay. There are some things that I was more than happy to wait for due to the saving though, lately these have included a digital camera and a laptop – eBay is great for tech items!

  9. “Look for odd finishing times”

    Finishing times don’t matter as much these days, because eBay now shows search results in “the best match” order by default, rather than by ending time, like they used to. Just another way for them to screw the smaller sellers.

    “Bid late”

    Better yet, use a sniping service such as Bidball.com to bid for you.

    Just remember that regardless of when your bid is placed, it still has to be the highest to win. EXCEPT, when 2 bids are the same or there isn’t enough difference between them to meet ebay’s minimum bid increment. In that case, the 1st one in wins.

    So, if people were completely rational, the best strategy would be to bid on an item the second it is listed. I’d stick with the sniping strategy.

    (Automated) sniping is a convenience for people that want to avoid drawing early attention to an auction item, ‘nibbling’ bidders (bidders who have no max in mind, bidding the minimun increment over and over until they’re the high bid), and competitive emotional bidders and bidding wars that come with them, all of which normally result in a higher final price. If you have the time, you can do it manually.

    If for whatever reason you do not like the idea of sniping, decide on your absolute maximum bid, and place it. If you win, great. If you lose, the winner paid too much as far as you are concerned. Bid once.

    Make sure you’re eligible to bid on an item before scheduling a snipe (or doing it manually), so that your bid will be accepted. As long as you live in a country that the seller ships to, you don’t have many (or any, I think as little as two within the past six months can get you blocked) unpaid strikes lately, and you have enough positive feedback, you should be ok. If you have a problem with one of those things, you could contact the seller and ask them to accept your bid, as long as you know early enough.

    A couple more benefits of sniping:

    1. Sniping is actually a way of combatting shill bidding – when the seller or his buddy bids on the item until they’re the high bid, and know your max, then retract their bid, and use yet another account to bid on the item, bidding just below your max. You don’t give the shiller time to retract their bid in order to leave you as the high bidder, close to your max. You can’t do much about a shill bidder letting their bid ride to the end of the auction, if it just raises but doesn’t exceed yours.

    Also, look out for 2nd chance offers, as they would be a reason for the shiller to let their shill bid ride, you may want to decline any and look for a different seller with the same item. Unless of course, the price seems ok with you, even though possible artificially jacked up.

    2. You can just cancel a snipe with as little as five minutes left (I guess depending on which service or software you use) in an auction, if you change your mind about bidding on an item, and your bid won’t be placed. If you place a bid on ebay and then retract it (not a seller’s or ebay’s favorite thing), you can be blocked from bidding on other auctions after doing this a few times, not sure what that # is.

    Here’s a couple links to pages for eBay bid increments:




    “A tactic that can work quite well, but requires more effort on your part is to look for items that are miss-spelt or are assigned to the wrong categories.”

    Try an ebay misspelling search site like Typojoe.com to hopefully find some deals with items that have main keywords misspelled in the title. Other interested buyers might never see them.

    A couple more eBay buying/saving ideas:

    If you send the seller a question about an item, find another of their listings, and send the question from that item page, rather than from the one that you actually want. This will add a little bit of work for the seller, if they want to add the question/answer to the item description page that you are actually interested in. Maybe they won’t bother, and maybe any potential bidders/buyers would not bother to send the seller the question themselves, rather just looking for another one.

    If there is a particular item that you are looking for, and especially if it is relatively rare on eBay, use a site like Ebuyersedge.com to set up a saved ebay search. You’d get an e-mail whenever a match is listed. Great for “Buy It Now”s priced right. You can use the price, category, exclude Word, etc. filters to narrow down the list of results that you receive in the e-mails.

  10. I have only purchased a few things from ebay but have been very pleased with the products. I will bookmark these tips for future reference!

    • Hope the tips help Pam, I think it can be a great way to get the things you want for less. Let me know how you go.

  11. I second the trying to find newer sellers idea. You are increasing your own risk, but frequently these auctions will go for much less than sales with more established sellers.

    • Everyone has to start at the beginning don’t they? Most people are pretty honest, but there are some crooks around that spoil thing for everyone. I find it helps to contact the seller and get a bit of a ‘feel’ for them too.

  12. These are great tips, especially waiting to bid until the end. Why give the auction more exposure?

    • It can really work in your favour if you are willing to look around. Sometimes it happens by accident when you are looking in other categories too, so worth remembering.

  13. My bf usually bids at the last minute. I remembered one time we were trying to get some desert rose seeds for my aunt and he got a heaping set at really good prices. He avoided all bidding wars. What I don’t like is when sellers have the items priced cheaply, but the shipping is ridiculous.

  14. Do you know that I’ve NEVER bid on anything on eBay? Thanks to you (and the advice from your readers in their follow-up comments), I’ve learned a lot – and may have to give it a try!

    • Hey Elizabeth, I hope that this does give you a bit of confidence to have a go. Start with something small and try using Paypal to pay for your purchase to add some extra safety. Good luck!

  15. I should give this article to my wife…

  16. I’ve been a huge eBay seller/buyer for over 6 years now! This is a fantastic guide and I even learned a few things. Bidding late and buying from newer sellers are some of the best tips for getting really good deals. I try to find items from sellers that only have 1 of that item and is barely used, instead of buying from a small business/company that has multiple items. I’ve gotten some really fantastic deals that way!

  17. I’ve bought quite a few items on eBay, and generally been satisfied with the auction process. I did get sniped once, by someone who swooped in and bid with only seconds to go. Hadn’t heard that idea of looking for misspelt items though. I might try it.