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Online Auctions

A new way of buying and selling just about anything on the Internet is the online auction. Made popular by eBay and now found on dozens of different sites, these online communities bring buyers and sellers together to swap items of every sort and description. Of course, PCs and related peripherals, components and supplies, both new and used, can be found on these sites.

There are many online resources that talk in great detail about auction sites, providing you with all the ins and outs, tips and hints for using them to your advantage. That's beyond the scope of this Guide, and I won't try to duplicate what they do; there's not much point. Instead, I will look at auctions from the specific standpoint of someone looking to buy a PC.

When I limit myself to that task, things boil down very quickly to this conclusion: buying a PC from an online auction is not a very good idea. Even if you have had success buying other items in auctions, I wouldn't recommend buying a PC in this way. Perhaps components or peripherals, but not whole systems, and even then, you're usually better off elsewhere. I'll try to explain my reasoning.

First, let's look at the upside, relative to buying a system from another online source. The only real theoretical advantage of online auctions is that you have the possibility of getting a system at a bargain basement price. The problem is that in many cases that does not happen. More often than not, the price you pay isn't that great of a deal, and it's not uncommon for people to even pay more in auctions than they would from a good online vendor. While there are good deals out there, you often have to spend a lot of time and energy finding them in the chaff of overpriced auctions.

Why does this happen? Because most people fail to research the value and cost of the item, and they think that "if it's an auction, it must be a good price". They start bidding when the price is low, and get "carried away" as the price increases due to other bidders. Everyone who bids ends up thinking the last bid must be reasonable or the other guy wouldn't have made the bid, so what's a few dollars more? This ends up being "groupthink" at its finest. Making matters worse is the fact that most people who buy and sell used PCs think they are worth far more than they are compared to new equipment.

Against that limited upside, auctions have a long laundry list of disadvantages compared to more conventional sources for PCs. There are two types of sellers of PCs in auctions. The first group is comprised of companies that are selling the same items they normally sell in their stores or on their web sites, at auction. Invariably, they do this for one reason: they get more money for the item. They are usually not the best sellers of PCs, and even if they were, you'd likely be better off just approaching them directly instead of competing with others for their items.

The other type of seller is the individual, looking to move a personal, used system. Buying a system of this sort at auction entails all the risks that I discuss in the section on buying used PCs, only it's even worse because you can't inspect the system in person until after you've already paid for it and taken delivery! You run the very real risk of there being something wrong with a machine bought this way, which you won't find out about until long after your money has been spent. The seller will usually be in another state (or even another country) limiting your ability to recover your funds in the event of problems.

In addition to all of the above, you expose yourself to the other drawbacks of auctions:

  • Fraud Risk: Fraud complaints related to purchases on auction sites far exceed those from established vendors. It's hard to really know who you are buying from in some cases. Better auction sites are working hard to reduce or eliminate fraud, and you can protect yourself by buying from established auction sellers, but there's still more risk than with a reputable vendor. In any case, don't bid on an expensive item from a seller that has low "feedback", or from one that behaves suspiciously in any way.
  • "As Is": Most items sold in auctions have no warranty unless specified. You will get whatever comes in the box, and you have to hope that it is what you thought it was.
  • Communication Problems: It's not uncommon for the buyer to think he or she is buying something very different from what the seller thinks he or she is selling.
  • Delays: Auctions can take a week to finish, and then there are often further delays until the item is shipped to you.
  • Payment Issues: Sellers almost always require payment up front. Payment methods are usually limited (though online services like PayPal are making this better.)
  • Disappointment: It is common for bidders to have the high bid on an item for several days in a row, only to have another bidder jump in literally seconds before the auction ends and overbid, taking the item. The end result is that the first guy has wasted a lot of time for nothing. If you want instead to be the "second guy" then you have to live with doing this to someone else.

I am sure that many who read this will disagree with my recommendations, saying I am an "auction hater". It is true that many thousands of people use auction sites to buy and sell items successfully every day. I just believe that these sites are usually a better deal for the seller than the buyer. I would happily sell a PC on an auction site, but I won't buy one there.

Buying simple or low-cost items at auction is one thing; you may be able to get a good deal doing so, if you're careful. It's even possible that you may find a good deal on PC components or peripherals if you look carefully enough. Usually though, you're better off shopping elsewhere. When it comes to entire PC systems, you are almost always better off with a different source.

Tip: If you are going to buy at auction, you have more recourse in the event of problems if the seller is in the same state you are.

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