As soon as my wife and I stepped into our new home, we knew it was perfect for us. We'd become fascinated by mid-century ultra-modern furniture and design and wanted to outfit our home with antiques in that style. Our new house, built in 1953, has such consummate details of the period as a kitchen with red Formica and chrome-edged countertops and a pass-through counter to the dinning room with hanging dinnerware shelves above it. Trouble is, we were on a limited budget (I'm a writer and she's musician for heaven's sake), so we needed to be clever to save money. We found the answer to our dilemma in the 24/7 auction houses of cyberspace.
Here are some of the lessons we learned that may help others shopping for home decorating items online:
- Do Your Homework: If you're new to online auctions, read the sites' FAQs and chat with old hats of the auction scene for tips on how to maximize your trading experience. If you ask around, you'll likely find at least one friend or family member who's a closet "eBay addict."
- Know What You're Looking For: One of the most important keys to success in auctioning is to know where to look on the site and who/what to search on. For example, we spent weeks searching on "Boontonware" (a line of very Jetsonian plastic dinnerware from the '50s/60s), before we realized that what we really wanted was "Boonton," an earlier version of the line whose design/construction we liked much better. Eventually, we bought several books (on eBay, of course!) that quickly brought us up to speed on the designers and furnishing styles of the period.
- Start Slow: Keeping track of all the auctions, whether buying, selling or both, is harder than you might think. There's a lot of email to back and forth, checks to handle, packages to send/receive. Start with only a few trades and ramp up as your time, patience and desires dictate. Do yourself a favor and keep good records of all your transactions.
- Go Regional: Some auction sites allow you to search on items in your geographical area alone. This is great for furniture buying because it keeps the shipping costs down. We found a stunning late '50s teak stereo console that ended up going for a song, but it was halfway across the country. The shipping would have been as much as or more than the piece itself. If we'd found this locally, we could have picked it up ourselves and saved big bucks.
- Buy Direct: Don't get locked into auctioning alone. Every time we discover an antique dealer or active amateur collector selling on an auction site, we approach him/her directly and ask if they have other items to sell outside of the auction. In several instances, we've gotten items cheaper buying directly than they've been going for at auction. You can also save shipping costs if you win something and then buy additional items from the seller directly.
- Don't Forget the Smaller Auction Sites and Online Thrifts: EBay may be the auction brand on everyone's lips, but there are dozens of other general and many market-specific auction sites. EBay has gotten so popular that finding a true deal has become increasingly difficult. You're more likely to get a deal on a less-trafficed auction site like Amazon's, Excite's, or Yahoo's. For home decorating, go to the sites that specialized in your decorating style. Many of them run auctions on-site or links to auctions. Also, there are online thrift stores to consider. We found some really nice pieces of kitchenware, glassware and dinnerware at the CyberAttic.
- Be A Stellar Trader: Online auctions are meritocracies, they work because buyers and sellers (usually) go out of their way to be nice and trade fair. The reason is feedback. Every buyer/seller has a feedback page that others consult before bidding. Negative feedback can destroy others' confidence in you. Always check seller feedback before bidding and go out of your way to provide clear communication, prompt payment, etc. so you can build an unblemished feedback file.
- Be a Seller Too: Once you get the auction bug for buying, you'll likely get it for selling too. The amazing thing is, you'll soon discover that you can indulge your collecting habit with the proceeds from your auction sales. Prior to our move, we auctioned off all sorts of junk that we would have either thrown out or given to Goodwill (don't worry, we gave truckloads to them, too). We made enough money to entirely pay for the move and had enough left over to get started with our mid-century modern collecting. If you're tired of one style of decorating, you can auction everything off and use the money to bid on items in your new style.
We're well on our way to creating a retro-futuristic pad that George and Judy Jetson would feel at home in. We still have a long way to go, but the quest has become just as much fun as the acquisition. And under what other circumstances can you sleepily pop into several warehouse-sized thrift and antique stores at 2:30 in the morning, just before padding off to bed?