How to Fail at eBay

Where eBay beginners often go wrong

eBay on iPad

hocus-focus/Getty Images 

eBay has a few unwritten rules that experienced users have learned through trial, error, and, often, a bit of expense. If you're new to the eBay universe, you can learn from the experiences of others and save yourself a lot of time, aggravation, and cost by avoiding these 10 common mistakes.

Engaging in bidding wars

Auctioneer with Large Crowd of Buyers
RichLegg/Getty Images 

This is the biggest beginner mistake of new eBayers: repeatedly bidding on the same item in a misguided frenzy to stay a few pennies ahead of the other bidders. While real-life auctions might work this way, this is the opposite of how eBay auctions work. Real-life auctions are ended by a live auctioneer who is trying to create a bidding frenzy. eBay auctions, instead, are ended by a timer. eBayers who successfully win auctions are those people who time their first or second bid to be the last bid before the timer expires. For more information on how to time your winning bids, read more about auction sniping below.

Failing to read the auction details carefully

Always read the fine print to avoid getting burned by an unexpected detail. After all, you wouldn't sign any contract before thoroughly reading and understanding all of the details, would you? This same good sense applies to eBay auctions. Although most sellers are honest people who offer good deals, there will always be predators and opportunists who will gladly take you for a ride by deceiving you with fine print. The biggest culprit is shipping and handling costs; such bad-acting sellers will charge outlandish fees for a $3 item. See the next mistake for details.

Failing to check shipping/handling costs

Shipping is the cost of parcel freight. Handling is any related cost that the seller can choose to tack on, such as overcharging you for a box or a pre-shipping "inspection" of the item. Predatory sellers often use this shipping/handling umbrella to gouge buyers. Beware if the shipping cost of the item is not listed for your country (or isn't listed at all, for that matter). Check if these fees are listed anywhere in the auction description. If not, ask the seller how much such cost will be. You don't want any nasty surprises, such as winning a tiny $2 item and having to pay $19 to have it shipped in a plain envelope with $1 worth of actual postage.

Bidding over your head

This common mistake will cost you more than you think. Be honest with yourself, and always choose your personal price limit before you bid. Then, discipline yourself to stay under that limit.

This is especially important for auctions with low starting bids. These auctions always attract frenzied, undisciplined bidders. Many experienced sellers like to incite bidding frenzies as a way to inflate their profits; their mantra is "start them low and see what happens." Once a bidding war starts and then pushes past your spending limit, you must walk away decisively.

Do not let undisciplined money management and excitement control you. If you decide to bid, first be sure to know what the item is worth (listing price vs. retail price, shipping and handling costs, etc.), and then bid only what you can truly afford to spend.

Failing to check the seller's feedback before bidding

Most eBay sellers are fine and honest folk, and you won't experience any issues with most of your transactions. Once in a while, though, you're bound to run into the exception. That's just the law of statistics and human nature. Your best resource is seller feedback.

eBay screenshot

Invest some time to read several pages of it. This is especially true if the feedback is less than 100 percent positive, and if the item is worth more than $25. This feedback is a good indicator of the person's integrity as a seller. Whenever possible, stick to sellers with a greater than 99 percent positive feedback — but do scan the feedback pages. Sometimes, negative feedback comes from buyers who are dishonest, too. Check into any negative feedback to see if the seller remediated the issue; mistakes do happen, and a reputable seller fixes them.

Using poor online search skills

The more detailed your search criteria are, the higher the possibility of finding precisely what you are looking for. If you go to a shoe store and ask for red shoes, what are the chances the salesperson will bring you exactly what you need? But if you ask for red heels Manolo Blahnik size 9, the salesperson would have a pretty good idea what you want. The same works in eBay search: The more details you give, the better the chances that you will find it. Be patient, use three to five keywords in your search phrases, and consider using multiple browser tabs to do multiple simultaneous searches.

Failing to truly "know thy item" before bidding

An amateur buyer might buy an eBay item that's available from a local department store or elsewhere online for less. Yes, eBay sells almost everything, but do your homework by Googling the item before bidding. Know these answers:

  • Can you find it elsewhere for cheaper?
  • How much is the retail price?
  • Can you get it in your country without custom fees?
  • Is it available for pickup (no shipping delays)?

If you still want to buy on eBay, then check the quality of the auction item:

  • Is it authentic/genuine/certified?
  • Or is it like something instead?

Carefully read the fine print of every auction, especially for purchases of more than $25.

Falling for fraud and phishing attacks

Sadly, eBay is a target for online predators and cons. Be on the lookout for:

  • Fake "second chance" offers
  • Sellers with no feedback selling stolen, broken, or outright non-existent items
  • Bad guys hijacking legitimate eBay IDs and using them to sell phantom products
  • Phishing (deception) emails from people trying to steal your eBay credentials.

Research what eBay phishing and other scams look like, so you can recognize those emails and auctions when you see them.

Attempting to save on an item by resorting to shady deals outside of eBay

You found your item, and there are no bids on it. The auction still has three days left. There are no bids, so you might think that you could avoid possible bidding wars if you contact the seller and ask to end the auction early with your purchase. Although this might save you and seller a few dollars, it's a bad idea.

Not only do you lose the guarantor protection of eBay, but the seller also could report your innocent question to eBay, and your eBay privileges and account could be canceled. Making offers to deal outside of the site violates your eBay user agreement. Don't lose your eBay privileges and history over the possibility of saving a few dollars. Buy the items through regular channels.

Leaving bad feedback before contacting the seller first

Shout before trying to amicably resolve a misunderstanding is a major faux pas on eBay. Too many new eBay buyers and even some high-feedback veterans do this, especially while upset. Remember: Nobody wins if you get hasty and nasty. Always contact the seller first and give them the opportunity to fix a problem. A good seller will allow you to return the item or will provide another solution. Never leave neutral or negative feedback before you've exhausted all the options without resolution. Even if the situation is bad but the seller helps you resolve it, acknowledge the seller's efforts in your feedback. Think of it as good eBay karma.