After that early camera-buying experience, I've never again come close to losing my money on a big-dollar eBay listing. Why? Because I evaluate listings carefully and follow these steps every time I make a big-ticket purchase. So should you.
- Know your item inside and out. Never buy a big-ticket item on eBay unless you are incredibly educated about it. Know the standard features, included accessories, general appearance, and any other relevant details well enough to spot auctions selling stealthy knock-offs, incomplete units, or poor samples.
- Study the market. Make a rule for yourself: you're not going to buy for at least a month. Instead, watch everyone else bid on the auctions that you think you would have bid on. By the time a month is up, if you've been watching closely, you'll have a clear idea of what the value of the item is on eBay, how most of the listings selling the item should generally look, and what terms are most commonly used by major sellers.
- Rule out all but the most excellent sellers. Look closely at each seller and avoid risking your money by buying a big-ticket item from a small-time eBayer. Even if on the up-and-up, small-time sllers don't have experience with expensive gear and can run into problems everywhere from packaging to customs. When big money's involved, buy from sellers whose feedback score and percentage are 200 or higher and 99.8 percent or better, respectively, and whose profiles show that they've been an eBay member for at least a year.
- Read listings with a fine-toothed comb. Don't just read it once or skim it. When a great deal of money is involved, read every auction listing three or four times with your full attention, from beginning to end. On eBay the small print isn't always small—sometimes it's just buried in the middle of a dozen long-winded paragraphs. It's your job to spot it.
- Look listing context. In any listing you're considering, click on the "View seller's other items" link in the "Meet the seller" section and visit the seller's feedback profile to look at his or her recent completed sales. Think twice about buying from a seller who:
- Isn't selling many (or who isn't selling any) other items at all
- Is selling other items primarily of a lesser value or from a very different product category
- Is selling dozens and dozens of only one kind of high-dollar item
- Settle only for buyer-friendly payment and listing terms. Ignore high-dollar listings that require money orders or wire transfers—bid only on those that accept PayPal or credit cards, since these give you some recourse if you're not satisfied with the purchase. Also buy only when there's a stated return policy that includes a satisfaction guarantee.
- Contact the seller. Buy big-ticket only from sellers you're able to call on the telephone. If the seller doesn't list a phone number in the item description, send the seller a message using the "Ask seller a question" link to request a phone number and chat. If you don't get one, or if the reply takes more than a day or two, don't buy.
- Beware of red flags. Don't buy from sellers who seem to violate eBay policies or trade in unusual ways—for example, by offering to sell you the item behind eBay's back, by charging an insanely high shipping amount in order to avoid paying seller fees, or by requiring bidders to "get permission" in order to bid.
In all of this, the most important detail is that you should trust your instincts as a consumer. The old adage holds, even on eBay: if it seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is.
After Paying for Your Item
Once you've won and paid for a high-value item, be alert and have your moxie at the ready. Contact the seller and ask for answers at the first sign of delays or trouble. If you haven't received the item within a week of the expected arrival time, if the seller stops responding to inquiries for more than a week while the item is on its way, or if the item is unsatisfactory upon arrival but the seller won't immediately offer you recourse, contact your credit card issuer to discuss your options.
At the end of any big-ticket transaction on eBay, be sure to leave feedback for your trading partner, whether the deal went off well or badly. The feedback system is particularly relevant for sellers dealing in high-value items because feedback is the best tool future potential buyers have to evaluate the seller's performance.
Finally, if you ever feel as though you've been the victim of outright fraud on eBay, begin an eBay dispute immediately to report it, so that eBay can investigate and take steps to remove the seller from the site.
Be alert, be aware, and happy buying!