Hot deals on Uncle Sam's eBay
Jewelry, trucks, microscopes, handguns -- online government auctions feature amazing variety, sometimes for pennies on the dollar.
Wanna buy a snowplow blade? A pool table? An infant CPR mannequin? A backhoe, portable Breathalyzer, non-flammable locker or a case of 1,323 disposable culture tubes?
Has the government got a deal for you.
These and a startling variety of other items are up for grabs in government property auctions.
Local, state and federal authorities put an ever-changing array of items up for public bid: decommissioned battleships, heavy equipment, lighthouses, fashion accessories, medical supplies, kitchen appliances, cold-weather gear, aircraft staircases and even strip clubs.
If you're hooked on reality-TV auction shows like "Storage Wars, " let me burst your bubble: Most of these items are auctioned over the Internet, vs. "outcry" auctions where you bid in person.
And speaking of TV: Ignore those late-night ads (and online ones) promising you the inside scoop. Everything you need to know about government auctions is available for free.
There's no single clearinghouse for government auctions, but here are some basic sources:
General Services Administration auctions site. Goods are sold because they're getting older (cars and trucks tend to be rotated out after five years) or because they are unused or underutilized (it's more cost-effective to sell them than to manage and insure them).
USA.gov. This includes pages both for federal property auctions and for state and local surplus property auctions.
Private/government partnerships. Some private companies partner with government agencies to promote these sales. Bid4Assets provides links to (among other things) local, state and federal government sales. Liquidity Services Inc. operates two sites: GovDeals, specializing in government surplus and confiscated items, and Government Liquidation, focusing on Department of Defense surplus.
Space shuttle stuff for sale
These goods are surplus, forfeited or seized so it's no surprise that conditions vary. Some items look (and may be) new or practically new; others, not so much. Anybody interested in a 1987 Chevy Pickup with more than 168,400 miles, no air conditioning, manual windows and a "possibly cracked" frame?
Me neither. But somebody is: The truck has a $350 bid. (Post continues after video.)
When I checked, the only current item was an undetermined number of PAPI (precision approach path indicator) airport lights. The description included this caveat: "Most lights do not have the legs attached but are in usable condition."
That's why you should attend auction previews if possible. You might want to see for yourself whether a legless PAPI will do for your particular needs. Besides, descriptions can be pretty subjective and photos may not reveal the whole story. (That is, if there is a photo. Occasionally there isn't.)
While you're there, keep your eyes peeled for potential treasure, whether figurative or literal. A few years ago I talked with a man who paid almost nothing for a jar that held some pieces of gravel. He bid on it because he recognized the stones as raw opals.
Going, going, gone
If you're both careful and patient you may find a splendid deal at a federal, city or county auction. Case in point: At a school district auction my dad paid just $700 for a 25,000-watt diesel generator. It had only 402 hours of use and would have cost between $7,000 and $8,000 new.
A few more things to keep in mind:
Set an alert. Some sites will e-mail you when what you're looking for comes up for bid.
Bring an expert. A car that starts won't necessarily run. There might be a reason that computer is so cheap. If possible, get a knowledgeable friend to go with you.
Beware auction fever. Figure out what you can afford to pay and don't go over it. (Here's another reason to bring a buddy: the reality check.)
Remember the fees. When determining your top price, keep administrative fees in mind. Read the rules closely before bidding.
Be ready to roll. Buyers usually have to get their own items home. Shipping is sometimes possible but the whole point of buying at auction is to save money, not spend it.
You can't change your mind. No buyer's remorse is permitted -- you have to provide a credit card number, so you'll pay for your item whether you actually come to get it. No-shows also get kicked off the system, which means they won't be allowed to bid when the decommissioned battleship of their dreams comes up for auction.
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