1. Check It Out But Don't Look Like You're Checking It Out: There's a natural reaction to walk into an auction and just start touching things. It's easy to get excited and start squealing because it's just like the piece you saw on *insert website or magazine here.* Instead, cool is the name of the game as you want to casually stroll in and examine a piece without showing any real interest and look for defects. Your enthusiasm can mean others bidding up your prices or auctioneers being able to take advantage of you.
2. The Sit, Wiggle, Smell Rule: Many personal property auctions are held outdoors so things can appear different than when you get them home. A piece might feel wobbly outside on the grass and because of it's location you assume that when you get it home it will be fine on a level floor. That's not always the case and 6 times out of 10 your find will smell of some sort of animal. Smell (with caution) because it's a long ride home with it in your car. Most smells can be removed, but you'll know instantly the ones that are more stubborn.
3. Know Your Fix-It Resources: Although a nick or scrape here is totally forgivable, some pieces might need a little more work. Just because you can score an amazing mid-century dresser for $5 that would have cost you several hundred on Craigslist, doesn't mean you can repair it for less than that. Anything that appears structural instead of hardware-defective should always be purchased with caution unless you have a handyman in your back pocket.
4. Make The Auctioneer Drop The Price: Most auctioneers take a cut in the percentage of the sales made the day of the auction. Just because they start the bidding at $20 doesn't mean they won't come down. If no one bids, they'll take it lower and lower until it drops down to $1. Although it can be a little frustrating to repeat the process each time (thus extending how long you're standing in the how sun), it can save you some serious bucks. You never know if you'll have competition or not!
5. Buy What You Can Re-Sell: There's always a certain margin for error when you're bidding on an item. You might think you know how much space you have for a specific piece of furniture, but when you get it home, you can easily be off a few inches or more. Make sure the pieces you bring home can easily be cleaned or fixed up without much effort if you need to re-list them on Craigslist asap to find them a new home. Bonus — you can usually sell them for 4 to 5 times what you purchased them for if you were a savvy bidder!
6. Preview Auctions/Photos: Many websites (I like auctionzip.com) have a photo preview or slideshow gallery of the pieces that are being offered. Make sure to check out the main sites and auctioneer's personal sites to get a full listing of what might be available. Photos can give you scale of a piece before you arrive as well as condition if you look closely.
Do you have any furniture shopping tips to add to this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!