20 eBay buying tips

eBay is a mammoth marketplace with millions of goods. Most people just bid, but there's a range of hidden tools and tricks to help you track down uber-bargains.

This guide offers 20 eBay and second-hand buying tips.

1 Find super-cheap local bargains

Whether they're offering designer sofas, dishwashers, Wiis or children's books, sellers on eBay often specify items must be collected in person. As this often means fewer bids, there are bargains to be had.

Yet you can't search for "pick up only" on eBay, so we built tools to speedily track and map gems near you.

The results can be powerful, such as this from MoneySaver Jen_Jen1985: "Had been looking for a double buggy - most ended up selling for around $46. I found one via the Local Deals Finder and ended up winning it for $1.52."

2 Use spelling mistayke spotters

Many people can't spell, so they mistype their eBay entries. This English teacher's nightmare is a bargain hunter's dream.

Wrongly-spelled products attract fewer bids because many people miss them.

A few specialist search sites take advantage of this. They trawl eBay for all possible spelling mistake combinations.

3 Use tools to bag overlooked items

Often sellers start auctions at 99p or less, hoping a bidding war will erupt. Many items go unspotted, staying at this super-low price.

Lastminute Auction hunts for eBay auctions due to finish within an hour, but which still cost £1 or less. On a similar note, Baycrazy's Zero Bids tool finds auctions ending soon with no bidders.

Double-check delivery charges, as some sellers try to recoup costs by charging a little extra (though eBay's now set maximum delivery charges for many categories).

4 Set alerts to track rare items

If you want something very specific or hard to track down, you can 'follow' the search, so eBay sends an email each time a seller lists your desired item.

This is fab if you like buying on eBay, but don't want to spend your life hunched over the site.

Simply type a product in eBay's search bar, such as "Star Wars Lego Millennium Falcon", and click 'follow this search'. Be as specific as possible for the most accurate results. Then, when someone clears out the loft and lists one, an email pops into your inbox.

5 Don't assume eBay's cheapest

Many people assume that if it's on eBay*, it's automatically cheap, but this isn't always the case. With a few basic checks, it's easy to spot if you're really getting a bargain.

Use shopbots (shopping robots) that whizz to scores of internet retailers to find the cheapest price.

The same rule applies when buying second-hand gear. Check the used marketplace on Amazon* - you may even get it for free.

6 Check the eBay going rate for similar items

There's a quick way to glean an eBay product's market value and make sure you're getting a good deal.

Fill in the search box and tick 'completed items' on the left-hand grey bar. It'll come up with a list of prices similar auctions have already fetched. Then sort by "price: lowest first".

If the price is red, that means no one bought it. Green means it sold – don't pay more than the average.

7 Use the 'best offers' tool to see if a seller will do a deal

Some sellers say they'll consider 'best offers' on buy-it-now items. This is where you propose a figure, then they mull it over and tell you if it's a goer.

Best offer tool

There's a loophole to see which prices they've already accepted, and lower your best offer accordingly.

Do a search, tell it what you want, and tick to show only 'accepts best offer' items. Once you've found an auction that accepts offers, enter the seller's username into Goofbid's Best Offer History tool.

It should show all the items that seller's already accepted best offers for, including the average reduction they give. If you see that they typically accept 30% below the listed price, bingo - you've a clear idea of how much to offer.

8 Don't pay for info

eBay bans the sale of intangible items, including recipes, dieting advice and, bizarrely, spells and spirits. Yet some Del Boy types still sell web addresses as "exclusive info/tools of great interest".

Other sellers flog mobile phone Sim unlocking codes for as much as £10, when you can do this for nowt (see Mobile Phone Unlocking).

To our great distaste, links to this site have been sold to the highest bidder. In the past, people have sold bank charge reclaiming template letters and links to the FlightChecker, as well as other tools from the site.

Use Google to check exactly what you're bidding for. If it's just "information", you'll usually find the same elsewhere for free.

9 Win auctions with sniping tools

Spotted something you want to buy? The last thing you should do is bid on it. Bid early and competing buyers will bid back, forcing the price upwards. Instead, sneakily win auctions by swooping in and delivering a killer bid about 10 seconds before the deadline, leaving no time for others to fight back.

Sniping websites automatically bid on your behalf, usually in the last 10ish seconds. Simply sign up, enter an eBay* item number and the maximum price you're willing to pay. This also stops you getting carried away in the heat of a last minute bidding war.

Think twice about using sniping sites to bid on items you've got your heart set on, as sometimes they can play up.

10 Haggling on eBay pays off

There's nothing wrong with asking for a discount, even if the listing doesn't show the 'make offer' logo. Haggling works best on buy-it-now listings, or auctions with a high start price and no bids.

To contact the seller, click 'ask a question'. If you're polite and charming, you'll get further. Blunt requests such as "will u take 50p" are usually a mistake. They annoy the seller, and a discount is at their discretion.

Once you've clinched the deal, keep the transaction within eBay – just ask the seller to add (or change) a buy-it-now price.

11 Include delivery charges in the total costs

For a true picture of the total cost, it is important to include the cost of delivery to make sure you really are getting a bargain.

Do a search, then sort items by 'Price + P&P: lowest first'. Of course, auction listings' prices could still rise, but on buy-it-now items this instantly shows the cheapest.

Always double-check postage charges before bidding. Some sellers try to supplement their income by charging higher delivery rates, though eBay is cracking down on this by specifying a maximum postage amount for many categories.

12 Sneaky tricks to exploit sellers' slip-ups

Some sellers make basic mistakes, leaving goods going for bargain money (read the eBay Selling Tricks guide to avoid these blunders).

As well as spelling howlers, another beginner's error is leaving out key details (brand, shoe size, wardrobe dimensions) or getting them wrong (saying a console's an Xbox when the photo shows a PS2, for example). At this point, many buyers give up as it's too much hassle.

So contact the seller to fill in gaps. But don't ask the question via the item's listing page - that way, when the seller replies, eBay lets them add their reply to the main listing with one click, so all buyers will know the pertinent facts.

Instead, ask the question via the seller's profile (make it clear which item you're on about). They probably won't bother with the extra faff of adding it to the listing, so you'll be the only one in the know.

Spotted a Fabergé egg listed as "nice metal egg decorated with enamel"? It's worth knowing eBay only lets sellers do major edits to their listings before anyone bids.

Once bidding starts, they can only add small updates. So if the start price is low, say 99p, bid before the seller cottons on. Then it will be too late to properly fix it.

13 Find auctions closing in the dead of night

Listings that finish at anti-social times often get fewer bids, so sell for less.

To locate auctions that finish in the dead of night, use BayCrazy's Night Time Bargain search.

Don't fancy burning the midnight oil? Combine this trick with auto-bidding tools that bid on your behalf while you're deep in the land of nod.

14 New to eBay? Buy some small items to learn the ropes

In its essence, eBay's just a marketplace. While it's easy to snap up a scorcher, it's just as easy to get burnt.

So it's a good idea for newbies to learn the ropes by bidding on a few small items, such as books or pants. This way, you can learn how the bidding system works before graduating to more costly wares.

Want to check if an item's legit? Why not post it on the MSE Forum's eBay board? Experts in there will tell you whether it looks dodgy.

15 Search items' titles and descriptions

eBay automatically searches for results with your specified words in their title. If you're not getting the results you want, try searching the item's description too.

Just tick 'include description' under the search button.

For example, imagine you were searching for a North Face jacket. The seller may have just put 'ski jacket' in the title, but mentioned North Face in the description.

16 Take feedback with a dose of scepticism

eBay sellers have a feedback rating that acts as a useful guide to whether they've dealt fairly in the past. As a guideline, look for a seller with more than 98% positive feedback, and a high feedback score of at least 30.

Think twice before purchasing expensive items from a seller with zero feedback. Also ensure you read their feedback from selling, not just buying (click on their username, then the 'feedback as a seller' tab).

Remember feedback's useful, but not infallible. One thing to watch for is traders flogging a few things for 10p each to build feedback, and suddenly listing iPhones at £400 a pop.

17 Bid a few extra pence to boost your bid's chances

When bidding, you enter a “maximum bid”, and eBay makes automatic bids on your behalf up to your limit.

Don't enter a round number. For example, if a tricycle is currently selling for £7, and the most you are willing to pay is £20, enter a maximum bid of £20.01. If someone else bids £20, eBay will favour your bid, even though it's just 1p more.

It's worth being aware of bid increments, the steps by which prices rise. They vary from 5p to £100, depending on the current price. For a list, see eBay's Bid Increments guide.

18 Check you're bidding on the actual item

Always read the whole description in detail before bidding, to help avoid any hidden catches and make sure you are buying what you think you are.

Often the catch is hidden in the text at the end – an attempt to protect the seller from any comeback.

In an extreme example, in the past some people have bid on eBay to win a £200 laptop, and then inspection of the small print revealed they were actually buying a box.

19 What if it's got a reserve?

Sellers occasionally list goods at a rock-bottom figure, but set a reserve, a hidden minimum price. These listings say "reserve not yet met". The seller hopes the low price will attract bidders, but don't want to part with it for that amount.

Avoid wasting your time by asking the seller what the reserve is. They may tell you where to go, but it's always worth a shot.

If you bid and don't meet the item's reserve price, you can bid again – without waiting for anyone else to bid against you. If you submit a bid over the reserve price and no one else bids higher, you'll only pay the reserve.

20 Sneakily find underpriced 'buy it nows'

Nowadays, bidding wars break out over many auctions thanks to eBay's size. So try hunting for buy-it-now bargains instead.

Often sellers don't realise they're sitting on treasure, and list goods at a fixed price below market value.

These steals are snapped up quickly. The trick's to select a category you're clued up on, filter it to show 'buy it now' items only and sort the results by "Time: newly listed". Scan through until you spot underpriced goodies, then swoop in.