Using eBay Motors requires a leap of faith

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EBay has become almost as much a part of the public consciousness as Google or Microsoft. Founded 19 years ago, it’s far and away the world’s most popular online auction house and, on any given day, millions of unique visitors are perusing its listings. It’s estimated that 200 million consumers use it on a regular basis, and annual revenues are in the billions of dollars. In 2005, for example, almost two billion items were bought, sold, and traded on eBay.

One of the liveliest areas of the site is eBay Motors, which features everything from new models to collector cars to automotive memorabilia to hard-to-find parts and accessories. According to the company, around 13.3 million unique visitors drop in to eBay Motors every month, and something is sold every seven seconds, with well over 200 million transactions having been conducted since its inception.

I’m one of those who’ve conducted transactions. In fact, I’ve bought or sold about 50 times on eBay Motors over the years—most of the time successfully. If you’re looking for tough-to-find items or just cruising for a car, eBay Motors is hard to beat.

If you’re a seller, you list an item—usually for a week—explain the particulars, and provide a written sales pitch. You can start the bidding at whatever price you choose, and there’s also a “Buy It Now” option that bypasses the auction process. The bidding stops when the listing ends. You can also set up a preapproved-bidders account that keeps out the riffraff and restricts the bidding to those who are serious and can be counted on to pay at the end.

If you’re a buyer, you find what you’re looking for, place a bid, monitor the bids, and wait. As the bidding process draws to a close, a little readout on the item’s page counts down how many minutes or seconds you have left. This is when the bidding gets serious. It takes a few seconds for bids to register, and this is definitely “you snooze, you lose” territory. Generally speaking, if you let it get below 30 seconds, you’ve had it.

What does it cost? That depends on the sale price, how many pictures you include, what extras you add (highlighted photos, insurance, PayPal, and so on), and how long you run the ad. For example, I recently listed a Triumph sports car (that didn’t sell) with six photos, and the final cost was about US$25. If you’re a buyer, it costs nothing to bid (once you’ve signed up with eBay), but expect to pay shipping charges.

This is where it gets tricky. More than once, I’ve purchased an item at a good price only to be faced with exorbitant shipping fees that have on occasion been higher than the value of the item. This is where some “professional” sellers make their money: sell low, ship high.

There is also no guarantee that the winning bidder will follow through. The aforementioned Triumph was actually sold three times: once to a guy in Switzerland; another time to a buyer in France; and, last but not least, to a punter in Connecticut who said he wanted to drive the car back to the East Coast. They all reneged, the European buyers bailing after they discovered how much it was going to cost to ship the car overseas by container (in these cases, $4,000 to $5,000) and the American because he said he didn’t want to buy a car sight unseen. Shouldn’t have gotten involved in the first place then, dude; it’s eBay!

So, a leap of faith is required when buying or selling on eBay. You have to assume that the other guy will do the right thing, and 90 percent of the time, he does.

That said, there is a dispute process. The site has a feedback-based rating system for buyers and sellers; if you cheat someone or somehow corrupt the process, eBay can reclassify your rating, and this could lead to future difficulties with the bidding process or being suspended from the site. Unfortunately, the resolution process is cumbersome and, as is the case with any large corporation, trying to find a human being to plead your case with is a challenge. Persevere, however, and you may wind up in the “escalation” department, where someone will actually speak to you and investigate your claim.

A few other things to keep in mind when on eBay Motors:

PayPal is unreliable. It’s also owned by eBay, which means more money in its pocket.

Provide lots of photos. Serious buyers will demand them anyway.

Don’t bid unless you mean it. Frivolous bids could affect your feedback rating.

Buyers will sometimes try to end the bidding immediately by asking you how much you’ll take. Don’t do it.

Try to be realistic about where the vehicle, part, or accessory is located. If that Skoda you’ve always wanted is in Guam or Kuala Lumpur, things could get expensive and complicated.

Happy selling and bidding!

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