Under the hammer

Amanda Jarvis on how to get the most out of buying at an auction
YOU CAN buy just about anything at auction, from furniture and paintings to houses and cars. The big four London auction houses - Christie's, Bonhams, Phillips and Sotheby's - have some moderately priced items. But you will find the real bargains at local auctions.

Check auction details in local newspapers and specialist magazines, such as Antiques Diary. Auction houses will send out brochures on request and there is usually a chance to view the goods a few days before the sale. A sale catalogue gives a description and guide price for each item. On the day of the auction there will be a reserve price, which is the lowest that will be accepted in the sale.

Do not expect to buy at your first sale. It may take you a few visits to build up the confidence to bid, or to spot something you really want to buy. Set yourself a bidding limit so you do not get sucked into a bidding war you cannot afford. You may have to pay a buyer's premium on top of the hammer (sale) price. The big London houses charge 15 per cent on the first pounds 30,000 of the hammer price and 10 per cent on everything above that. Some local auctioneers also charge a buyer's premium.

Flats and houses sold at auction often need renovation. "If you find a property you are interested in, you need to move quickly," says Chris Glenn, general manager of Barnard Marcus Auctions. "Our catalogue comes out three weeks before the auction. In that time you need to get your finances sorted out and have a solicitor carry out pre-contract searches." There is no point going to an auction unless you have cash or a mortgage offer for a particular house or flat.

Mr Glenn advises setting a maximum that you are willing to pay for a property. "If you go along with a `let's just see what happens' attitude, you may get caught out in the heat of the moment," he says. "Sales are fast and pressurised and you have to make quick decisions." The advantage is that once the hammer has gone down, you can't be gazumped. "You rarely get a bargain because there is too much competition, but you will get value for money," he says.

At car auctions, most of the buyers are dealers but you can pick up a bargain if you know what you are looking for and you have done some homework. Cars at auction generally come in one of two categories. "Sold as seen" means that you will have to satisfy yourself that the car is worth buying. You do not have any right to complain if something goes wrong. Cars that are "sold as all good" are generally sold by a dealer who should know something about the car's history. Here, your consumer rights apply.

Neil Reeve, press officer for the Retail Motor Industry Federation, advises: "Look through back issues of car magazines and newspapers to get an idea of the type of car you want to buy. Get a copy of Parker's - available at newsagents. This will give you an idea of how much the type of car you want will cost."

Cars can be inspected as soon as the auction starts and Mr Reeve advises novices to take along someone who has some knowledge of car mechanics.

You can't drive the car beforehand, but there is usually a short period of grace - such as an hour - when the car can be rejected. So always drive the car as soon as possible after the hammer has fallen.

When you buy at auction the normal Sale of Goods Act rights apply, but goods are not classed as consumer purchases, so the three main rules can be excluded - that goods must be as described, of merchantable quality and fit for their normal purpose. "Read the small print in the catalogue and sale notices very carefully as this is where you'll find these exclusions," says Alan Wilson, senior law lecturer at the University of East London." And make sure you inspect anything you want to buy at the viewing."

Mr Wilson also points out that your rights are against the seller, not the auctioneer, so make sure you know who the seller is.

If you want to sell at auction, the first step is to find out the value of the item. Auction houses will give free valuations but if you do not live near an auction house, write to the Incorporated Society of Valuers and Auctioneers (ISVA). It can recommend valuers specialising in the object you want to sell. Members will also be listed in the Yellow Pages with the initials ISVA or ASVA after their names. It will help if you can find out something about the item's origin before you go along. Send a photograph if possible, so the appropriate specialist is available. If you leave an item behind, make sure you get a receipt and that the valuer is insured.

As a seller, you get maximum exposure and you can make considerably more than the reserve price. But sellers are subject to charges and you may end up with only 75 per cent of the hammer price.

q ISVA publishes guides to buying and selling at auction. `Buying and Selling a home at auction' is free. `Fine Art and Chattels Valuation and Auction Services' costs pounds 3 including postage, cheques payable to ISVA. Write to ISVA, 3 Cadogan Gate, London SW1X OAS.

q Bonhams 0171-393 3900, Christie's 0645 001766, Phillips 0171-629 6602, Sotheby's 0171-293 5000.

q `Antiques Diary': 0118 940 2165. Two editions: London and the South; Midlands and the North. Subscriptions cost pounds 12 a year for one region, pounds 23 for both.