My family's descent into eBay madness (personally, I blame the children)

If it's good enough for Cherie Blair, it's good enough for us. Martin Wroe describes how his 13-year-old son led him into the bargain hunter's paradise of internet bidding ... and how he begs junk from friends to feed the family addiction
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Our latest online bargain arrived on Tuesday, from Guernsey: a lovely, dark, curvy, three-quarter size violin wrapped in newsprint. A bit scratched and battered, true, but only enough to bear witness to the devotion of its previous owner. And anyway, how could we have gone wrong at thirty quid? (Plus a tenner for post and insurance.)

Our latest online bargain arrived on Tuesday, from Guernsey: a lovely, dark, curvy, three-quarter size violin wrapped in newsprint. A bit scratched and battered, true, but only enough to bear witness to the devotion of its previous owner. And anyway, how could we have gone wrong at thirty quid? (Plus a tenner for post and insurance.)

OK, so there was no bow - but oh, the sound it makes when Evan, the eight-year-old, slings it onto his shoulder. Perhaps, mysteriously, that snip of a price gives it a richer, fuller timbre.

It was Wez, our 13-year-old, who launched the Wroe boat into eBay, a shimmering electronic ocean glinting with barely concealed treasures. It occurred to him that you might as well buy a third- or fourth-hand BMX bike online for £86 as a new one, for two or three times that. After all, extreme bikes and teenagers are meant to knock seven bells out of each other.

I picked the bike up in time for his birthday from a seventy-something stranger at a pre-arranged location one Sunday morning in north London. It had to be her: the only pensioner on the street bent low over the handlebars of a stunt bike.

Within no time, Wez and I were bidding for new decks and bearings for his skateboards, for video games and for a cello for sister Grace, 11 - this last transaction completed for £120 at a service station off the M1. "It has been in a cupboard for 10 years," said the middle-aged stranger, barely holding back his tears. "Ever since my daughter left home."

Millions of us have already made our last ever stop at a travel agent or in a cinema queue, as the digital download revolution takes off. But can anything compare with eBay, this electronic jumble sale drawing a billion customers to your car boot?

Founded in the US nine years ago by Pierre Omidyar, a French Iranian who wrote its software in a weekend, the site now hosts 25 million sale items. With nine million users in the UK and three million new items every day, 150,000 sellers are so smitten that they have left their jobs to become full-time traders.

Why should it be remarkable that Cherie Blair is reported to have snapped up a Winnie-the-Pooh alarm clock for Leo for 99p and some Roland Cartier shoes for a tenner? I sold some very similar items at the church summer fayre last weekend. Cherie couldn't make it but with a modem she can access a worldwide, 24/7 fayre, without being bothered by photographers or Carole Caplin. And a bargain is a bargain, whatever your status or take-home pay.

If the headlines are grabbed by sales of Gulfstream jets (final bid £2.7m), Scottish castles (offers from £4m) and a bag of Glastonbury mud (£490), most transactions are more mundane: cars, books, musical instruments, antiques, clothes, gadgets.

It used to be a cliché that everything has its price, but eBay proves the point. Take 18-year-old Rosie Reid, £8,400 richer after selling her virginity to a 44-year-old stranger. You have to imagine that the online transaction was easier than the physical one.

It is no surprise to find the odd serpent in the electronic paradise - Wez's mate Tom, 12, bought tickets to see the Red Hot Chilli Peppers last month, only to discover the seller had no intention of handing them over.

Last week the Government issued a warning over online "pyramid-selling" scams where fraudsters offer top-range gadgets at rock-bottom prices. Unsuspecting bidders end up buying a link to another site and a place in a never-ending virtual queue. You dare not leave your offline wisdom behind when you go online: a bargain is a bargain, but an iPod for £20 is a scam.

Updated gambling legislation this autumn will make such dodgy dealing illegal, but prosecution of rogue traders will be difficult. While eBay cannot vouch for every seller, it has the next best thing - the cumulative views of its global trading community.

Every purchaser can comment on whether the goods arrived quickly and lived up to the online description - every prospective bidder can read this "user feedback", a clever way of building trust. In our household, we have not been let down yet - why buy from a seller who misled someone else?

That said, eBay is not free of risk. The doors of this store are never closed and for some the site is addictive, its temptations comparable to the lure of gambling. For those experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not at the keyboard, or turning to eBay "to get a buzz or a high, or to escape and de-stress", The Sun diagnosed "eBay addiction" last week. The newspaper recommended putting a clock by your computer, gradually reducing your time online, disclosing your problem to close friends and, if all else fails, getting your GP to refer you to a specialist.

But fraud, greed and addiction are part of online life only because they are part of off-line life, while the potential benefits of eBay outweigh the risks.

Why buy new, if we can get second- and third-hand examples for a fraction of the price?

Grace sold her "beginners'" flute online for £104 - not bad, considering her gran bought it in a junk shop for £40.

The prices are good, says Wez, but so is the quality. "Ebay is full of bargains but it's got vintage stuff too, like Gibson guitars they don't make any more." Not that he has been able to afford a Gibson yet. He has bought one electric guitar and one bass guitar, the first, he says with pride, at £100 less than the shop price.

So how does a 13-year-old with £3 a week pocket money buy a guitar for £140? Simple - he trawls for hidden treasure in the cupboards of less technologically literate friends and relatives. The first deal was with a friend who realised that the Eternal Beau dinner service hibernating under her bed referenced an earlier passage in her aesthetic life. But the recycling paradise that is eBay teaches you that everything is big somewhere - even Eternal Beau. A deal was done: sell her china and Wez could keep half the loot.

By nightfall all 103 pieces were online, digitally snapped on the kitchen table to show off their best features. (The description, naturally, came clean on the number and extent of chips and cracks.)

Bidding rose quickly: £20 within the hour, £45 within two. It stalled after a couple of days, but the adrenaline rush which took us to £80 was already worth the bother. Items are posted for a set period - a day, three days, a week - so that buyers have to act within an agreed time-frame. The final hours, in which the serious bidders you hope have been lying low get ready to pounce, are more thrilling than a penalty shoot-out.

The long-neglected Eternal Beau sold for £150. "Where else am I going to get £75?" asks Wez, before opening negotiations on a fireplace someone has realised they will never get round to fitting.

Maybe this recyclable world could become a parable of materialism in reverse, hinting that we already have enough stuff and just need to move it around more. Someone, somewhere will always want what we have finished with - the internet just put us in touch.


Serial killer's fingernails

Clippings from the hands of Roy Norris, who killed five people in California. Sold for $9.99 in October 1999.

World's longest chip

Call it French or Freedom, this seven-inch fry was a must for collectors of processed vegetables in July 2003, fetching $120.

A flat, but not as we know it

A one-bedroom flat in Hinckley, Leicestershire, converted into a replica of the command deck of Star Trek's USS Enterprise was offered in October 2003 for "just" £1.6m.

Glastonbury mud

Soil scraped from the boot of an attendee at this year's rain-hit festival fetched £490 last month.

Cuban refugee escape boat

An 18ft vessel in which four Cubans sailed to America was found drifting near Key Largo in February and sold for $749.99 in March.

Vampire-killing kit

Authentic Victorian outfit including crossbow with silver-tipped arrows, wooden stake, bottle of holy water and various surgical instruments. Sold in November 2003 for $4,550.

Genuine shrunken head

Originally from the Jivaro Indians of Ecuador, this attracted just seven bids, the highest of which was $24.99.

Whale bones

The 40ft skeleton of a humpback whale was offered in March 2000 by a defunct Canadian museum with a reserve of £132,000.

Celebrity DNA

A cough sweet sucked by Arnold Schwarzenegger was offered for sale in May but banned from eBay because its ex-owner was still alive. Bits of dead celebs are OK.

Ex-wife's wedding dress

A record 16 million people viewed pictures of Larry Starr of Seattle modelling his ex-wife's wedding dress in May. The highest of 113 bids was $3,850.


Register as a user, which is free and takes a few minutes. You need to give your credit card details in order to make a bid.

Use the search function to see if someone is selling what you are after.

Read the description carefully and carefully check the payment and postage terms. Make sure that you can pay by a method that the seller is happy with - signing up to a secure online service such as PayPal is quick and efficient.

Check the "seller feedback" before making your bid. It will tell you what previous customers think of this vendor. The higher their rating, the more trustworthy they are.

Click on "Ask seller a question" if you're not sure about the item, and you can email them for more information.

Make your bid, wait for the set moment when the auction will end, and watch as the prices rise. Or don't, if you're lucky.

Secretly bid the highest price you are prepared to go to if you are likely to be away from your computer when the auction is set to end. No one else will see this, but you will stay ahead of bidding in your absence - until your limit is reached.

Don't worry if you are outbid and lose the item. There will be another one just like it along in a moment.