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Auctions offer a degree of uncertainty, and perhaps their greatest draw is for investors who are looking for an unexpected bargain. But it also increases the challenge, particularly for first-home buyers. With so much competition, coming out on top without overpaying is a difficult task.

Sellers who go to auction often do so for a good reason - their property has something unique about it making it easy for buyers to get caught up emotionally and bid above their ceiling price when there is enough competition. Bargains can just as easily swing in favour of the buyer as well, though.

Even for an experienced investor, large interest from other parties can make a purchase process seem daunting, especially at auction. Those who have come out losing at an auction when trying to buy a well-liked property may wonder to themselves if they could have done something better.

Successful strategies can never guarantee winning bids across the board, but they can help you get an edge over the others. We detail some of the top tips by experts for pulling on top when buying your next investment property in a competitive market.

1. Dress to impress

Getting an early edge might start with your personal appearance according to many experts.

At a past auction in Sydney's historic The Rocks held by Auction Works, about 40 people attended the sale of three properties for mortgagee sales. All three were sold at the auction.

The bidders included a smiling couple who brought their young children, a young lanky man in jeans with nervous eyes and a beard down to his chest, and a businessman in suit jotting something down on a notepad.

It's no doubt the latter of the three came out looking the most professional and perhaps even intimidating.

"Dressing to impress can create the impression that you have an endless budget and can intimidate others so they stop bidding earlier," says Frank Valentic, a buyer's agent and director of Advantage Property Consulting.

2. Make yourself noticed

If you come in looking sharp, people will likely notice you. But it doesn't hurt to make everyone see you anyway, says Valentic.

He suggests parking a prestigious car (if you have one) at the front of the property if it is an on-site auction, then stand next to the car. It's a similar effect of being well-dressed - psyching out your opponents.

Valentic also suggests sitting up front, where you can get a good view of the competition. In a large room with chairs, however, standing in the back might give you the best overall picture.

Valentic also suggests sitting up front, where you can get a good view of the competition.

In a large room with chairs, however, standing in the back might give you the best overall picture.

No matter where you stand, Pino Tedesco, former buyer's agent now CEO of LVT Capital suggests calling out your bids confidently.

"To the novice, I sound confident, and it tells them I may go for it (with further bids)," he says.

That contrasts to other Sydney auction mentioned above when some bidders mouthed to the auctioneer meekly, "that's my last bid," or "no more."

It also doesn't hurt to sometimes spell out the entire amount of your bid. Don't just say $520, say $520,000.

"That gets the other people to say, "Wait a minute, that's a lot of money,'" says Tedesco.

3. Don't reveal your cards too early

Before you even show up to the auction, it's important to keep your bidding limit a secret. Don't reveal this type of information to the real estate agent in charge of selling the property. Giving out this clue can only serve to hurt you.

"Never reveal where your cards are at to the agent prior to the auction," says Tedesco. "As soon as the real estate agent knows that, they can basically play the room, play the venue."

Speaking to an agent ahead of time can be beneficial, however. Ask the agent how many section 32 and building report requests have been made, says Valentic. If there's been about six or seven, expect to be up against about half that number at the auction, he says.

Sometimes bargaining with an agent at the auction can end up costing the bidder as well.

At the Sydney auction mentioned, one man put in a bid of $370,000 on a one bedroom apartment in Sydney's CBD. After counting to two, the auctioneer admitted the reserve price had not been met.

After an attempt to drum up further bids failed, the man was asked by an assistant to the agent to consider raising his bid to an acceptable $380,000. He did, but not long after that bid was made, another bidder jumped back in and called out $385,000. The man responded by calling a $386,000 bid. That price eventually won the property, but Tedesco says sometimes it's best to just let the owner pass the property in, allowing for negotiations to take place with no other bidders.

"I would not have put in another bid, I would have let it pass in," says Tedesco.

"Especially if I were the last person to make the bid, because then I'm negotiating one on one. Then I've got more control."

Still, that strategy can be risky if it's a property the bidder really wants. Negotiations don't always come out fruitful.

"Without hindsight, who knows what would have happened had it passed," says Tedesco.

Another strategy regarding the reserve price is to keep asking the auctioneer if it has been met, says Valentic. Unless a certain level in price has been reached, you are not playing for keeps.

"If you continuously ask the auctioneer if the reserve has been met and that you won't bid any further until it is on the market, it may pressure the vendor to lower their reserve price," says Valentic. "Once the property is on the market, you are playing for keeps as the next bid buys the property."

4. Time your bid

It is common at many auctions to see some bidders lurking mostly unnoticed in the back, only to appear just before the gavel falls to steal the property with a crushing last-minute bid.

Yet such a strategy doesn't always work. There's risk, for one, that the auctioneer will be too quick and close the sale before you can get in that last offer.

David Scholes of auction platform SoldOnline suggests bidding early in the auction can be effective too.

"Most people I think still have this idea of not bidding until the end," says Scholes.

"It's a big risk, it really is. If the auctioneer knocks down the sale before they can bid, it can't be reopened."

And just because you come in late doesn't mean you'll always come out ahead.

"Some people say late bidding is good, and I've seen one buyer's agent do extremely well using that strategy," says Tedesco.

"She'll stay quiet until she firmly believes it's going to be the last bid."

Ultimately, even if the property passes in, you want to be that last bid because it gives you negotiating rights post-auction.

But rather than going right to your top price, start a little bit under to allow some room to keep bidding.

"It's almost offensive when some buyers make a bid that's half what the property is worth," he says. "It's ridiculous. My suggestion would be to generally carve 5% to 10% off the final price and put that as an opening bid."

5. Consider help from a third party

If you’re worried you'll become too emotionally attached to a property, sometimes its best to send a representative in your place. You could also send a family member or trusted friend, for example. Hiring a buyer's agent is another option.

Either way, by removing yourself from the equation, you can eliminate the possibility of you bidding too much by getting caught up in the moment.

"As a buyer's agent, I don't get emotional about it," says Tedesco.

There is a cost involved, and that's something one must weigh into how much they value having help at the auction.

"A buyer's agent is a professional who usually has much experience in taking the stress and emotion of an auction away," says Valentic.

"They are an independent third party that make sure that you don't get carried away."

Some investors think they can do it on their own, however. For them, Valentic advises keeping a cool head and doing lots of research.

"Have some flexibility, but don't let emotion let your heart rule your head," he says.

6. Understand the market

A different market can make for a very different competition. Checking the auction clearance rates is one way to understand what you're up against.

"I'd be very careful buying at auctions when you get a clearance rate like that," says Tedesco.

Owner-occupiers need to especially watch out, as they can get sucked in to a bidding war.

"I've seen a lot of owner-occupiers really go over their head," says Tedesco. "That's what the auction is for. These auctioneers want to get emotions involved."

Usually the properties are unique as well, making it easier to become attached.

"They are great outside auction, but inside auction, I found some people get really silly," says Tedesco.

7. Arrange pre-approval

A formal home loan pre-approval is vital to have before bidding at auction. Some buyers make the mistake of not going to their lender until after they have won the property, only to find out they cannot be approved for that amount.

Pre-approval will give you peace of mind on auction day as you already know that you are conditionally approved. Also, by organising your finances beforehand, you will have a maximum limit that you can bid to. This will also stop you from overspending on a property. 

8. Understand the auction process

The best way to be prepared for an auction is to attend as many as you can as a spectator. This way you can see how an auction runs from start to finish and you can also get some strategy tips from watching other bidders.

It is also important to have an understanding of auction terminology. For example, do you know what a reserve bid is? The more you understand about property auctions, the more comfortable you will feel on the day. 

9. Speak to a legal professional

Before bidding at an auction, you should speak with your solicitor. They can go through the contract of sale with you and advise you of your legal obligations. They can also organise contact with the vendor if you want to make any amendments to the contract. 

10. Building and Pest Inspections

It is important to have building and pest inspections completed before you bid on a property so that if you uncover any issues, you can either move onto a different property or use any issues as conditions in the contract of sale.

Stick to your limit

Overspending at an auction is a problem for many home buyers. Bidders often let their emotions affect their decision making process, which can often result in them exceeding their spending limit. This is a major problem if you cannot afford to go over your limit.

Organising pre-approval is one way to make sure you don’t go over your limit, but it’s also a good idea to have a trusted family member, friend or a buyers agent who knows your limit attend, so they can help you keep your emotions out of your decision.

Also read: Selling your property: Auction vs. Private sale

Article first published by Nila Sweeney, August 2009. Last updated April 2022.