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How to Buy on Today's Ebay

Updated on January 23, 2015

What's Included in this Article

The voluminous text below (I know I sometimes have diarrhea of the keyboard) is organized as follows:

  • A brief history of ebay
  • What to do before buying
  • Backing out of a sale
  • ebay mobile
  • Buyer protection and rights - a few scenarios and solutions
  • Feedback

In addition, this hub assumes that parties involved are in the USA. International transactions on ebay come with their own problems, and are best avoided unless you are an experienced buyer/seller.

This is a long hub, with lots of information, but I have broken up the giant sections of text with some pretty stock photos of computers and e-commerce and stuff, and a couple of polls. Enjoy!

Who the @$%! are you, and why should I listen to you?

Both valid questions.

I'm just an ebay user like you. I have been buying on ebay since 1999, and selling regularly since 2001. I don't work for ebay, nor am I some sort of e-commerce correspondent or anything like that. I just know how things work over there, and I have several years of experience and knowledge that I can share with you.

I will also be posting a selling on ebay hub shortly.


A Quick (I promise) History of Ebay

Ebay started way back in 1995 as an innovative website for selling items online. The format was unique - online auctions. People could sell items from around their homes and receive a wide audience of potential buyers, all without leaving their living room. The service was relatively inexpensive (compared to opening a store around the corner), and one could really find some unique items.

In the early days, ebay was more like an early social network. Buyers and sellers interacted, and could leave feedback for each other, even if they didn't have a transaction. Feedback was more about how nice a person was, rather than the quality of their items, or the buying experience. In the first few years, ebay started to evolve into a unique place to shop, and to sell.

Fast forward a few years to the early 2000s. Sellers on ebay began to actually make a living online by selling items a number of different ways. Dropshipping (a practice of selling an item and having it shipped to a buyer directly from the source instead of shipping it yourself) became a popular practice among online sellers since they don't need to keep inventory on hand. Buyers could still get deals, but now ebay turned away from being a casual place to buy and sell. Ebay had become big business.

Of course, becoming big brought with it a few problems. Sellers could scam buyers out of thousands of dollars quite easily in the old days, especially because buyers regularly paid by check or money order instead of using a credit card (PayPal) which carries some protection. Buyers became upset with sellers who were not 100% professional, and these buyers demanded warranties and purchase protection.

So, ebay had to change to meet their buyers' demands, and they did. PayPal (or some other electronic payment service) became the only payment option. Ebay introduced their own buyer protection which helped some buyers, but also empowered less-than-honest buyers to get free stuff. Ebay also eliminated a seller's ability to leave negative feedback for buyers, which further empowered buyers.

Today, ebay is a completely different place than it was at the beginning, or even 10 years ago. All of those "Ebay for Dummies" books from 2001 are now obsolete. Ebay has become more of an Amazon type of venue and has moved away from the social (and fun) model it started with. It is still a good place to shop, but the rules have changed. Below is a completely updated buying guide for ebay for 2015 and beyond.


Before You Buy

This is the most important time. This is where you can make or break a transaction on ebay. So be careful.

So, you're browsing on ebay, and you finally find that Harry Potter magic wand back scratcher you've been searching for. So go ahead and bid right?


When I read different online message boards, I often read the same sentence, "after I bid, I realized the seller had terrible feedback." Or, "after I bid, I noticed that the shipping cost was very high." Or, a personal favorite, "after I bid, I read the description and noticed that the item was not what I thought."

In each one of those cases, the buyer would have been fine if he just read a few things before bidding. Buyers need to look at a seller's feedback. Unless a seller has very little feedback, anything under 99.6% is NOT good. This isn't 10th grade social studies. Mid-90s is not good or acceptable on ebay. If the seller has a small number of feedback, one negative will bring his feedback way down, where a seller with thousands of feedback needs several bad ones to bring the percentage down. Would you want to buy from a guy with several bad feedbacks?

You must read the entire description. Don't just look at the pictures. The description includes the condition of the item, what is included (or not included), and the auction terms (when/how to pay, shipping info, etc.). Good sellers will include lots of great info about the item, and this allows a buyer to make an informed decision when purchasing. Good sellers also do not include any negative language about shipping or payments. If you see stuff like "buyers have to pay on time or I'll send Luca Brazzi to your house," or "I'm not responsible for anything once the item leaves my house," then maybe you want to re-think your buying decision.

Buyers also need to understand shipping, and shipping cost. Postage is expensive. It is much more expensive than 10 years ago. Some buyers have formed an idea that it should cost no more than a few dollars to ship a fish tank across the country. This just isn't true. Also, sellers are required to put the shipping cost (or the shipping calculator) in every auction, so everything is listed up front. Nothing is hidden, so long as you read what's there.

In the old days of ebay, a dishonest seller would sell an item for $1 with $59 shipping in order to avoid paying ebay fees. Buyers hate this, and still think that sellers are trying to somehow make money off of shipping. True, ebay allows sellers to charge shipping and handling, and sellers are allowed to charge more than just actual postage, but ebay now charges sellers for the entire sale, including shipping, so only idiot sellers are still jacking up shipping to avoid fees.

My point in all of this? If you, the buyer read everything and do a small amount of homework (not as much as 10th grade social studies though), your buying experience will be so much better.

What do You Think?

How Often Do You Shop on ebay?

See results

Can I Back Out of an Auction?

Usually, no. There are two times where a buyer might want to back out; before the auction ends (but after the buyer bids), or once the buyer has won an auction. While it is possible to retract a bid or cancel a transaction, you may do so only under a few specific conditions.

There are only 3 valid reasons to retract a bid before an auction ends; 1 - The description has changed since you made your bid, 2 - You cannot contact the seller, and 3 - You bid the wrong amount (typo when bidding).

Among the myriad of invalid reasons to retract a bid are; I don't like the seller's feedback, or I took a second look and don't like the item, or after I bid, I noticed the seller is overseas and I don't want to pay that shipping. These are all excuses that are covered in the before you buy section above.

If you have sent the seller a few messages about an item and he doesn't respond, you may retract your bid. In addition, if the seller changes the description of his item after your bid, you may retract. Sellers may not alter the description once an item has a bid, but they can add to it. Pro tip - after you bid, you might want to check back to the auction and make sure the seller didn't add anything you don't like.

Retracting a bid because of a typo is a little different. We have all had fat finger syndrome when typing and have put the decimal point in the wrong place once or twice. If you meant to bid $5.99 but accidentally typed $599, you may retract your bid, provided you immediately re-bid the correct amount.

Ebay requires you to choose one of the above reasons when retracting your bid. Many buyers have retracted a bid because they just felt like it, but they still have to "choose a lie" when they do so. Bid retractions are available for anyone to see on your feedback page, and stay on your record for 12 months. Sellers can cancel your bid and block you from buying from them if they feel you are abusing bid retractions.

After the Auction

A new feature (as of fall 2014) on ebay is the ability of a buyer to ask a seller to cancel a transaction within an hour of its end. The seller does not have to agree, but this feature allows a buyer who wants to cancel after the auction ends to do so within ebay guidelines.

Other than that, there really isn't a valid reason to back out. I can't pay for it is not an excuse. Sellers have heard every excuse up to and including my cat bid on this item by jumping on the keyboard. I am not making that up. Placing a bid and winning an auction are both binding, not really enforceable, but binding. Simply put, don't bid if you can't/won't pay. It's not a game.

Winning an auction and not paying is very damaging to a seller. Sellers are charged fees as soon as the item ends whether a buyer pays or not. The process for getting those fees back is difficult and if the procedure is not followed correctly, a seller can actually have his account dinged with a defect (a new ebay term starting in 2014).


The ebay Mobile App

A quick word about using the ebay mobile app on either your tablet or phone.


As of January 2015 there are numerous flaws, glitches, and other known issues with the mobile app that have caused all manner of problems for both buyers and sellers. Be smart, and use your computer to purchase on ebay. It is way more reliable.


When Things Go Wrong

Like anything else, if you buy enough stuff on ebay, eventually the law of averages kicks in and you will get a bad transaction. The worst thing you can do is freak out and then send the seller a message telling him to burn in hell for eternity for ruining your life. Ebay's buyer protection is slanted so much in favor of buyers that it is barely legal. Use it wisely and you will be protected.

Scenario #1 - Item not received

You bought and paid for a life-sized Barney doll, but it's been several days after the estimated delivery date and you don't have it yet. Don't worry, ebay has your back.

On each auction, there is an estimated delivery date. Keep in mind, these dates are put on there by ebay and not the seller, and are estimates. As a buyer, you cannot (and should not - duh!) open a not received case until that date has long passed. You have until 30 days after the latest estimated arrival date to open a case. Do not miss this deadline or you are out of luck.

Go to your purchase history and choose contact seller from the pull-down menu. You should try to contact the seller without opening a case first so choose "other" from the menu. Then ask where your item is, politely.

If you don't hear back within 48 hours, then you go back and choose "item not received" from the menu. If the seller can't provide a tracking number that proves delivery, you get your money back. It takes a few days, but it's really that simple.

Scenario #2 - I received my item, but it's not as described.

You received your My Dog Climbed Mt. Washington and All I Got was This Lousy T-shirt shirt but it has a giant rip on the front that was not pictured in the auction or mentioned in the description. No problem, you are protected.

Please note, not as described is not the same as not as expected. As long as the item is exactly what you ordered, and in the condition stated in the auction, you do not have a valid reason to return it.

Just like the item not received scenario above, you should first try to contact your seller and allow him the opportunity to correct the mistake. You do this by choosing "other" from the options menu in the contact seller screen. There are time limits here also, so don't let your seller string you along with promises or excuses.

If the seller can't/won't work it out with you, then you choose "item not as described." This is also known as "request a return." If the seller is located in the US, he will be required to issue a return label at his expense (ebay does this whether the seller agrees or not). Then you pack up the item, slap the label on it, and send it back. If the seller is not in the US, then you have to pay to return it - something you should keep in mind when shopping. Once the seller has the item back, you will be refunded. Piece 'o cake.

What Do You Think? - Part Deux

Have you ever sold an item on ebay?

See results
You've been reading a while, so here's a picture of some flamingos I took at the zoo
You've been reading a while, so here's a picture of some flamingos I took at the zoo

Leaving Feedback

Feedback is a hot-button issue for both buyers and sellers, but if you really think about it, it shouldn't be. Leaving feedback is completely voluntary, and neither the buyer nor the seller is required to leave it. Some people do, and some don't. It's really not that big of a deal. The amount of feedback you have has absolutely nothing to do with your ability to buy things on ebay. There is nothing that you can do with 101 feedback that you cannot with 100.

That said, if you decide to leave feedback, you should leave honest and factual feedback for your seller once the transaction is over. That means when you have your item and have made sure it is what you ordered. If you have not received your item, or have received a not as described item, you should wait to leave feedback until your situation is resolved.

Your feedback should reflect your seller's performance. If you received your item on time and it is as described, then you should leave a positive saying so. You should not leave a positive feedback with complaints in it. Many sellers are looking at a buyer's feedback left to determine if they might be too high-maintenance to deal with. Since buyers can't get negatives, that's the only way for sellers to know what their potential buyer is like.

If you feel as though you should leave negative feedback, you should contact your seller first to see if he will help you be satisfied. Many buyers reserve negative feedback for when they actually lose money on a transaction or are scammed in some way. A late-arriving package is not really a reason to leave a negative unless your seller lied to you or otherwise jerked you around.

Negative feedback is extremely damaging to a seller's ability to continue to sell. Do you want to ruin a seller's career because that sweater looked more red on your monitor than it does in person?

Negative feedback should warn future buyers as to what went wrong. Saying the seller is a lying piece of @#$%! does not do this. Tell the world why the seller is bad. Seller shipped wrong item and refused to take it back is perfect. Seller never shipped item and never responded to messages is fine also. Seller is a scumbag!! shows more about you as a buyer than it does your seller.

Also, there are a few reasons why ebay might remove your feedback, no matter how much the seller deserves it.

  • Feedback contains profanity (even if you leave out some letters to disguise it)
  • Feedback is not related to the transaction (a negative feedback because the seller is from Chicago and you are a Green Bay fan)
  • Feedback mentions law enforcement or an ebay/PayPal buyer protection case (you say you had to have ebay or the police get your money back)
  • You have previously threatened to leave the seller a negative if he doesn't do exactly what you want (especially if it's not something included in the auction)

Weird Al's Ebay Song Parody (Backstreet Boys)

Final Thoughts

And now the moment you've all been waiting for (the end).

Ebay is still, despite all the changes, a great place to shop for unique items. It is still an "online garage sale," but it's also a lot more regulated. As a buyer, you need to be savvy and do a little looking around before you start clicking away. Buyer beware still applies.

Good luck!


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