You’re probably familiar with eBay – the auction-site-cum-bazaar where you can buy or sell just about anything.

Many items are now sold at fixed prices but some of the best bargains can still be found among the traditional auction lots.

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While auctions traditionally favour sellers, with competing buyers raising prices as they outbid each other, if you know the secrets it’s possible to win just about every eBay face-off you enter – and often for a lower price than others would have been prepared to pay.

In this guide we’ll explain how to up your eBay advantage so that you always – well, almost always – come out on top.


Step 1: Set up notifications

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As the old saying goes, forewarned is forearmed. With eBay, that means setting up notifications, so the website lets you know when something happens to the lots you’re interested in.

Click My eBay at the top and log in if requested. Click the Account tab and then choose Communication Preferences from the left-hand menu.

Scroll down to the Buyer heading and click the Show link alongside ‘Buying activity’.

There are loads of options here but the key one for would-be auction-winners is Outbid – check that this is set to Real-time.


Step 2: Check when lots end

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Bidding on eBay items is easy but your ability to win an auction might depend on when the lot ends – so check this before you bid.

If a lot closes at midnight you’re likely to be in bed or, if it ends at 10am, you might be at the office – and therefore unable to bid.

Winning bids are typically made in the last few minutes of a sale, so avoid bidding wars that you can’t fight to the end.

However, if you’re serious about winning there are ways around this – as we’ll explain in the next step.


Step 3: Use (and understand) automatic bidding

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If an auction lot is currently at £10, you might be tempted to bid just a pound more – even if you’re prepared to pay much more.

There are reasons to use this strategy – and we’ll explore those in the next step – but if you’re prepared to pay up to £20 for the item then you can actually bid £20 right away and let eBay bid on your behalf.

Essentially, if another bidder puts in a higher offer then eBay will up your bid automatically – up to your maximum bid (£20 in this example).

It’s important to understand that specifying your maximum bid at the outset does not mean that you’ll have to pay that amount to win the auction - if someone else’s top bid is, say, £17, then eBay will enter a bid for £18 on your behalf.

The automatic-bid increments increase on a sliding scale – from 5p to £100 – as indicated under a lot’s current price. For more insight on increments, visit eBay’s own explanation.

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Step 4: Use a sniping service

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Automatic bidding is useful but it’s not the best strategy for winning, as competing buyers might wait until the last few seconds to add on a pound or two – just to beat automatic bidders.

You can do the same yourself if you’ll be around to watch an auction’s closing moments, but an alternative is to use a ‘sniping’ service – essentially a computer program that bids on your behalf at the very last moment.

Auction Sniper is free to use, though you do pay a 1% fee for each auction won with help the service. An alternative – and totally free service – is Gixen.

In both cases, the idea is the same – set your maximum bid and the number of seconds before the lot closes that you’d like the service to put in your offer.

And talking of your offer...

Step 5: How much should you bid?

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It’s a good question – and one for which you’ll find as many answers as there are successful eBay bidders.

Some argue that by bidding a few pence more than a round figure – £20.03 rather than £20, say – you stand a better chance of winning the lot.

Unfortunately, the logic doesn’t stand much scrutiny: someone else might bid £20.04 or £20.99 – or perhaps just £21.

Our best advice, then, is simply to bid up to the maximum that you’re prepared to pay, because fiddling with the pennies is really no guarantee of a win – even if intuition says otherwise.

If someone outbids your maximum and you decide that you would actually be prepared to pay more, hover the mouse pointer over My eBay and choose Bids/Offers then click the Increase maximum bid link alongside the lot.


Step 6: Benefit from sellers’ mistakes

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Search for iPad auctions on eBay and you’ll find thousands of offers – and you’ll be up against just as many bidders.

But sellers are only human and some of them will make mistakes in their listings that make them hard or impossible to find from common search terms – and that’s an opportunity for wily bidders.

Basically, if you search for misspelled items, then it’ll get fewer hits, but you’ll also have less competition.

Some websites are set up just for the purpose of finding misspelled lots. For starters, try BargainChecker and BayCrazy.

[Read more: How to improve your eBay sales]