Published on April 25, 2019

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Once one of the few online places to find the secondhand stuff of dreams, eBay, for many, can still feel like the Wild West. Now over 20 years old, the resale site is bigger than ever. That means there are countless listings to comb through, bids to place, and filters to toy with in order to find that perfect mint-colored laminate side table to complement your favorite pastel-hued antique Boucherouite rug. Where to begin!?

Now, we know that eBay is plenty full of gems, but if you don’t have much experience with the bidding site, you can run into a few problems. First, your search terms might not be the most effective for finding what you’re looking for. Second, you might not be doing the right research before placing your bid. And lastly, you might be missing out on some major steals if you’re not taking advantage of the eBay strategies that expert buyers swear by.

Ready to get bidding? Follow this advice, straight from the mouths of people who have consistently found treasure in the middle of eBay’s expansive trove of listings.

Strike the balance between general and specific

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Set your expectations: It’s highly likely you won’t find the eBay treasure you’re searching for after typing in your very first search term. A hyper-specific search may narrow down results so much that you miss out on hidden gems, but broader parameters might not make enough restrictions. Cyrus Ferguson, Domino’s membership and market manager (and resident eBay expert), explains his methodology: “The search terms I use are meant to narrow the field while still being general enough for surprises to emerge. A la: vintage, antique, handmade, terra-cotta, primitive, redware, and arts and crafts.”

If you have your eye on something in particular, consider how many other people might be looking for that very thing—that may mean higher prices. “The trick is to avoid trendy searches, which can yield overpriced items. So instead of searching ‘postmodern wall clock,’ I’ll search ‘fun 1980s wall clock,’ which yields the same thing but cheaper,” says writer Molly Young, whose frequent eBay orders include novelty lamps. “I tend to search by material, like rattan, resin, travertine, and ABS plastic,” she adds.

Sometimes, though, to find what you’re actually looking for, a bit more specificity can be helpful—just be prepared to pay the cost. “I always search for mid-century-modern pieces on eBay,” says Homepolish designer Sone Ehabe. “Depending on the item, I’ll either search the style or the name of the designer, like Slim Aarons or Knoll.

Consider out-of-the-box buys

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Ice Cream Mirror $195 kindermodern.com; Table baciocchiassociati.it Photography by Adrian Gaut

Chances are that you might be missing out on some particularly cool home buys just because you aren’t looking for them. Sure, eBay is great for finding a lamp, a rug, or even a table to pull together a room, but consider the accessorizing possibilities too.

“I buy all my wrapping paper and stationery on eBay. I’ll search ‘vintage marbled stationery’ or ‘vintage floral wrapping paper,’” says Young. “Receiving a present lovingly wrapped in one-of-a-kind 1970s block-cut strawberries is much more fun than receiving a present wrapped in newspaper.”

Don’t be afraid to amass a whole bunch of one specific thing either. For Young, a growing collection of cool clocks offers both form and function. “I’m writing a book, which means I work from home, which means I need to turn off my phone if I’m going to get anything done and shove it in a kitchen drawer far away. But I also have the innate human urge to know what time it is at every instant. So: wall clocks,” she says. “I’ll use a search term like ‘’80s red wall clock’ or ‘yellow German wall clock.’”

Don’t forget about category pages

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If you’re in the mood to browse, consider starting from a category page instead of relying on your search terms. You might just discover something you hadn’t considered before. “I like using eBay’s category pages as a way to find new ideas and learn about vintage brands and styles,” says Ferguson. “For instance, you can’t go wrong starting on the Pottery & Glass page, which I like to narrow to Art Pottery, and, from there, dive into the plethora of vintage regional pottery styles.” Consider also toying around with filters to narrow down your search.

Save your searches

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Consistently looking for the same kinds of objects or on a massive quest for just the right thing? Don’t hesitate to save searches and be strategic about them. “In my mind, there are two ways to use saved searches. First, if you find a more general string of terms that really works for you or happen upon an unfamiliar term that you think you may forget (for me this was ‘vintage blue spongeware’), you should save that search but unsubscribe from the email alerts. Then you’ll have jumping-off points to explore whenever the fancy strikes you,” says Ferguson.

“Alternatively, if you’re looking for something very specific or rare, then save a search and leave email alerts on,” he adds. “For instance, I’m fascinated by the southern folk artist R.A. Miller and like to be pinged when a new piece of his work pops up for sale.”

Your saved searches can be as broad or specific as you’d like. Young’s current saves include “resin lamp,” “peach lusterware bowl,” and “novelty stationery.”

Bookmark sellers too

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When browsing eBay, it’s also important to think not just in terms of search terms but also shops. If you happen upon a seller that seems to specialize in Bauhaus decor and you’re looking for Bauhaus decor, then chances are that you’ll find something of interest in their offerings, and if not, they might eventually sell something you’ll want.

“Save your favorite sellers. eBay has been around so long that it has its own ecosystem of eBay sellers, and there are a lot of full-time curators in the vintage furniture and home decor space,” Ferguson suggests. “If you find a really active seller whose curation resonates with your style, save them—it’s like stopping by your favorite neighborhood vintage store.”

Do your research

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Here’s the thing that makes eBay a bit intimidating to some: Many sellers don’t offer returns, so if you shelled out for a home decor buy you thought would be perfect for your living room only to discover that it’s not really working for you, it’s understandable to be disappointed and frustrated. In order to avoid that feeling, it’s important to do as much research as possible before hitting “buy” or placing your bid. That can mean negotiating price if it doesn’t seem quite right and double-checking any and all measurements.

“Compare [prices] as much as you can. If it’s a popular item, pay close attention to the photos and ask for more if you can,” says Ehabe. “Also, read the reviews. I can’t emphasize that enough.”

Treat it like you do your social media

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Admittedly, finding the eBay buy of your dreams might take a lot of scrolling, but consider how much absentminded scrolling you do on your phone on a normal basis. “Try the app,” Ferguson says. “It’s quite entertaining to search with—a personal favorite alternative to Instagram—and mobile notifications make bidding much easier to keep track of.”

If you’re going to be on your phone late at night, you might as well end up with something to show for it. Young agrees: “The way I find everything on eBay is by scrolling late at night when I should be sleeping.”

See more shopping tips:
The Only Stores Where Domino Editors Shop for Vintage Finds

Love IKEA? Get to Know These 7 Additional Swedish Brands
I Source High-End Decor for a Living—This Is What I’m Buying Right Now

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