eBay: Not Just For Knickknacks

Published in the March 2011 Issue March 2011 Ask The Expert Heidi C. Brescher

If you're considering buying or selling a houseboat, going to eBay may not initially come to mind. But at any given time, there are dozens of houseboats listed for sale or bid on this popular online auction site. Opening bids and prices range from a few thousand dollars to a few hundred thousand dollars. The locations of the houseboats available crisscross the nation, from Utah to Florida. Sellers vary as well, including brokers, individuals and nonprofit organizations.

The Pros

Why choose eBay to buy or sell a houseboat? Exposure. eBay is the largest online market in the world, with 90 million active users worldwide. In 2009, sales on eBay reached $60 billion. For houseboat sellers, this means a larger advertising reach than many other markets. Potential buyers around the world trust eBay to help them find exactly what they're looking for in a few clicks. Sellers who use eBay also enjoy added benefits. Many sellers opt to set a reserve price, which voids the sale if the bidding does not reach a dollar amount the seller is comfortable with. Sellers can also specify conditions for buyers, such as a certain feedback score range, amount and timing of payment and deposit, or transport responsibilities. Additionally, sellers can evaluate the track record of their eBay bidders through their feedback and length of membership. And if you're also advertising your houseboat locally, you can set the condition that your eBay sale will end if it's sold through another market. This gives you maximum exposure for minimum risk.

Potential buyers of houseboats on eBay also have benefits that might not be available elsewhere. The first, and possibly most attractive, buyer benefit is price. Houseboats on eBay are, on average, listed at thousands of dollars less than on sites such as www.boattrader.com. Scoring a bargain is a real possibility. Also, like sellers, buyers can see an eBay member's feedback rating and past history to gauge their trustworthiness. One benefit that eases many buyers' minds is eBay's Vehicle Purchase Protection policy. Basically, the buyer is protected up to $50,000 if the transaction is completed through eBay and the houseboat is not received, has a lien against the title, is not what was described in the listing or a number of other circumstances that would make the transaction fraudulent.

The Cons

There are some possible downsides to consider when buying and selling your houseboat on eBay. For buyers, there is the possibility of the houseboat going unsold. Unfortunately, this is the typical outcome for more than half of the boats listed for sale or bid. However, even if the houseboat is sold, sometimes the buyer will have a change of heart. While eBay will sanction a buyer who does not pay for an auction or sale they have won, there is little recourse for the seller except to receive a refund of eBay's listing fee. This happened to Don Botting of Georgia, who auctioned a 1969 34-foot Seagoing houseboat he rebuilt. The winning bid was $10,900, but the buyer never contacted him. In Don's case there were some red flags. The buyer had only two previous transactions on eBay, was located in New Mexico, which would be a complicated transport from Georgia, and never contacted Don before bidding to ask questions or to view the houseboat. Would he do it again? "Absolutely not," he said. But his advice for potential sellers is to set bidding/buying criteria at the start of the auction, like a minimum feedback score, to encourage only serious buyers.

For buyers, there are a number of possible drawbacks to buying a houseboat on eBay. The most ominous one is the scam. Although generally infrequent, they do happen. The most basic way to protect yourself is to always stay within eBay's system of communication and remember that if something seems too good to be true, it usually is.

A more common problem buyers might face is a limited or incorrect description of the houseboat. This can be especially true of listings by brokers or nonprofits, who may not even have seen the boat in person. Recently, the engine specifications on a broker's listing were inaccurate, which was pointed out by a potential buyer in the questions section of the listing. While the temptation of a bargain may be strong, it would be ill-advised to buy a boat sight unseen without a comprehensive description by the owner, or without a call to the marina to talk to someone who is familiar with the boat.

Ready To Start Selling?

After registering with eBay, have a look around eBay Motors, where houseboats are listed. See what other sellers include in their descriptions and pictures. Which listings have the most bids? Use the techniques those sellers use to generate more interest in your auction.

When you've gathered all the information a buyer would need about your houseboat, create your listing. Include good pictures of every aspect of your boat. If you're able, add an incentive for buyers like a trailer, free transport within a body of water, or linens and housewares to be included in the sale. Set the conditions your bidders or buyers must meet, like their feedback rating. Also specify the payment terms including the down payment and time before the balance is due.

Decide on the price you want the auction to start at, a reserve price if you are using one, and a "buy it now" price if there is a set dollar amount you would end the auction for. Check your listing daily for questions from potential buyers.

Ready To Start Buying?

It is ideal for a buyer to already have an account with eBay, since many sellers do require a feedback rating that indicates whether a user pays for the items they bid on. However, if you are new to eBay, don't worry. Contact a seller if you find a boat you are interested in bidding on. Tell them of your situation, and ask if the would consider allowing you to bid. Usually if you seem trustworthy and have made the effort to make contact, they will authorize your bid. When you are in a position to bid, remember your budget. Even if a houseboat on eBay seems like a real bargain, factor in the other expenses that may be involved.

For example, transporting a boat over land can be a very pricey endeavor. What about a charity auction where not much is known about the boat? Will you have the know-how or cash to make extensive repairs? Also consider how you will finance the boat. If you're not paying cash, do you have a lender lined up? How about insurance? These are all questions that are best answered before you start bidding. Make sure you also read the entire listing carefully, including the questions asked by other potential buyers. Note the payment terms and timing. If you have any questions don't hesitate to contact the seller. If he or she does not answer your questions, think twice before making a bid.

The Verdict

Is eBay the best way for you to buy or sell your houseboat? Maybe, if you want to find a bargain or reach a whole world of buyers. But don't ignore the potential drawbacks. Whether you're looking to buy or sell, it's always wise to explore all the markets open to you. Why not check out your local paper, marina or Craigslist as well? Do some research and see if you could get the same great buy or sale in your own backyard. Then compare what you find locally to what's on eBay. If you think your best chance is on eBay, then go for it.

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