When online auction sites made a splash five years ago, computer hardware and refurbished electronics constituted much of the sites' merchandise. Now, the product selection has blossomed to include furniture, equipment, travel offers and groceries.

As auction sites have become more robust, they have focused attention on small and home-based businesses. For example, eBay recently established a site business section devoted to selling office equipment and supplies.

In most cases, online auctions let you bid against other customers to buy new, discontinued and refurbished products for the lowest price. Online auctions' operating practices vary slightly, but in general, products change frequently, and an auction's duration ranges from 30 minutes to one week.

To place a bid, you must register on the site and enter your account number and offer. Eventually the highest bidder wins, and the auction house ships the merchandise at the buyer's expense.

If you're a current auction watcher or if you're ready to try bidding, use these tips to get the best auction deal.

-Wait and watch. Before bidding, monitor the site for a few days to get a sense of items' going prices.

This also may help you identify a time of day when bidding is not as competitive, as well as other strategies that can help you get items for the lowest price. Most auction sites allow visitors to monitor auctions without registering or participating.

-Review the details. When auction fever hits, it's easy to bid on products without reading the auction site's product description. But by doing this, you could purchase a dated product that doesn't meet your needs.

To avoid this scenario, carefully review each product's features, warranty and return policy.

-Go offline. When you identify an item you'd like, leave the auction site to research the product's price and reputation.

Product reviews can tell you if the product is obsolete or a top performer. You may also find the product's suggested retail price by visiting the manufacturer's Web site. Then you'll know if the auction offer is a good deal or if you should cap your offer.

-Get set to go. Many auction sites require that you register first to take advantage of the bidding process. Do this in advance so you can bid instantly on products that are sold quickly.

-Know the rules. Familiarize yourself with a site's bidding policies to avoid losing an item you want.

Web auctions often offer multiple units of the same product such as 15 Sony monitors so it's important to review each site's criteria for differentiating between equal bids.

-Familiarize yourself with payment policies. Review each auctioneer's payment, exchange and warranty policies.

Some require credit card registration before accepting bids. Others, such as eBay, serve only as a forum for private sellers, which means that buyers must make payment arrangements directly with sellers.

-Don't forget to tally the bill. An item that seems like a value may end up being expensive once shipping costs and taxes are added. Add up these expenses before making an offer to ensure they are accounted for in your bidding price.

-Only buy what you need. Getting caught up in auction frenzy can be easy; suddenly, you could find yourself with a pair of $100 bookends.

To stay focused on priority items while bidding, make a list of the things you need for your home office. Don't let yourself make offers on items that don't appear on that list.

Alice Bredin is author of the "Virtual Office Survival Handbook" (John Wiley & Sons) and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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