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Anything that can be sent through the mail might turn up at a post office auction. Items typically available: Stereo equipment, TVs, radios, dishes, pots and pans, tools, typewriters, clothing, books, and coins.

Basic ground rules of an auction:

Items are sold by "lot." Similar articles are often grouped together, such as dozen jeans, or four typewriters, or three radios. The items must be purchased together.

Lots are displayed the day before the auction for viewing. Many compartments are badly lighted, so bring a flashlight to get a closer look at the items.

All lots are listed by number on a mimeographed sheet given out on the inspection day. They are auctioned off by number, and each has a minimum acceptable bid listed next to it (never less than $10). But the minimum bid is not indication of how much the lot will sell for. Some go for ten or more times the minimum bid listed. All sales are final.

A minimal fee must be paid before the auction to obtain a paddle for bidding. Each paddle has a number on it, which the auctioneer recognizes as your bidding number. To bid, hold up your paddle. The cost of the paddle will be refunded if you do not purchase anything.

You must deposit 50% of the purchase price in cash or certified check 30 minutes after buying a lot. The bidding at postal service auctions is extremely unpredictable and quirky. Some lots are overbid, while others go for the minimum bid. Merchandise must be picked up a day or two after the auction.

How to bid:

Go through the list of lots carefully. Write down your maximum bids, during the actual auction. Listen carefully to the bidding, and don't exceed your maximum.

Sit in the back of the room to see who is bidding against you.

Take someone who is knowledgeable to the visual inspection, especially if you're planning to bid on something like electronic equipment, find out how much that particular piece is worth, and calculate your top bid by including the cost of repair. If you can't find someone who is knowledgeable, stick to bidding on lots that you can see are in good shape.