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eBay School: The listing

Learn how to read eBay item descriptions, etc.
by Gisle Hannemyr
Published: 2011-04-25.

Unlike a physical auction, where you will be allowed to inspect the merchan­dise close-up before bidding, eBay auctions take place over the Internet. This means that on eBay, the web-page with the auction listing is your only means of finding out what you are buying.

In this lesson, I shall show what to look for in a listing and how to interpret certain key phrases that show up in eBay listings.

The seller

Before even considering anything else in the listing, research the seller. This is the most important statistic to be found on eBay. It is so important that I shall go into it in much more detail in the next lesson.

As a general benchmark, the seller should have a 99.5 % (or better) positive feedback to be worth buying from. Buying from sellers with a lower feedback than this means that you may be heading for trouble. With so may sellers to choose from on eBay, it is safest to do business that has a feedback that indicates that they make an effort to please their customers.

The location

Since eBay is an international marketplace, you will find merchants from all over the globe on eBay. However, buying from abroad may make your purchase subject to higher shipping costs and customs duties. The general rule on eBay is that the buyer bears any extra shipping costs for overseas shipping and also any local custom duties. Unless you know what shipping from abroad entails, you may be in for an expensive surprise if you order something from an overseas merchant.

Unless your country, and the cost of shipping the item to your country, is explicitly listed by the seller, always send the the seller a message and get the shipping cost before you bid. Otherwise, you may find that the seller adds an outrageous shipping cost after you've purchased the item and are obliged to buy it.

Some sellers indicate in their listing that they do not ship abroad. Usually this decision is final. These seller thinks that finding a overseas carrier, filling in customs papers, dealing with returns from abroad, etc., is too much of a hassle. However, if you really want an item, and are willing to pay a premium for overseas shipping, it doesn't hurt to send the seller a message and ask if he can waive this restriction. However, do not even think about bidding for such an item before you have a firm confirmation from the seller that it is OK to bid.

Customs duties

Customs duties vary from country to country. If you live in Norway and order from abroad, expect to pay 25 % in VAT on both the value on the item and the cost of shipping. If you live in Italy, expect to pay a random fee and to wait for months for customs to release you merchandise for any shipment from outside the EU.

I am not saying that you should not order from overseas. I live in Norway, and I buy a lot of stuff from overseas eBay seller. Most of the items I buy from overseas sellers on eBay are not available from local sellers. But when you do. make sure that you know how much you will have to pay in customs duties, and that the price with the tax added is still acceptable to you.

The photos

Most eBay auctions feature one or more photos of the item or items for sale.

I've found that the quality of the photos does not reflect the quality of the product. Many eBay sellers seem incapable of making even half decent product photos. Badly lit and fuzzy product photos may just indicate that the photos are of the actual item for sale. This is usually a good thing.

If you see a listing with high quality photos with arrows to show you every little scratch and dent on the item, chances are high that the item have exactly those blemishes, and none more. This is an even better thing.

You should be more careful if the photos illustrating an auction for an used item are stock photos or photos from the manufacturer's catalogue or website showing an unblemished item, or there are no photos at all of the item for sale. This may indicate that the actual item is in bad shape, or that the seller does not even posses the item. However, some sellers use no photo or stock photos because they are incapable of making a product photo. So in itself, a missing photo of the actual item is not conclusive evidence that a listing is bogus, but it means that you need to proceed with caution.

Even if the photos are too fuzzy, or too badly lit, to tell you much about the state of the item, they will usually tell you what is included in the auction. Does the item come with a box, manual, cord, caps, etc. The description is often incomplete, but the photos provide the answer. The rule on eBay is that all accessories shown in the photos are also included in the auction, unless the description explicitly excludes certain items.

Another reason to look carefully at the photos is to check the accuracy of the item's description.

Some sellers describe one thing, but the photos show a version or model that is less desirable. When I see this type of discrepancy between photo and written description, I usually don't bid. For instance, the written description might say that it is an autofocus lens, but the pictures show an older manual-focus lens. This may mean that the seller is a crook, or that he has no clue about the equipment he is selling. In either case, it is better to stay away.

However in some rare cases, the discrepancy goes in the other direction, and I may be tempted to bid.

The description

According to eBay rules, the seller is obligated to provide the item exactly as described. If it's got any defects (like fungus, oily blades, stuck shutters, scratches, markings, etc.), it is the seller's responsi­bility to disclose these in full in the listing. It is not a buyer's responsibility to play twenty questions with a seller trying to guess what may be wrong with the product.

Any significant defect not disclosed in the listing has to be fixed for free. If the seller is unable to fix the defect, he or may offer a full or partial refund. See the lesson about disputes for more about returns and refunds.

If an item isn't disclosed as being broken, missing parts, or having specific damage, you should assume that it is in working order, is not missing parts, and undamaged. However, learn to recognise the codes used by eBay merchants to indicate certain problems with an item.

Descriptions with contradictory statements are not unheard of on eBay. I sometimes see descriptions where the heading says “Tested, in perfect order”, and then see: “Broken, for parts only” somewhere further down in the description of the item. The typical cause of this is that the seller reused an earlier listing of a similar item and didn't bother proofreading the text, but I never bid on these. If a listing is unclear, contradictory, ambiguous or otherwise invites questions, I tend to stay away. This type of listing indicates a sloppy seller (at best), and buying based upon a unclear description may lead to a messy (dispute) at worst.

When it comes to the exact meaning of the words used by the sellers to describe the items he or she sells, the seller's feedback is the most important cue.

Excellent sellers under-promise and over-perform. When such a seller describe an used item as “near mint”, you will probably receive an item in near perfect condition. Bad sellers may use the word “mint” to describe anything that isn't broken.

Ignore verbiage that does not really mean anything. Phrases such as “Collector's item”, “Very rare”, “Highly sought after”, “Professional quality” are in most cases just the seller blowing smoke.

Ignore price estimates posted by sellers. Learn to do your own research to determine the fair market price for an item.


There are a lot of counterfeit goods and copies on eBay. Do not think an item is made by Canon, Nikon or any other premium brand just because it looks like a premium brand model, has a premium brand logo on it, and the model name is the same as a model name used by a premium brand.

When the an eBay merchant writes that the item “for Canon” or “for Nikon” in the heading or description of an item, he or she is really saying that the product is an after-market item made by some third party and only supposed to be compatible with equipment of the brand mentioned.

Another important code is “Sold As-Is”. When an item on eBay is sold “As-Is”, this means that the merchant is not willing to issue any warranties about the state or workability of the item. In many cases, it simply means that the seller knows that the item is broken, but prefers not to tell you. Such an item may look great in the pictures, but there may still be some serious problems with it. There are scrap merchants on eBay that sell items that the owners have discarded for a good reason. Buy this sort of stuff if you enjoy repairing things, or if you like to gamble. Otherwise, stay away.

In a similar vein, if there somewhere in the description says “for parts”, “non-working”, or “item is worthless”, usually along with notices that say “all sales final” or “no returns accepted”, these are not idle disclaimers. Some bad sellers do not feature these disclaimers of workability very prominently in the item's description, so it is important that you read everything carefully.

If you receive a broken sample and the fine print in the item's description says the item is broken, you may have not have a good case in a dispute. There is nothing in the eBay rules about merchants having to sell you a working sample, only that what is delivered must match the description of the item in the auction listing.

The essentials

As part of the listing, above the description of the item, you should find a field containing a summary of three essential pieces of data: “Shipping”, “Delivery” and “Returns”. I show a facsimile of a this below.

The essentials summary panel.

These fields should tell you at up-front what the cost of shipping is, what delivery time to expect, provided you pay for it immediately after the end of the auc­tion, and the maximum number of days you have to examine the item before returning it if there is a problem.

For the shipping cost and delivery times to be correct, eBay need to know your location. If you are overseas, you should always click on the link “See all details” under Shipping, to see if eBay has your correct location. Use the pull down menu to change your location if it is not.

You must always click the “Read details” under Returns. This is where you will see the fine print. Will the merchant refund the shipping fee in case of a return? Who pays for return shipping? Some sellers put disclaimers here that you don't see in the essentials summary panel, such as: “No returns or refunds on items that are sold As-Is”.

The payment

The seller's preferred method for receiving payment is listed in under the heading “Other item info” in the right sidebar. If it is not PayPal, I'm not interested.

PayPal is part of the eBay infrastructure, and one of the payment methods that is covered by the eBay Buyer Protection Policy.

There exists other legitimate payment methods, such as credit card or debit card processed through the merchant's own check out system, but these are in most cases a pain to use.

PayPal is tightly integrated with eBay, which means that you will get a “Pay Now”-button that takes you to PayPal as part of the listing for any item you've bought, and after you log in on PayPal, the payment form will already be filled in with the correct amount, shipping charge and shipping address. Complete the form, indicating how you want to fund your purchase, and you've bought the item.

If you are buying from overseas, you may have to pay local customs duties when your package arrives. These duties is not included in the amount you pay at eBay. Any such duties are your responsibility, and you can not have them refunded from eBay or from the merchant.

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