Inside the AS-IS Auction Listing

Navigating the World of As-Is eBay Auctions and Their Sellers

Pile of vintage pocket watches
••• Andre Thijssen / Getty Images

If you’ve shopped on eBay more than once or twice, you’ve probably run across it: the dreaded “AS-IS” disclaimer, which comes in a number of variants:

“Though we do our best to inspect every item we sell, we cannot test every item thoroughly and all sales should therefore be considered final and AS-IS, no returns or further claims accepted.”
“This item is guaranteed to be exactly what is pictured and described here, but it is otherwise sold AS-IS, no refunds or exchanges.”
“All sales are AS-IS, no returns. Check our feedback and bid with confidence!”

These statements and others like them are particularly frustrating for shoppers that are new to eBay, who justifiably have no idea what to make of them. How does an item that is “guaranteed” at the beginning of a sentence become an “AS-IS, no refunds or exchanges” item by the very same sentence’s end? Why would you “bid with confidence” on an “AS-IS” item that can’t be returned?

From the Seller’s Perspective

In fact, many sellers using such will happily refund or exchange AS-IS items under certain circumstances, though they’ll never publicly admit it. What’s really going on here is that the seller is protecting themselves in case of any dispute—they’re making sure to start from a position in which they have little legal responsibility. While this may seem to be a nefarious selling practice, it’s often a very sane thing for a seller to do, for a number of reasons:

  • Diversity of eBay goods. The goods that appear for sale on eBay are of an almost infinite variety and range of conditions and values, and this means that for some categories of goods, especially one-of-a-kind or esoteric items, it can be very tough to explain to a buyer just what it is they’re getting.
  • Diversity of eBay buyers. Different buyers can have wildly different expectations. A single “antique wristwatch” auction might draw aficionados accustomed to yard sales and flea markets, collectors accustomed to high-end jewelers, and college kids that just want to look cool and keep time. Each group might have a different understanding of what “excellent condition” means and entails, and what the item is for.
  • Difficult or unreasonable buyers. One thing that makes an eBay business very different from a regular business is that a relatively small quantity of dissatisfied buyers (in some cases, a number countable on one hand) can shut down your entire business if eBay decides you’ve been unfair in your dealings. The easiest way to overcome this problem is to use the “all goods are AS-IS” mega-disclaimer in all of your auctions.
  • Realities of some eBay businesses. eBay is one of the world’s centers of used goods redistribution, and many sellers’ goods were acquired as parts of massive wholesale lots of used items, off-lease items, abandoned goods, new old stock, or other large and varied assortments of stock. Sellers may not have the time to test each of the 4,000 mobile phones that recently arrived, and they may not know how to test the truckload of x-ray machines sitting in their warehouse. When recycling of this kind is a business model, sellers have no real choice but to sell on an AS-IS basis. Many such sellers simply use their eyeballs to “inspect” items and post things like “appears to be in good condition” in their descriptions.
  • Impossibility of stating clear conditions. For some types of items, supplying a clear condition is next to impossible. This is the case with many one-of-a-kind, work/worn out, “non-working for parts only,” antique, and other similarly unusual auction listings. In such cases, sellers assume that buyers realize they're buying a completely unknown quality and that this is the very nature of the type of items in question.

At the end of the day, the important thing to note is that sellers don’t sell AS-IS things with their eyes closed, nor do they always necessarily list goods for sale on an AS-IS basis simply because they’re crooks. Sellers know that the words “AS-IS” in an auction mean fewer bids and thus lower sale prices. It’s a conscious calculation that they’ve made about how they want to run their business and what kinds of revenue (vs. customer service costs) they want to sustain.

Knowing how to make the most of AS-IS auctions, however, is a little more complicated than understanding why sellers might use them. Here are some tips to remember as you sail the choppy, yet temptingly cheap seas of “AS-IS” eBay items:

  • Don’t assume there’s no risk. Just because you think an item looks great in a picture, don’t assume that the seller will back you up if something goes wrong simply because AS-IS selling is commonplace on eBay. There really are some junk sellers on eBay that make a living praying on peoples’ hopes of getting something for nothing by taking a risk.
  • If you hate risk, don’t take it. If you’re working with limited budgets, are a picky buyer, or are simply not a risk-taker, the best advice is to steer clear of AS-IS items entirely. There are other good deals to be had on eBay; no need to endanger your piece of mind.
  • Steer clear of “something for nothing” AS-IS auctions. Assume that something will only be sold at a tiny fraction of its value if the seller knows from the beginning that it’s no good. While AS-IS auctions can be great deals, they’re usually only good for saving 10-40 percent of an item’s cost if they’re on the up-and-up. A $10,000 home theater system being sold for a fixed price of $100 with free shipping is in all likelihood not merely AS-IS, but also broken and damaged. Use your common sense, and furthermore, avoid taking high-dollar value risks on AS-IS items unless they’re one-of-a-kind antiques or collectibles.
  • Read the item description carefully. More often than not, this is where AS-IS buyers make their mistake. If an item is known not to work or known to be incomplete, many sellers make this clear in the item description. For an item at a good price sold AS-IS, read the description with a fine-toothed comb before you decide to bid.
  • Check the seller’s feedback. The seller’s feedback profile is the first place to quickly look. Look for a high feedback score, indicating that the seller probably has extensive experience selling AS-IS items on eBay, as well as a high feedback percentage, which indicates that buyers generally feel that they’re being dealt with fairly.
  • Read feedback left for the seller. Don’t just look at the numbers; click on the feedback score link and read the feedback left for this seller. Lots of “works great” and “better than expected” feedback reports tell you that this seller is actually selling good quality items on an AS-IS basis simply for legal protection and business model reasons. Lots of “didn’t work” and “I wish I hadn’t taken the risk” feedback reports tell you the opposite.
  • Ask the seller to test more extensively for you. A surprising number of sellers are happy to test an item more thoroughly if they know there’s a serious buyer waiting in the wings. Consider contacting the seller about the item and asking them to perform a few simple tests or provide a closer look for you. Many will happily do so and report back honestly.
  • Make an offer. In cases in which the Best Offer feature has been used, make a lower offer to the seller if you’re uncomfortable paying the listed price for an AS-IS item.
  • Do ask for help if there’s a problem. Despite the words “AS-IS” in the auction, don’t hesitate to ask the seller for help if the item arrives and doesn’t work as desired for you. If you are courteous and professional and the seller believes that your request is reasonable, many will actually either split the difference, accept a return, or refund your money. Remember to leave great feedback if they do this, since they weren’t obligated to help you at all, but did anyway—the sign of an honest businessperson and of good customer service.
  • DON’T begin by making trouble. Remember that whatever your grievance is, the item itself was listed as “AS-IS” when it was sold, meaning that you have no leverage other than the seller’s goodwill. If you contact a seller with guns blazing demanding a refund while making veiled threats, the seller is going to ignore you and you’ll be stuck with your purchase.
  • DON’T contact eBay or PayPal or file a dispute. If the auction listing clearly stated that the item was sold on an AS-IS basis, you’re wasting everyone’s time by filing disputes or contacting eBay. Take your lumps and move on, knowing yourself a little better and taking care next time not to bid on AS-IS goods, since they are clearly not for you.

At the end of the day, it can be tough to know whether AS-IS buying is for you until you’ve tried it a couple of times and discovered the results. Though risk-taking of this kind isn’t for everyone and certainly isn’t for purchases critical to your well-being in one way or another, many AS-IS listings can bring happy results.

In the land of eBay, caveat emptor can become a significantly more complex phrase than it is in “real life.” Keep your wits about you and you may find that AS-IS listings aren’t such a mystery after all.