Reserve auctions started on eBay from the very beginning in 1995. Fewer and fewer sellers are using a reserve price but it can still be found on some auctions. A reserve price can be confusing for eBay buyers when bidding.
What Is a Reserve Price on an eBay Auction?
A reserve price is a hidden minimum price—essentially, the lowest price you're willing to accept for your item. If the listing ends without any bids that meet the reserve price, you aren't required to sell the item.
Consider this scenario. Imagine a seller wants to get a minimum of $150 on a specific item. She may be worried that such a high starting price on an auction will deter buyers and no bids will be placed. She can start the auction at $75, but set a reserve for $150. When a bidder bids on the item, he will see a notice under the price explaining that the reserve has not been met.
Once the bidding has gone up to $150, the "reserve not met" notice will disappear. The highest bidder will win the item. If the bidding does not reach $150 (the reserve price), the item won't sell, and the seller isn't required to honor any bids below the reserve.
The snag with a reserve price is that it is hidden from buyers. They can't see the reserve price anywhere in the auction. Some sellers may disclose the reserve price in the description area, or explain to buyers that they will disclose the reserve price if asked in a private message through the eBay messaging system. Sellers aren't required to disclose the reserve price, but it can be helpful to share that information if you really want to sell the item.
How to React to an Auction With Reserve Not Met
If you have placed your maximum bid, just wait. Even if the reserve isn't met, the seller has the option to send you a Second Chance Offer, which is an offer to the highest bidder. You may be the highest bidder and the seller may decide to come down in price if she realizes that she isn't going to get her asking price.
Don't bid on another auction listing for the item, assuming that you've not won this one. Wait until the first auction closes and you are not the winner. If you bid on another similar item at the same time, you could be obligated to buy two of them.
It is within the eBay rules for a buyer to cancel a sale, but if you do this too many times, especially on auctions, your account could be compromised. (eBay doesn't particularly like buyers who keep changing their minds, and it isn't fair to the seller.)
Just as importantly, sellers can and often do return to reserve auctions that aren't performing well or generating as many bids as they would have liked in order to change or remove the reserve price. If this happens, the very same bid that a moment ago did not meet the reserve price may suddenly be the winning bid, and once again if you have bid on another similar item in the meantime and win it, you could end up on the hook for two of them.
Some buyers are tempted to retract their bids if they've bid on a reserve price auction and found that their bid didn't meet the reserve, but for both of the reasons above it's a bad idea to do so. There is also one additional reason for not retracting a bid when your bid didn't meet the reserve price: it's against eBay rules and doing so several times could get you banned from eBay.
If the Auction Has Ended With Reserve Not Met
If the auction has already finished, and your bid never reached the seller's reserve price, you still have options. The first of these is to contact the seller and ask them if they're willing to sell this item to you at the maximum price that you entered. Though in a completed listing it's too late to remove or change the reserve price, there is no penalty for relisting the item without one, and eBay provides features to sellers to do so.
If the seller is willing to do this, they can relist the item with a "Buy It Now" price at that level, inform you, and make the sale through eBay. Sometimes a seller will create a listing just for you, such as "Mark Brown vintage record player private listing" so that it won't come up in searches and another buyer can't snag it. Never offer to complete the transaction outside of eBay, or agree to it if a seller suggests it. This is an eBay violation and your account can be shut down.
Your other option, of course, is to return to eBay and search for other, similar items that are being sold without a reserve price. This can often be the most desirable option if the item in question is the sort of item for which multiples are likely to be available on eBay since it allows everyone to avoid the hassle and extra risk of dealing with reserve auctions.
Updated by Suzanne A. Wells