Bidding, waiting, saving Auction: Those who like competing and don't mind waiting for up to 12 hours can save big bucks on building supplies.

October 04, 1998|By Joanne E. Morvay | Joanne E. Morvay,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Mark and Michelle Vana are sitting on a stack of cardboard cartons that contain new toilets, watching other people go into a bidding frenzy over pallets of new and used wooden doors.

The Vanas -- who picked up all the interior doors their Ferndale home will ever need for a rock-bottom $110 last year -- are waiting. And waiting. And waiting some more.

Like the 500 or so other people gathered in this industrial park off Interstate 895, the Vanas are hot on the trail of building supply bargains. The fact that acquisition of the items may take eight to 12 hours or even longer is of little consequence. Mark, 25, and Michelle, 23, married just 16 months, have plenty of time.

What the couple doesn't have is the money to pay mega-lumber company retail prices to transform the 1950s rancher they bought last spring into the home of their dreams.

So the Vanas are here at Southern Sales Services' building materials auction, sitting in a vacant lot in unseasonable heat, on a weekend morning when they might have been doing something a little more romantic -- but they're loving every minute of it.

"We're auction people," Mark said with a grin, watching a crowd of bidders and browsers trail after Arnold Zimmerman, the auctioneer.

Zimmerman, who's based in Baltimore, consigns and sells overstocked, discontinued, returned and slightly damaged items from building materials distributors up and down the East Coast.

He got into the business four years ago, after stints selling antiques, and before that, thoroughbred horses, at auction. That first year, Zimmerman and a handful of helpers set up shop in a gravel parking lot near Baltimore-Washington International Airport. They sold seven truckloads of materials in a four-hour sale that attracted 80 bidders.

Since then, Zimmerman has averaged four to five sales a year -- usually working from rented warehouse space in the Baltimore metropolitan area. Last weekend, more than 300 people registered to bid on 1,300 lots -- ranging from a single bathtub to pallets of 50 or more used windows.

Zimmerman advertises in the classified sections of regional newspapers. The ads are often small, but still seem to shout at readers. "Leaded entry doors" is underlined and printed in bold type in a recent sale ad. "HUNDREDS of brand new windows" the ad stated -- listing the numerous manufacturers by name. "1000s ft. Oak/pine moldings" may be cryptic to some, but to those rehabbing their home or a rental property it's the siren's call, drawing in buyers who are determined to remodel on the cheap.

Last weekend, and at his winter sale held last February, Zimmerman's crowd was a fairly even mix of homeowners and independent building contractors.

Many -- like Mark's dad, Henry Vana, of Linthicum -- were armed with tape measures and a written or mental list of important household facts such as the width of the windows and the exact shade of the bathroom tile.

Some carried the latest home improvement store fliers, to be sure they were really saving money.

Henry Vana, who has a contractor's background, always scouts the mega-stores and comes to see the quality of the auction merchandise before urging Mark and Michelle to attend the sale.

The elder Vana still laments the days when he didn't know building supply auctions existed. Passing an ornate front door inlaid with leaded glass, Vana is reminded of the price Mark and Michelle paid at an auction last year for a similar door for their home: $325. A few years earlier, Henry paid $700 retail for the same door. Similar doors sold at home improvement stores now go for about $1,000.

Corbie Woehlke, a Pasadena homemaker who attended the February sale, said that if buyers do their homework, the auction is usually well worth it.

Woehlke, and her husband, Bernie, a mechanic, tore out the interior of their circa-1946 Cape Cod-style home. Much of the materials replaced or added has come from the Southern Sales auctions.

In February, the Woehlkes were looking for lumber and doors to build an addition to their home. Determined to pay 50 percent off regular price, the couple didn't purchase anything once bidding surged beyond their "reasonable" range, she said.

Therein lies one of the perils of auction-shopping.

"Some people think they should get this stuff for nothing, but they realize real quick that the public sets the price -- not us," Zimmerman said.

What goes dirt cheap at one sale may be the high-priced item at the next, depending on the demand of the buyers, he explained.

Indeed, some items -- doors, cabinets, windows and the like -- start out with bids of merely $10 and quickly shoot to $300 or $400. In most cases, it's the offbeat acquisitions -- the lone black bidet, the odd-shaped window, the marine-blue shower stall -- that prove to be the biggest bargains.

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