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Bidding for Bargains

By Deborah K. Dietsch August 14, 2003

On a sweltering Saturday in June, Fisseha and Helen Beyene wandered up and down aisles stacked with building supplies in an un-air-conditioned warehouse in Jessup. The young homeowners were searching for doors and bathroom fixtures for the District townhouse they’re renovating. “We paid $525 for a mahogany door last time we were here,” said Fisseha Beyene, sweat dripping down his forehead.

“We hope to get more bargains this time,” he said.

That door might have cost $2,200, but the Beyenes had found their way to a source well known to local builders, landlords and a growing number of determined bargain hunters: an auction held nine times a year in the former Burlington Coat Factory at Columbia Eastgate Shopping Center by a Pennsylvania-based company called Southern Sales Services. It’s a place where real deal-seekers will spend all day browsing and waiting to bid on appliances, kitchen cabinets, bathroom vanities, toilets, washing machines, furnaces, windows, flooring, lumber and other building materials — virtually every item used to build a house, going for steeply reduced prices.

“It’s my secret weapon,” says Silver Spring builder Dana Preister, a regular bidder for the past year. “I can get items here for 40 to 50 percent of the retail price.” At the most recent auction, June 14, Preister snapped up Andersen double-hung windows for $85 apiece — “they typically sell for $140 each” — plus 4-by-8-foot plywood panels at $10 each, half the retail price, and $1,000 worth of mahogany decking, which, he says, typically sells for $3,000. At past auctions, he says, $200 toilets have sold for $75 each; and kitchen cabinets, which are auctioned off as 10-piece to 16-piece sets, have gone for $55 apiece.

Most of the Southern Sales’ bid-to-buy merchandise is surplus inventory liquidated by building-products suppliers and distributors. About 10,000 items are typically sold at each auction, according to Arnold Zimmerman, owner of Southern Sales Services. “We bring in 50 tractor-trailer loads of stuff to each auction,” says Zimmerman, who charges 12 percent over a buyer’s bid. “We are always trying to attract new items where we are weak.”

Since holding his first auction in this area in 1992, Zimmerman says, the weekend events have steadily attracted more suppliers and a loyal following of bidders. “We send out 11,000 notices to customers about each auction.”

In addition to bid-to-buy appliances and fixtures, the Saturday warehouse sales offer flooring, doors and lumber that can be purchased outright, such as oak flooring at $3.39 per square foot, faux marble tiles at $1.20 per square foot and pairs of solid mahogany doors with sidelights for $1,800. A preview is typically held on the Friday before the auction; leftover merchandise is sold on Sunday and Monday (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) following the Saturday event. But by then, most sought-after items such as kitchen appliances and cabinets are gone.

Not everything is the latest design or in pristine condition. “The appliances might be last year’s floor model. Some of the items might have a minor blemish,” says Zimmerman, 53, who runs the auction with son Aaron, 25. Baltimore developer Robert Lyon, who has frequented the auction for the past eight years, picked up a $4,500 Baker Furniture vanity for $350. “One of the doors was damaged,” he says. “I fixed it and put in my own house.”

At some auctions, merchandise includes top-of-the-line names such as Viking stoves, Sub-Zero refrigerators, Jenn-Air microwaves and Kohler sinks. Luxurious fixtures up for bid at the June 14 auction included a black Jacuzzi corner tub, matching toilet and two-sink lavatory with silver swan-shaped faucets.

Auction regulars recommend that buyers come prepared knowing the retail prices of items they’re interested in, so they don’t overbid. “You don’t want to pay more than half of the retail price,” says Lyon. “But some people get carried away. I’ve seen things go for more than what they go for in the store.”

After lining up to get a number, buyers must be prepared to wait, sometimes for hours, until the roving auctioneers move through the warehouse and start the bidding in front of their desired items. (A barbecue stand is set up in the warehouse, and there are some fast-food joints nearby.) And there is no delivery; buyers have to haul their purchases away by Monday at 5 p.m.

“Not everyone has the patience for us,” says Zimmerman. “This is not a painless experience. We’re not service-oriented. You’re going to have to rent a truck to load up your stuff. There are no warranties or returns.”

Flexibility is also key to cashing in on the bargains, because the merchandise varies with each auction and not all brands are represented.

“You have to be willing to go for the deal rather getting exactly what you want,” says Preister. “It’s all about the thrill of the hunt.”

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Homeowners, remodelers cull deals from housing collapse

By – The Washington Times – Monday, March 9, 2009

A builder’s misfortune can become a remodeler’s Maytag at the Southern Sales auction — the place to go for furnishings and appliances once destined for houses that are not going to get built.

Since 1992, Southern Sales Services in Jessup, Md., has been giving manufacturers and distributors a way to turn excess inventory into cash, holding auctions that attract homeowners and small contractors. In these hard times, business is booming.

The company’s warehouse sales have grown dramatically — from less than 100 bidders at a typical event in the early years to more than 1,000 today. More than 30,000 people are on the mailing list. During a Southern Sales auction, three auctioneers all chant bids simultaneously in the different “departments” of the warehouse.

Every four to six weeks, Southern Sales hosts auctions that draw enthusiastic crowds. The buyers are eager to purchase brand new appliances, cabinetry, flooring, windows, doors, whirlpool tubs and other items for nearly half of the retail cost.

Many territorial customers stake-out in lawn chairs, or just stand in front and guard the item they plan to purchase in hopes that they are the highest bidder.

The items that are auctioned off come from the same companies that manufacture and distribute to “big box” retail stores, owner Arnold Zimmerman said. Southern Sales does not advertise brand names.

“These ‘popular big box’ brands are not in business to sell things at auctions. Items were brought to Southern Sales because the manufacturer had surplus inventory, a builder ordered too much, a retailer is dismantling last year’s inventory, or a customer simply bought an item in the wrong color,” Mr. Zimmerman said.

Mr. Zimmerman, a lifelong Maryland resident and onetime horse trainer, dabbled in the auction and construction businesses throughout his career before going to a school for auctioneers and starting Southern Sales.

“I dabbled in a lot of different areas, including livestock, construction and antiques, which attracted me to other people’s auctions,” Mr. Zimmerman said.

Those most attracted to these auctions are the “do-it-yourselfers,” people undertaking their own home-improvement projects, and owners of rental properties who are looking to improve or maintain their property. There are also small builders who typically only build one to 10 homes per year.

Mr. Zimmerman is certain that Southern Sales is most appealing because of its huge selection of quality materials and products at large discounted prices.

Russell and Maria Meehan of Laurel, Md., attended a Southern Sales auction on Feb. 14, to purchase a fridge and stove for their new home. Mr. Meehan is building a 8,100-square-foot house in North Carolina.

“We came [to Southern Sales] during the preview day, got the model and serial numbers of the appliances we were interested in, and then checked out the retail prices of those items online, ” Ms. Meehan said.

Ms. Meehan said that after she and her husband compared prices online, they found out that the savings at Southern Sales were virtually a third of the price of those at a retail store.

“Savings are the lore [of customers], it’s a real simple equation,” Mr. Zimmerman said.

However, the Meehans also said that being an informed buyer is important when attending these auctions because too often, bidders get carried away and end up spending more on an item than it would sell for in a retail store.

Southern Sales has maintained its business through this economic strife. Although its business has seen a slight slowdown in the amount of material for which to find homes, Southern Sales still manages to pull in thousands of new and existing customers willing and ready to spend money at each auction. Mr. Zimmerman noticed that more people who participate in the auction are investing in their homes to stay in them, rather than fixing their homes up to sell.

The Meehans came to Southern Sales with $2,000 and left the auction with a brand new convection oven, dishwasher and cooktop oven, all of which would have cost them $5,000 at a retail store.

“I already have a cooktop, but since it was such a bargain, I bought a new gas one to put on my deck,” Mr. Meehan said.

Aaron Zimmerman, co-owner and son of Arnold, said, “Southern Sales is virtually the same as estate sales. In fact, my father is licensed in Pennsylvania and has done estate sales auctions before.”

Being licensed gives Arnold Zimmerman the ability to auction everywhere in the country.

Mark Hall and Vaughn Gordon of Baltimore County, Md., are friends who frequently attend the Southern Sales auctions.

“I said I was just coming to the auction to look, and my wife has already called me three times asking me what I have bought, ” Mr. Gordon said.

The “hot items” at the auctions tend to be the appliances and electronics, because “people are always interested in purchasing expensive goods for cheap,” Mr. Zimmerman said.

In addition to the auctions, Southern Sales also has a showroom at a secondary location. The theme of this smaller warehouse is floor coverings, which houses Grade-A materials from around the world such as marble and hardwood flooring. Although the prices at this showroom are priced lower, they still have to remain competitively priced, and it takes an informed consumer to understand the value of the material when they walk into the store.

The next auction will be held on Saturday. Friday generally serves as inspection day for people to look over the inventory. Saturday is the main event, and Sunday and Monday remain open for people to pick up their purchases.

Those wanting participate in the auction must register in person because photo identification is required. Registration is free. For more information, visit www.southernsalesservices.com.

“These auctions are the way to go if you’re looking to remodel or build; this is definitely the way to go,” Mr. Hall concluded.

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.

In February, Joseph and Donna Richardson, of College Park, waited most of the day to bid on a pink-and-white marble vanity top and a tall cherry cabinet for their upstairs bathroom. Donna squealed excitedly when Joseph successfully bought the vanity top without going over their self-imposed price limit of $150.

But several hours later, the friendly mother of five found herself nearly being challenged to fisticuffs by a woman determined to take home the coveted cherry cabinet. Donna had the high bid. But the other woman’s complaining irritated Zimmerman so much that he reopened the bidding, Donna said, and before she knew it her angry competitor had nearly tripled the price and took the cabinet home.

“It was crazy,” Donna said. “She paid like three times the retail price just to make sure she got it. The rest of the night she stood guard over it, while her husband followed me everywhere I went. It was unbelievable.”

Donna said the incident has soured her on auctions for a while.

Zimmerman — who’s witnessed his fair share of price wars — sees the experience as one of the costs of doing business this way. Auctioneers have the right to reopen the bidding in the case of a dispute, he said. And he does have a financial responsibility to his consignors.

“Basically, we’re discount retailers for a day,” Zimmerman said.

“For every dollar people spend, they’re saving at least a dollar or two or three. If they don’t want to do that, there’s a Home Depot on every corner.”

Zimmerman is equally blunt about another Southern Sales’ policy that buyers don’t always understand. “Everything’s a compromise,” he said, referring to the rule that forbids buyers from removing merchandise until the auction has ended — usually at least 12 hours after bidding began. “You want to save money, you have to suffer a little bit.”

It is easier and less time-consuming to walk into a building supply store, pick merchandise out and pay full price for it, Mark Vana said. But there’s no challenge in that.

Henry Vana sums it up this way: “It’s a hobby. I’ve got a house I’ve never stopped working on, and I’ve lived there 25 years. Some people sit down every night and watch television for six hours. When we work on Mark’s house, I figure I’m just missing some television.”

At last weekend’s auction, the Vanas eyed two bay windows and a set of sliding glass doors, hoping other bidders weren’t doing the same. They lost out on all three, but managed to snag a new 4-by-4-foot Andersen awning window for $85.

Paired with two side windows they took home for only $70, the couple spent this weekend putting their new “custom” bay window in place. With a little ingenuity on the part of Mark’s dad, the Vanas saved about $640.

In addition, they took home four, narrow six-foot windows — also new — for $180 when they could have paid up to $600 retail.

The vertical windows weren’t what they originally wanted, but they knew the odd shape would keep the price down. Flexibility is the key, Henry explains. “We change our minds depending on what we can buy cheaper,” he said with a laugh.

At previous auctions, the Vanas bought their oak kitchen cabinets, an oak vanity with a marble double-bowl sink top, two whirlpool bathtubs, numerous interior doors, a leaded-glass front door and windows of various shapes and sizes.

They got their bathtubs for $100 each. Last weekend, the exact same models went for $75 a piece. The most expensive item the couple purchased was their kitchen cabinets, which cost $1,100 — but would retail for $3,500.

Overall, Henry Vana estimates the couple’s total savings at more than $6,000.

“There’s no way we could have gotten as far as we did with our house without coming here,” Mark said. “It’s definitely worth the wait. It’s a long day, but it’s worth it.”

Pub Date: 10/04/98