When we confirmed that my wife Jennifer was pregnant with our second child in 1996, we realised that our current two-bedroom home in Kew would be too small for our needs, and we would require a larger house. So, with our two-year old son Campbell in tow, we began the search for our new family home.
After weeks of disappointments, we found a four-bedroom house to our liking in Box Hill, situated towards the end of a quiet cul de sac – a much safer place for children to grow up on rather than a busier road.
We decided to bid for it at the coming auction.
I sought some tactical advice from the real estate agent who sold our Kew house, who advised me not to make any bid until the auctioneer, having reached a certain figure, brought the auction to a pause while he went inside to confer with the vendor.
If that decision were to sell to the highest bidder, he would return to proceedings to declare the house was on the market, and call for final bids.
“Find yourself a place to stand where you can see every person who is bidding,” he told me, “And never drop your bid below $1000, because it tells the other bidders that you are running out of money.”
On auction day, the auctioneer stood on the nature strip of the property facing the crowd opposite, some of which had spilled onto the quiet street. I took up my position on the footpath in front of the neighbouring driveway, giving me an unencumbered rear view of the whole scene.
The auctioneer was somewhat of a show pony, a man in his mid forties with gelled blonde hair, resplendent in a charcoal pin striped suit with a rich red tie, using his manufactured charm as a lure to garner the troops to his side.
He talked up the property’s proximity to some of Melbourne’s finest schools; how the ladies need of retail therapy could be regularly conducted within the nearby mecca of Doncaster Shoppingtown; and the car free convenience of the 109 tramline to the city.
Typical of Melbourne auctions, most of those gathered for the free entertainment were neighbours and local sticky-beaks, with the actual bidders whom I would be competing against numbering perhaps three or four.
These were the people I needed to study from my behind vantage point.
Having promoted the property as a chance not to be missed out on, the auction began with a starting bid of $170,000. With a series of four $5000 bids, the price soon arrived at $190,000, whereupon the bids dropped down to $2000, and stood at $204,000.
By this point, I had tallied the bidders at four: one was a middle aged bearded man whose demeanour likened him more to an investor than someone wishing to purchase a family home; a younger single man standing behind his carbon fibre bike; a Chinese woman speaking Mandarin into a mobile phone probably to a Chinese investor; and an early thirties couple who spent some time consulting each other before making another bid.
The bidding slowly climbed up to $214,000, and as the energy waned, the auctioneer said he would now accept bids of a thousand dollars. He then took the first of these bids from the back of the crowd, to a person who’s raised hand I did not see.
What I did see was an opportunity.
“Excuse me?” I called out in a singular raised voice, “Where did that last bid come from?”
Like a crowd following the flight of a tennis ball at the Australian Open, all eyes turned towards me. I repeated my question. “That last bid, can you please tell me from whom it came from?”
With little choice but to keep within the confines of the real estate regulations, he told me that he had made a bid on behalf of the vendor.
“So, in effect,” I went on, my heart banging away like a heavy metal band’s drummer, “You just placed a bid on behalf of the owner of this property to increase their sale price, against the budgets of these people bidding? Is that correct?”
He was forced to agree with me, holding my gaze with eyes that could have microwaved a leg of lamb, changing them back to ‘friendly’ to face the crowd.
To break the ice, he indulged in a spot of crowd friendly, wandering bid seeking. Failing to encourage the couple into making another bid, he did manage to cajole bike-man for another grand bringing the price up to $216,000.
Back on the nature strip, and unable to garner any further bids, he raised his voice to a more dramatic level, and cried “GOING ONCE!”, carefully scanning the crowd for another raised hand.
“GOING TWICE!”, his right hand held high clutching a rolled up property brochure as if about to strike down a judge’s gavel onto the judicial bench. And then, withdrawing the gavel with “ARE THERE ANY MORE BIDS? ARE YOU ALL DONE? ARE YOU ALL FINISHED?”
Met by silence, he stopped at that point, announcing in his inside voice that as the last bid was below the reserve price, he would pause the auction while he went inside to seek instructions from the vendors.
He soon returned to the fray, to say that the property was on the market and would be sold to the highest bidder. With that, the auction set off upon the energy of its final drive.
“The bidding is with the gentlemen rider to my left at $216,000. Can I hear 217?”, questioned the auctioneer. The bearded man raised his hand. With legs apart and arms folded, I immediately called out “Two hundred and eighteen.”
I was in. As if in a card game, bike-man raised me another thousand dollars. I countered another thousand back, taking me up to two hundred and twenty grand.
Encouraged to bid again, the bearded one declined to do so, and with downward thumb indicated his involvement had ended.
He turned his attention to the thirties couple, announcing he would now accept bids of $500. After a whispered exchange, the woman shook her head in a polite thank you but no thank you.
I felt my phone vibrating in my pocket, and knew it to be Jennifer who was watching proceedings from inside our car parked three houses away, and very anxious about our possible overbearing mortgage. We had budgeted for an absolute top price of $224,000, and I was just two thousand bucks from over spending that amount.
I didn’t answer, as I thought it might indicate to the remaining two bidders some form of weakening through a necessary phone call of advice.
Telling the crowd that our chance was now or never, that this was the time to put your hat in the ring, as this fine well positioned family home was about to be sold under the hammer, and you won’t be able to come back on Monday for a further bid, and so on.
Taking the bait, bike-man let rip with a bid of a thousand dollars. I immediately matched it.
I had been keeping my eye on the Chinese woman, believing she was waiting for the very end before entering the bidding, but I now realised that she was not a player, but just a Mandarin speaking interested onlooker.
It was bike-man vs me.
Keeping up the bidding fever, the auctioneer took another $500 from my nemesis, which I immediately handballed back with another thousand bucks, to which bike-man countered with a further five hundred only to be beaten back again with another of my thousand dollar bids.
When he began strapping his helmet back on, I knew the show was over, and as GOING ONCE was called, I watched Jennifer spring open the door of our car; on GOING TWICE, I saw her running with Campbell down the street towards me; and on SOLD, she was in my arms, in a state of excitement I had never seen before.
Inside Jen’s womb, our future daughter Annie shared in the excitement as well, within a few steps of her front bedroom from where she would endlessly text her teenage friends; while Cam would write his early hip-hop songs in the double garage that would signal his coming music career.
As we made our way into the house to sign the papers, I looked at the disappointed losing bidders depart, pleased as punch not to be among the leftovers still searching.