Buying from private owners can be a tricky business. The prices can be exceptionally good or totally unreasonable. Often, one will travel a great distance to look at a cobalt decorated stoneware jug in excellent condition only to find it is cracked or drive across town to check out a 1950’s dining set to discover it’s a 1980’s dining set. Other problems may arise as well.

Many private owners who are not collectors fail to take into account such things as damage. They believe their chipped dishes are worth as much as those in mint condition. A lady may want $125 for her stoneware butter churn because she once saw one in an antique shop for that. She may fail to realize that the crack in her churn lowers the value considerably or that her churn is actually quite different. Often what is advertised as antique isn’t antique at all or is in such poor condition that it is worthless. Dealing with non-collectors can be difficult because they simply don’t understand the world of antiques.

Several years ago, I went to look at a collection of glassware that a lady wanted to sell. She had numerous pieces of pressed-glass and some Depression glass, with china and stoneware thrown in as well. Her asking price was $2,000, not unreasonable considering the number of pieces, but I could never establish just what it was I was buying. The pieces were scattered throughout the house, in cabinets, shelves, boxes, and stacks. To make matters worse the items were mixed in with many other items that were not for sale. It was dark in the house and difficult to tell the condition of many of the pieces. Several of the pieces I did examine were chipped or cracked. What looked like a good buy at first turned out to be highly overpriced. The seller wasn’t trying to cheat me, she merely didn’t take damage into account and didn’t have her glass organized so I could figure out exactly what she was trying to sell. This situation illustrates how frustrating it can be to buy from private owners.

Many times, an owner has an inflated sense of value. Someone has told them that their spinning wheel is a valuable antique and they want $600 for it when $200 or $250 would be a reasonable price. Some collectors don’t realize that prices on some antiques have dropped considerably. They may ask 1980’s prices for Victorian furniture. That sounds like a great deal, but Victorian was very in during the ‘80s and it’s out now (although personally I love it). Values of Victorian pieces are significantly lower now than they were decades ago. I recently purchased a nice pair of armchairs from the 1870s for $150. Back in the ‘80s, they would have cost me $800.

Often private owners attach sentimental value to an antique and ask an outrageous price. I have some pieces with tremendous sentimental value myself, but I know this doesn’t translate into monetary value. It’s best not to try to educate sellers who want to charge cash for sentimental value. Instead, it’s the time to say “no thank you” and walk away. Often, it’s easier to get a better deal from someone who knows about antiques than from someone who lacks such knowledge. I often sell antiques and collectibles well under-value on Facebook and Craigslist. I know what my stuff is worth, but my prices are so reasonable that I often tell to dealers who intend to resell at a profit.

Many individuals will refuse to name a price and will demand an offer instead. Try to avoid making offers, but if you must make an offer, make it on the low side. The seller may have no idea of the value and may be using your knowledge against you. He is waiting for you to tell him what his merchandise is worth. Don’t give the seller this advantage. If he wants to know what it is worth let him do the work of finding out. This is not to say you should take advantage. Offer a price you would consider a good deal, but not one so low it would be cheating the seller.

The worst the seller can do when receiving an offer is turn it down. Often after a refusal the desired price will come out; the seller will utter the phrase, “No, I couldn’t take less than...” As soon as this happens, you have the price to take or leave. Never make an offer unless it is an absolute must; it gives the seller too much of an advantage. A shrewd farmer once told me that he always demands that the potential purchaser make an offer, even though he knows exactly how much he wants. If the offer is too low, he can say “no.” If the offer is above his selling price he says “yes” and pockets the extra cash.

It may seem at this point that everyone who demands an offer is trying to take advantage, but this is certainly not the case. Many sellers are simply unsure of what to ask and hope the buyer will help them out. Let your sense of fair play be your guide. Don’t offer an elderly grandmother $50 for a pie safe when you know it’s worth $650. It isn’t necessary to cheat oneself, but be fair. No one likes to be cheated. Many good prices can be obtained from private individuals, but don’t go in expecting something for nothing.

So far, I have concentrated on the negative aspects of buying from private owners. I have done this to warn about potential hazards. Buying from private owners can also be a rewarding and satisfying experience. I have often made purchases from individuals that have made us both quite happy. Often private owners will know far more about an antique’s history than one could find out at any shop or show. This information often adds much to the appeal of a piece. Talking to the seller can be a lot of fun as well. Don’t hesitate to buy from private owners, but beware of the possible pitfalls.

Before one can buy from a private owner, one must be located. Word of mouth will help you out here. Another good method is check out Facebook, Craigslist or place an ad in the local paper. One never knows what might turn up. Often the prices will be quite reasonable if someone in your area has something you want. Several years ago, long before the days of Facebook and Craigslist, I was able to locate a circa 1870 log cabin to house my collection by running an ad in the paper. A $3 ad found me a log cabin that I could have for tearing down and removing. I doubt you’ll find such a deal now, but there are treasures out there. Give looking a try. You may turn up nothing, but then again you may find something you love. Either way it will cost little or nothing to try.

Buying from private owners can be an exasperating experience, but it can also be a rewarding one. Give this avenue a try when looking for “new” items to add to your collection.