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Calling the bid: Michael McCaffery talks auctioneering

Auctioneers discuss their profession and how they made their mark.

Ask an auctioneer what their most memorable auction was like and they will each have a story to tell.

First National Chief Auctioneer Michael McCaffery once made the newspapers after a marathon auction that lasted an hour and 45 minutes.

“I had let them bid in low increments, which went on for about $300,000 in $1000 bids,” he laughed.

“It was like when you open the floodgates and you just can’t stop it.

“People were leaving and coming back with coats and coffee. I had a girl with me and she was wearing high heels and kept sinking into the ground.”

The Pymble property eventually sold for $1.7m, way above the $1.2m reserve.

“People may say that I spent too long on it, but I got every penny that was in the room,” Michael said with a smile.

Eking out every dollar

Michael believes that the skill of a good auctioneer should not be underestimated.

“People come along with a price in mind,” he said.

“I think good auctioneers will get to that price. Really good auctioneers will sometimes exceed that price. Great auctioneers will get all the money that’s there.”

Developing the skills required to be a good auctioneer takes time. Learning to call the numbers is one thing, but learning to work an audience is quite another.

“Auctioneers’ patter is probably the most important thing,” Ray White Lower North Shore Principal and auctioneer Peter Matthews said.

“It’s having all the patter that fits in between the bidding and creates excitement in the crowd. That’s where some auctioneers become unstuck. They think it’s all about the numbers.”

Peter, a regular on The Block, advises all his young agents to go and watch as many of the leading auctioneers in action as possible. Michael agrees, referring to all the ‘big guns’ “Cooley [Damien], Kennedy-Green [Scott], Powell [Charles]…” as excellent auctioneers to go and watch to hone your skills.

“The best auctioneers are created when there is very little bidding, as you have to use lots of fillers,” Peter said.

“The real challenge is to mount the excitement and momentum when there are not that many bidders.”

Learning the patter

Auctioneers are always looking to develop their patter and often find useful phrases in the most unusual places. Michael tells of a late night of karaoke at the Covent Garden Hotel in Sydney where he stole a line or two from the MC.

However, being a country boy, Michael believes chattel auctions, where auctioneers can call up to 110 bids per hour, are a great starting ground for any up-and-coming auctioneer.

“Whatever suits you will come to light. And that’s what you stick with,” he added.

Building a rapport

Auctioneer Ed Riley fell into the profession when he was called on to replace a contestant that had pulled out of the REINSW North Division Novice Auctioneers Competition.

At the State Final he auctioned off a night at the Regent Hotel in The Rocks, Sydney. It was when explaining the conditions attached to the deal that he became unstuck.

“I was asked a question by the then REINSW President, Rowan Kelly. He asked 'if the hotel minded when you did it?' to which I replied 'I don't think they mind when you do it, just as long as you do it in the room!' The crowd roared with laughter and it certainly helped ease my nerves,” Ed laughed.

Peter believes that establishing a relationship with the audience can make the difference between a good and a great auctioneer.

“An auctioneer is like an actor on the stage. What you want people to do is walk away thinking that was a good auction,” he said.

That means being able to put a crowd of 40 or more people at ease quickly. This requires building a rapport with the audience, showing them respect and giving them the time they need to make what can be a life-changing decision.

“We put a lot of pressure on people by calling it and doing things like that, but at the end of the day if they say ‘can you give us a minute to make a phone call’ or ‘I’ve got to talk to the wife,’ that’s fine,” Michael said.

“I’m quite happy to do that. It’s not something you train people for, but you get a bit of a gut feeling about who’s the most serious.”

Changing trends

The role of auctions in the Australian market has evolved in recent years. Whereas two or three years ago, going to auction was a foregone conclusion, increasingly vendors are willing to accept an offer after a viewing.

“If you get a lot of neighbours turning up at an auction and you haven’t got anyone registered, that can reflect poorly on the property and the agent,” Michael explained.

“If people don’t have some genuine interest in buying the home, we find that vendors probably won’t go to an auction, whereas two years ago we would have strongly advised them to go to auction.”

Image, it seems, is important in the auctioneering profession in more than one way. Presenting an air of confidence can help put bidders at their ease and bring them over the line.

“The whole real estate industry is built on perception,” Michael said.

“If you look good and sound good, people think you’re good. If you start off and you sound professional then people are going to think you are, and that’s half the battle.”

Making the leap

Building a career as an auctioneer is not a nine to five job. Mixing a career as an agent and an auctioneer can be difficult – if not impossible – when you consider that Saturday is an auctioneer’s busiest day as well as an agent’s. However, it can be a natural progression for those who enjoy the adrenalin rush that comes from standing in front of an audience.

The skills may take time to develop – you never know where you could pick up a good line – but chattel, antique and charity auctions are great ways to practice without the pressure of selling a property. It’s likely you will pick up a few stories of your own along the way, but that’s what makes the profession interesting.

This article first appeared in the October 2013 edition of the REINSW Real Estate Journal.