There’s a place on the Internet that sells real estate, office furniture, biomedical equipment, scrap metal, airplanes, slide projectors, and more to the highest bidder. It's not eBay, but GSA Auctions, or the government’s version of an online auction market. The U.S. General Services Administration (which declares its mission to be providing “the best value in real estate, acquisition and technology services to the government and the American people” in order to make a better, faster, more sustainable government) runs the site as a means of selling off surplus or forfeited federal assets to the general public. These might include the contents of an office in the process of relocation, or dozens of wedding gowns seized in relation to a drug trafficking case.
Due to the nature of their origins, the range of items available on the site at any given time can range from practical to downright strange. Here are but a few examples.
New Yorkers looking to invest in aquatic transportation might consider skipping the boat shows and instead go bargain-hunting among the government’s gently (well, maybe not quite) used vehicles, paying particular attention to the fine passenger vessel docked at Ellis Island by the National Parks Service. The 75-foot, Coast Guard-inspected boat has both a passenger cabin and outdoor seating on its upper deck, a standalone pilot house, and crew quarters below the deck—which is all together enough space to transport 149 passengers and three crew members. Despite some rust on the hull, its interior still looks clean and hospitable.
With a starting bid of $5000, it sounds like a great deal for a seaworthy vessel, so what’s the catch? There are a few: main engines with a tendency to overheat and coolant that leaks; non-functioning heating, ventilation, and air conditioning; substandard steering; broken generator; incomplete safety equipment; and oh, that Coast Guard certification expired a while ago. It’s a fixer-upper, to say the least. On the bright side, there are no known asbestos materials on board.
Many of the items listed for auction on the site come in various states of disrepair, marked “scrap” in their titles and descriptions. This Fairchild C119C fixed wing aircraft, the bidding for which started at $1000, has “major components missing,” “is not in operating condition,” and “is unstable to tow”—and yet someone, somewhere has placed a bid on it for $1100. After all, one man’s trash…
Someone’s got to have some use for it.
It seems reasonable enough to try to make some money back for the government from a loose diamond, 3.9 millimeters in size with a weight of 0.23 carats in a round brilliant cut. However, bundled with it is an 8 mm “round foil backed, colorless imitation ‘gemstone,’” which seems like an odd freebie to throw in there.
Somewhere in Columbia, Missouri, a state government agency finally cleaned out its attic and is trying to get rid of some clutter.
It’s tough to get research grants, especially for expensive lab equipment, so there’s no shame in scientists shopping around for the best prices on everything from Erlenmeyer flasks to gas chromatographs. This Hewlett Packard model on the GSA Auctions site needs a few parts replaced, but at under $4000, it boasts a huge discount off the same model being sold for around $16,000 on eBay.
7. GUCCI WATCH.
GSA Auctions offers a tab dedicated to Jewelry & Exotic Collectibles. It’s a category less populated than Industrial Materials or even Construction Materials, but a savvy bidder might come across a potential treasure once in a while. At the moment, the only active listing in the category is a stainless steel, rectangular-faced Gucci wristwatch with white analog clock markings and an unknown provenance. Why does the federal government have a secondhand designer wristwatch for sale? The buyer might never really know.
Looking to cheaply redecorate your home or office? Look no further. This lot is described as an estimated 12 boxes of blue/gray carpet squares measuring 24 inches by 24 inches, and…that’s it. That’s all the information provided.
NASA’s Johnson Space Center has a lot of scrap cable wire to get rid of, but any prospective buyers will have to jump through a few more hurdles than they would with most sellers. The lot is only available for sale to U.S. citizens, who will have to provide a notarized declaration of their citizenship in order to make an appointment for pickup, as well as showing a U.S. passport or two forms of acceptable federal identification upon arriving at the property.
A month after the customary new year fitness resolutions, it looks like even government agencies are giving up on their commitment to exercise, or at least their commitment to a mixed lot of dusty step aerobics equipment that probably dates all the way back to the ‘90s. The listing consists of 104 pieces in all—more than enough to start a fitness class in 1992 (leotards not included).
11. POLYGRAPH CHAIR.
Among the dozens of listings peddling miscellaneous sets of office furniture—purple upholstered lounge chairs, wooden desks, five-shelf bookcases, etc.—one stands out as a bit less likely to be repurposed in a doctor’s or lawyer’s office. With wide plastic armrests designed to keep the seated party’s arms in place while hooked up to a polygraph machine, perhaps the chair, with its flat surfaces on either side, could find new life as a place to keep snacks and drinks close at hand while watching TV.
There’s a small parcel of “unimproved” land in Tehachapi, California that the government isn’t doing anything with at the moment, and it’s available to any prospective bidders at a starting price of just a quarter million dollars. The pictures may not provide a comprehensive impression of the area, but the listing points out that the land off Barstow Bakersfield Highway is vacant and thus “can be viewed by the public at any time.” Always try before you buy.
More ambitious investors with a few million dollars to spare might be interested in the Coastal Park area of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, all of which is for sale. The property consists of 82 housing units, several basketball courts, a tennis court, a playground, a gazebo, “and plenty of space for a number of recreational activities.” However, the whole place is covered in lead-based paint, so that might be a minor concern.
Every good toolbox needs at least one screwdriver with interchangeable tips, and even the most barebones hardware store should keep a selection in stock. However, if the nearest Home Depot doesn’t happen to have 2280 screwdrivers in their inventory, the GSA Auctions site just might be able to provide. All 2280 even come stored in a single, enormous wooden crate for easy(?) pickup.
Amidst the listings for various wrecked vehicles, GSA Auctions has for sale some perfectly road-worthy cars. With just over 10,000 miles and “no known deficiencies,” the 2011 Ford being sold by a USDA office in Kentucky seems like at least as good an option as leasing.
Buying in bulk is usually a great way to save money, but when it comes to safety equipment, a warning that fire extinguishers “appear new” but “some parts may be broken or missing, repairs may be required, sold as is” should probably cause the buyer to pause and think whether it’s really worth skimping on that part of the budget.