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The market-driven principles of the domain trade mean that a domain is only worth as much as the buyer is willing to pay. It is for this reason that criteria such as market potential and usability play such central roles in determining prices. Values can change at the drop of a hat. The price of a domain that was once of little interest to anyone in years past can skyrocket once, for example, a newly founded company takes interest in that same name.
The way that competition is supposed to work between registries, is that lots of companies go to ICANN and say “We think we can reliably manage .com, and we think it would cost us [$5] per domain.” ICANN reviews these bids and awards the .com contract, which lasts for a fixed period of time, to whomever they deem best-suited to the job. In this time, other companies can think of ways to manage .com better/cheaper, and try and win the next contract. This, in theory, would provide an incentive for registries to innovate, a big part of which would be in lowering costs.
A handful of domains will have restrictions on them, which means you can only purchase them if you meet certain criteria or have authorization (some examples are .gov, .edu. and .mil). But most extensions are available to everyone. In fact, most country code Top Level Domains (ccTLDs) are available for anyone to purchase, even if you don’t reside in the country in question.

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Sedo is where I bought my domain - over Escrow - and is a global marketplace to buy, sell, and park domain names. They've over 18 million domain names for sale, but the big part is that they're a huge, well-respected company. This may not be important if you're spending $150 on a domain, but in a $15,000+ purchase - which happens in many cases - you will be potentially buying from a foreign entity, that you don't know, and many of them will suggest an escrow payment. This means you put the money in an account owned by a third party that will hold it and only pass it on once the domain has been transferred over into their name (which in this case is what Sedo does). This can be quite disconcerting - but Sedo is well-known and has done many, many deals - and the process is about as full of hand-holding as handing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for a domain name can be.
In order to register any domain, you must provide certain personal information that you may not wish to be publically searchable in the Whois database. Signing up for WhoisGuard is a great way to keep your registration data private. WhoisGuard acts as a "shield" for your searchable information, displaying the address, phone number, and email of the domain registrar (Namecheap, e.g.) instead of your own. Keep in mind that WhoisGuard is an optional security add-on that must be renewed separately when you renew your domain.
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