A Guide to Selling Unwanted Items

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A few weeks ago, I put out a call on Twitter and on Facebook for detailed posts that people would like to see. I got enough great responses that I’m going to fill the entire month of July – one post per day – addressing these ideas.

On Facebook, Amanda requested an article on “How to determine if you should sell stuff on e-bay, craigslist or at a yard sale and how to figure out the value.”

When I first began to right my financial ship, one of the initial things I did was to sell off a lot of items that were taking up space in my closet. I tried many different techniques for selling them off. Here are some of the most important things I discovered.

The value of your time
The most important factor in this process is the value of your time. Before you even start with the process of selling off items, you need to decide how much your time is worth.

Why? Generally, you can get a better return the more time you invest in selling an item. The methods of selling that require more time per item are generally the ones that offer a much better return per item.

What that means is that with an item that earns a higher return with more time invested, you’re essentially selling your time. If you can sell an item for $5 in a minute but it takes an hour of time to sell it for $10, you’re essentially still selling the item for $5 and also selling an hour of your time for $5.

Is that a good exchange for you? It probably depends a lot on your current financial state and the current demands on your time. For me, it would not be a good use of an hour.

Thus, before you start, you need to get a rough sense of how much your time is worth. The more it is worth, the more you should focus on methods that offer a low time investment per item, even if the return is worse.

eBay offers strong returns but takes lots of time per item
Setting up and managing an eBay auction takes time. You have to set up the basic auction listing – and the more effort you put into it, the more reputable you seem and the more you’re likely to get from the item. You have to handle the questions that people send you. You have to handle payment. You have to package up the item and ship it to the buyer. You have to potentially handle complaints from buyers if they issue a dispute using PayPal.

This adds up to a significant time cost. At an absolute bare minimum, you’ll invest an hour of your time total on a single eBay auction if you’re an individual seller who doesn’t have an array of templates and tools to help manage auctions.

This is where the value of your time comes into question. If you can get $2 selling a used DVD at the local used DVD shop and get $7 (after shipping costs, eBay fees, etc.) by selling on eBay and investing an hour, you’re essentially selling an hour of your time for $5.

Thus, I tend not to use eBay for individual low-value items. It’s not worth it – for me – to sell an item such as an individual DVD or an older used video game on eBay. The financial return on my time just isn’t worth it.

So, what do I use eBay for?

I use eBay for pricing items. This gives me an idea of what a huge global market will pay for an item and what I might expect to get (roughly) for that same item if I were to sell it on eBay. I’m sensible enough to realize, though, that other methods of selling the item – particularly ones that reduce my time investment per item – won’t earn the same return per item.

I use eBay for selling higher-priced individual items, bundles, and box sets. eBay works well if you’re selling a bundle of items together, such as a collection of a particular magazine, a set of related DVDs, and so on. These higher priced items earn enough more on eBay as compared to selling locally that it’s worth the extra time investment. I sold quite a few DVDs in bundles of 10 a few years ago and it was well worth my time, earning me roughly $15 per hour for my time compared to selling locally, for example.

Craigslist is heavily about luck
Craigslist is another option for selling items. However, my experience with Craigslist is that there’s a lot of luck involved with sales.

For starters, the range of eyeballs on the item is much smaller than on a site like eBay. You’re largely selling locally. That means if you’re hoping to get the same return you would get off of eBay, you’re probably going to be disappointed.

My experience has been that if you list an item on Craigslist too high, then you don’t get many bites (even if you say something like “$20 or best offer,” you’ll just get a bunch of ridiculous lowball offers). If you continually re-list an item, you’ll eventually get a moderator irritated with you. However, if you price an item well right off the bat, you can usually sell it very quickly with minimal fuss.

What I usually do is try to estimate the return I would get for the item on eBay (looking for a typical selling price, then subtracting fees off of it), knock off another 25% or so, and then list it on Craigslist. Sometimes I’ll get a buyer. Other times, I won’t. If I don’t get a buyer, I move to other means.

Yard sales offer low returns but can offer very low time per item
The next step would be to sell items via a yard sale. Yard sales work very well for certain types of items – clothes, housewares, and some media – but the success you have is dependent on a lot of factors. The weather is a big one – if you have bad weather, you won’t get customers. You’re also relying on your own promotion of the yard sale: the more time you put into promoting the yard sale through signs and leaflets and newspaper notices, the more customers you will get and the more items you will sell.

At a yard sale, you’re not going to get a great return per item. Yard sales are not going to be huge money makers on each individual item you put out there, and if you price them for a huge return, you’re not going to sell the items. You have to price the items to sell.

What I typically do is start off at about 35% or so of what I might get on eBay. As the weekend wears on, I’ll slowly lower the prices on the items. For example, individual DVDs might start at $2, then go to $1.50 after the first morning, then to $1 that evening and the next morning, then $0.50 later in the second day, then maybe $0.25 near the end (after removing any individual ones I think I might be able to do well with elsewhere). I clearly post that I’ll be slowly dropping prices throughout the weekend and I’ll note that if you want the item, you should buy it now, because someone else might snipe it later before you can return.

If you have a lot of items to sell, you can easily slice your time per item sold down into very small chunks. Let’s say, for example, that you have a big pile of DVDs that aren’t going for too much on eBay. Putting them out for $2 a pop on the first day and $1 a pop on the second day will mean that you will likely sell quite a few of them. If you sell, say, 200 items at your yard sale and invest 2 hours promoting it and 18 hours running it, you’ve cut your time invested per item down to six minutes, which is pretty small. This really makes up for the lower cash return per item.

Used media buyers offer very low returns but can offer extremely low time per item
If the time investment of a yard sale (several minutes per item) is still too high, the lowest option is probably used media shops and consignment shops. Your return per item at such shops will be very low – typically even lower than you’ll get via a yard sale. However, your time investment per item will be tiny if you have more than a few items.

This is the best way to go if you simply don’t have much time at all to invest and any return on your items is worthwhile to you. I’ve certainly gone this route in the past, particularly when I was first cleaning out my closet and selling used media of various kinds.

Typically, you just take a bundle of items to such a store, they’ll price them out for you, and they’ll either offer you some amount for the entire bundle (often minus an item or two) or offer to sell them for you at some proportional rate. In either case, you walk away either with some cash in hand or the potential of cash down the road and without having invested a major amount of time in the items.

Good luck selling your items!

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18 thoughts on “A Guide to Selling Unwanted Items

  1. If you have any high-value items that are of interest to only a small number of people, it’s worth trying to contact your target market directly.

    Several years ago, when I was finishing grad school, I had a very specialized, musical instrument I needed to get rid of. I tried advertising it for $700 (I’d paid $1500 for it) on my university’s version of craigslist. Only one person expressed interest, said she couldn’t afford more than $350 (which I would have taken), and then decided she didn’t want it after all.

    By this time, I just wanted to make sure it went to a good home, so I contacted my university’s music department and asked if I could donate it. They said they didn’t have room for it, but that gave me the idea to contact other university music departments in the area. I found two people who were interested, one offered me $800 and the other offered $1000, so I ended up selling it for $1000, or $300 more than I’d expected to get.

    The whole process took more than a few hours, but my “hourly wage,” however you want to calculate it, was still pretty good.

  2. Yard sales also involve a lot of time in setting up, organizing and pricing items.

    I say just share the wealth and donate the stuff to an organization like Easter Seals or Goodwill that with resell your used items and use the proceeds to help those in your neighborhood with special needs. That is a good use of my time, and it feels good too.

  3. Another option for media (DVD’s, books, games, etc) is half dot com. It is a part of e-bay but is not actually an auction. I have sold many items this way and there really isn’t any time investment at all. Craigslist is hit or miss, it really depends on the item.

  4. I agree with Rebecca. I used to sell old games, DVDs and CDs on ebay and after you subtract out ebay listing fees, paypal fees, packaging material costs and postage there were some cases I was actually losing money. This is before I even considered the huge time investment.

    For low cost items I am saving a lot more time just throwing everything in a bag and taking it to goodwill.

  5. @RC (#4) – While its hard to understand, for people who do quite a bit of selling on eBay these low price auctions are actually worthwhile.

    First, I’d suggest either pricing your item so that you aren’t going to lose money, or add a handling fee to cover the cost of materials/fees.

    Second, and more important, you have to consider the value of the feedback rating that several lost value auctions can generate. For many people the value might be minimal, but if you plan to do much selling your feedback rating is very valuable. Its impossible to attach a dollar amount, since that depends on future sales volume, the type of items being sold, etc.

    For a new seller, I would actually suggest selling several of these low cost items before listing any higher priced items. Especially if the higher priced item is something that buyers might prefer buying from a more-established seller. I can easily see where a feedback rating of 50 (perhaps even lower) could result in bringing in an additional $100 or more on certain items compared to a new seller with 0 feedback.

  6. i’ve had great luck selling DVDs and of course book on amazon.com. you get a lot more than you would at the local record exchange, but you don’t have to go through the trauma of listing something on ebay — best of both worlds!

  7. Same here, Megan. We have had really good luck selling books, movies, cd’s, and even computer accessories on Amazon. It’s been easy & profitable.

  8. Glyde.com is by FAR the easiest site for media – DVDs, video games, and CDs. They mail you a prepaid mailer and you just drop it in the mailbox. Payment takes a while to clear for the seller, but it takes less than 60 seconds to sell an item.

  9. Im always surprised that people think that selling items on ebay is time consuming. Yes, setting it up the first time can be, but I have a template that I used and it takes less than a few minutes to list an item now. Materials are fairly easy to come by if you work in an office environment (where you can easily find boxes that are being dumped) and you can also order for free boxes from the Post office that will be delivered to your home. Printing postage at home is easy. The only thing for me that is time consuming is when I have to go to the Post Office to do international shipping. So, I turn off International shipping for all auctions that won’t net me at least $30.

    I love ebay. Have sold items that I would in the past have donated to Goodwill and made some good money. In the past 3 years, I have made over $4K selling used clothes, dvds, electronic devices, cameras, computer equiptment, cell phones . . .

  10. I’m with Laura – I’ve not sold a ton on Ebay but nothing I have has ever taken even close to an hour’s worth of work.

    I think of all the three, a yard sale is the worst in terms of value/time. Not only is the setting up extremely labor and time intensive, but when you’re running it, that’s where your time has to be spent for hours and hours … not just when is convenient for you to respond to a potential buyer. And everything that *doesn’t* sell also has to get packed back up somehow, whether for donation or back into storage. And on a lot of yard sales, that’s a good half of the stuff.

    Remember, on either ebay or craig’s list, you don’t have to list everything as a single item. You can list a ‘lot’ of 20 mixed dvds or T2 girls clothing or whatever it is and as long as your opening bid/asking price is reasonable it will probably sell.

  11. My experience with eBay is that some items can take quite a bit of time to list if you hope to get the maximum price. For media, however, it shouldn’t take very long to list an item. Collectibles are one area that do take a long time, however, because you need multiple pictures showing any flaws in the item, very detailed description, etc. It can also take quite a bit of time to research the item to determine the best category, keywords to include in the title, etc.

  12. I use half.com for media and books. It’s easy to list, then I just leave the stuff in a special cupboard until somebody buys it. I am able to scrounge shipping materials from the office. Down side…some of the stuff doesn’t sell quickly, so it’s still in the house for a while.

    I might check out Amazon as well to see how their terms compare.

  13. Trent also mentioned that part of dealing with sales on ebay is that you have to answer questions from potential bidders. He makes this sound like it can take hours. ;-) Frankly, if you give a good description and good photos then there wont be questions. Also, how long does it take to answer a question, “no it does not come with original paperwork.” Also, the ebay app for Iphone is AWESOME! You can list an item easy schmeezy and answer questions on the go.

    I would be interested in trying Craigslist for items I can’t sell on ebay (big items like furniture) but I’m not crazy about inviting strangers over to my house. I live alone and I don’t want to end up dead in my basement cuz of of my granny’s sofa. ;-)

  14. I have used both eBay and Amazon with success. With Amazon you just need to find the item you want to sell, decide it’s condition and set the price you want to receive. There is no need to take photographs, write descriptions, or set the postage rate. Also your listed item can stay out there forever.

  15. I agree with Mary Kay in that I’ve had great success selling on Amazon. I didn’t realize how easy it is. Yes it’s true you have to find your item on there, but once you do, just say you have one to sell and personally I make sure I list my item as the lowest priced one so it pops to the top of the list. I’ve sold several used digital careras this way, wireless router, even a flashlight. Basically anything that is just collecting dust around the house AND it can’t be very bulky as any gain you would get you’d lose on how much it costs to ship. Amazon does offer a shipping credit but it isn’t always the same as what you would pay at the post office.

  16. I have another suggestion that might make sense to someone. In Pennsylvania we have lots of flea markets that run nearly every weekend (most run spring through summer if they’re totally outdoors, the near us runs all year round since the main building is enclosed and heated). Many times during the year they have days where you can get a discounted table (the local one gives you an outdoor table for 6 dollars for the day, and 2 dollars for each additional table). Most people price their stuff like they would for a yardsale, but there’s no need to promote it… the people come in droves anyway! The last time I went I took a bunch of used but clean and neat babyclothes and other baby stuff (unused unopened bottles, a bouncer, ect) and spent about 4 hours. and Even after the 6 dollars for the table I came away with 65 dollars.

    The trick seems to be that when it comes to pricing…. if you’re going to price it for .50 cents or .25 cents… you’d do better to price it 2 for a dollar or 4 for a dollar…. the first people tend to ignore, the second they think they’re getting a bargin! but it’s worth a try

  17. I know I’m late to the comments, but I agree with Ruth. We have a “yard sale” that takes place every Saturday morning on the county fairgrounds. Last I heard, it was $10 for a space and it gets a lot of foot traffic. I’m thinking of doing this soon to make a little extra money. There are a LOT of thrift stores in our area, so if you couldn’t sell it, you could always donate it and get a tax write-off.

  18. Sometimes I just don’t want to add it to the landfill even if it is not expensive. I have sold items on ebay that are new or in great condition that most would throw out or donate. My largest item was an eight person spa with pop up tv and stereo. The buyer paid 1/3 of what I purchased it for. He flew down and purchased a used suv and trailer to take it halfway across country. He planed to sell vehicle and trailer for more than he paid so it was win win for both of us. I learned my lesson. A spa is a money pit.

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