Cultivating Domain Knowledge and Hobbies for Fun and Profit

When I was sixteen, I bought a cigar box full of 1960s baseball cards for $5 from someone who was cleaning out their mother’s attic. I sold one single card in the box – a 1965 Topps Mickey Mantle in excellent condition – for $200.

Several years ago, I was at a yard sale. The person running the yard sale had a box full of trading cards sitting there that her son had left behind when he went to college. I offered $5 for the box and proceeded to resell them on eBay, netting almost $1,000 in the process. (The cards were Magic: the Gathering cards from the Unlimited and Arabian Nights sets.)

About a year ago, I bought a pile of used video games at a yard sale. I picked them up for $2 apiece – 15 games for $30. Several months later, I piled these up and traded them at a local gaming store for approximately $200 in store credit, which (in combination with other traded-in items) I used to pick up a Playstation 3.

What do these little stories have in common?

First, in each case, I took advantage of a hobby of mine to turn a substantial profit. I’m familiar with the value of many types of trading cards, video games, and other certain types of collectibles because they’re hobbies of mine. Thus, when I notice these items, I can inspect them carefully and often evaluate their prices.

Second, I routinely put myself in situations where I’ll stumble across these items without a proper valuation. Yard sales and garage sales are a great start, but there are lots of places to look: going out of business sales, estate sales, and so on.

Third, I knew how to re-sell the items. There are many collectibles and other items that have theoretical value, but if you don’t know how to re-sell them for that value, they don’t have any value at all.

Let’s look at how you can use each one to not only have a lot of fun enjoying a hobby of yours, but also turn a profit sometimes, too.

Know Your Hobby
This is the easiest part of the three. Almost every hobby involves some sort of equipment or materials. From rock collecting to gardening to more obvious things like movie collecting, hobbies usually involve the acquisition of certain items.

Simply by being involved with the hobby, it’s often easy to be aware of the values of many of the items associated with the hobby. Keep your ears and your eyes open and you’ll soon have a grasp of the value of many items within the hobby, as well as good resources for identifying the value of items you’re unsure of.

Know Your Situation
It gets a bit trickier when you’re looking for ways to find such bargains. Above, I named several avenues for finding such items. Here’s some specific notes on these avenues.

Yard sales and garage sales These are almost always my best bet for finding huge bargains on hobby-related items. The trick, of course, is knowing how to separate the junk from the valuable. If the price is cheap enough, I’ll often jump on board even if I’m not 100% sure of the value of the item because the profit potential is so high.

Going out of business sales I never miss these, particularly for independent non-chain businesses. Often, items are priced as a discount off of MSRP – and often they’re cleaning out everything they can find from their back rooms. Sometimes, this means older and rare items that have a lot of value are out there for less than they should have sold for new. If you know what you’re looking for, this can be a treasure trove.

Estate sales and auctions This is similar to a yard sale. It can work well for certain types of items. Your best bet is to simply peruse listings in advance to decide if the sale is worth your time.

Odd jobs Whenever you have the chance to perform odd jobs for independent businesses – or even do things like help someone clean out the house of a deceased family member (which is a nice thing to do anyway) – you can just stumble upon all kinds of great things. I’ve found great items in the back room of an independent coin shop and in the closets of a deceased cousin of a friend.

Know Your Outlet
Of course, just because you find an item that has significant theoretical value, that doesn’t mean that you’re going to make a profit. Thus, I only pick up items if one of these two statements are true.

The item must immediately be resellable at a profit. Can I go list this item on eBay and turn a profit on it? Or, can I take this item to some sort of trader or retailer and immediately get more for it than I paid for it?

The item must have immediate use. An item I might use doesn’t cut it. I must be able to immediately put the item to some reasonable use within my hobby. Ideally, the item continues to retain some value as well.

If I can’t immediately validate one of these two statements, I don’t make the purchase.

Knowledge Is Money
In simplest terms, knowledge is rewarded here, as is participation. The more you know your hobby, the more likely it is you’ll be able to identify potential bargains. The more you participate in events where such bargains appear, the more likely you are to find it.

That’s why my wife and I often go to garage sales on weekends – and why we often go away empty handed. We usually go only to look for specific items – things we need, like children’s clothes, or things we know we can profit from.

Good luck!

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32 thoughts on “Cultivating Domain Knowledge and Hobbies for Fun and Profit

  1. Vytas says:

    That would mean if we make our hobby a job we will not have to work for the rest of our lives. Excellent ideas. It’s worth investing time to find out how to make money from your hobbies. Work becomes not only source of income, but also pleasure.

  2. Maureen says:

    Another way to profit from a hobby is to use your skills at a hobby (eg. knitting) to create items that would make desireable gifts.

    This year I am creating sets of greeting cards that I will be giving to family members in stationery sets. I enjoy doing the crafts and the product can easily be used as a gift, saving me $$$ and the recipient doesn’t have to go out and buy cards for various occasions, saving them time and $$$.

    Many crafts can make lovely gifts.

  3. Ryan says:

    How do you feel ethics play into these types of purchases?

    Is it wrong to buy something for dirt cheap, knowing it’s real value, without alerting the seller?

  4. Matt says:

    If the price is agreed to by both parties, how is it unethical? The person selling the item is getting money for something they thought was just about worthless. One man’s trash is another’s treasure.

  5. EJW says:

    As a baseball card collector, let me just warn people against buying any old lot of cards for a few bucks and trying to flip them.

    Certain sets are extremely common and mass produced, and even a Hall of Fame or All Star from that set won’t be worth your effort to flip it (usually cards from the 1980s and after). Pre 70′s can be different but it’s becoming increasingly rare to run into those in garage/estate sales! Of course a 65 Mantle is going to be easily sold, but even something like an 85 McGwire rookie is only a few bucks.

  6. John says:

    Is it worth it to have a hobby if you’ll never get a profit out of it?

  7. Ryan says:

    I’m not saying it’s wrong…but I could see how some sellers might feel they were taken advantage of.

    I’d probably still do it though.

  8. Andrew says:

    Having more than one hobby or interest multiplies the chances of success and opportunity at yard sales. Ryan, even at yard sales we get that double “thank you”, where the seller and the buyer are both happy and satisfied with the transaction.

  9. Marsha says:

    “I’ve found great items … in the closets of a deceased cousin of a friend.”

    Did you tell the friend the true value of the items you found? If not, you’re not the kind I friend I would want.

  10. Sandy says:

    I’m afraid I agree with Marsha here…it’s different if the owner knows of the true worth, but is happy for you to have the item/s cheap anyway, but otherwise I think it’s completely unethical, and with friends like that, you don’t need enemies!

  11. almost there says:

    Yard sales, Bah! Just spent the last 2 day digging stuff out cleaning, sorting and pricing, as well as making signs. No sales. Now to drag stuff into garage to await neighborhood sale in 2 weeks. My car sits out in the heat. Not my idea. I would rather donate unwanted stuff. Consider it the marriage penalty.
    OTOH, not liking to be around yard sales I don’t look for deals except on ebay.

  12. Sandy L says:

    I bet that college kid was fuming when he came home from school break to find his personal stuff sold.

    When I had my tag sale, I knew certain books were worth more than I was asking for them..I did my homework and decided to take the easy way out for most of the books, but sold the really nice ones on Amazon.

    I don’t think it’s unethical to resell something for a profit. The whole reason someone has tag sales is to get rid of a lot of stuff quickly. The trade off is knowing they will not be maximizing their profits. If you don’t do your homework, it’s not the buyer’s responsibility to educate you.

    A lot of dealers were at my tag sale and bought armloads of stuff. I didn’t feel bad that they were going to make a profit because there’s a cost to the time involved in flipping the merchandise.

    On the other hand, if I’m paying a dealer a commission to appraise and/or sell my stuff then I expect them to tell me the true value of things.

    Good Post.

  13. valleycat1 says:

    Re Ryan – getting deals at yard sales & estate sales, I don’t have a problem with. The items are being sold because someone doesn’t want them & doesn’t want to bother shopping the items around for various buyers. [I'm in the #7 camp, though - would much rather just donate or trash my items rather than going through the hassle of the yard sale for a small return. In our area $2 for a video game is a pretty high price!)

    But my reaction to the "help clean out homes of the deceased" was the same as Marsha's. Unless you're [at least] splitting any profits with the family of the deceased, that’s pretty cold unless in the unlikely event you’ve prearranged to take anything you want. A better idea would be to continue offering to help out, plus letting them know up front you’d be happy to handle selling any items of value if they’d like, with the proceeds being returned to them.

  14. Rebecca says:

    i do this when shopping second hand stores. I have worked for years in high end retail, I love shopping and I know brands. So when I see a pair of high end shoes at goodwill that originally sold for $150 to $200, if they are in good shape, I pick them up for $4 and resell them for $30. Someone else gets a brand name pair they want for less, and I make some money for my family doing something I love to do.

  15. Maureen says:

    Yes John, it is worth it to have a hobby even if you don’t profit dollar wise.

    If you enjoy the activity, particularly if it is creative, you will get health benefits from the relaxation. I think that gardening, for example, is a wonderful stress reducer. There is nothing like sitting on the patio and drinking in the beauty of a perrenial border that you cultivated. Gardening can be a wonderful moderate exercise.

    Sometimes you get social benefits if you find others that also enjoy a particular hobby. It can be a pleasant way to connect with others.

    Lastly, many people find a way to give back to the community by using their ‘hobby’ skills. You could teach children about your hobby or craft items that used in charity fundraisers. For example some ladies get together and sew a gorgeous quilt for charity raffles or craft cute Christmas decorations that can be sold at bazzars.

  16. Lisa says:

    This is a great post! I also started doing this recently. The past year or so I’ve been really interested in fashion. I am now quite knowledgeable about fabric, designers and trends. Sometimes I come across an item at the thrift store (where I find all my stuff) that is too hard to pass up even if it doesn’t fit me. I found a $600+ designer black wool coat for $10 which looked brand new. It was a little small for me but knew my local consignment shop would take it. I talk to them and have learned what they want in their stores. I have had a few incidents where they haven’t needed what I was offering, so I went on Ebay and sold it. I know I could make more selling on Ebay but for now I’ve been making money through consignment.
    I also bring in some items that I have worn for awhile and am done with which is even better! When the time comes and money is really tight, I will start selling a lot more on Ebay.

  17. Laura In Atlanta says:

    I found an antique teacup and saucer at a local Goodwill for $2.
    Sold it on ebay for $45.

    Someone at work was dumping a large number of paperback books . . . i scooped em up and listed on paperbackswap.com and immediately was able to get 7 credits. Awesome.

    I love little scavenger hunts that can net me a prize at the end!

  18. kristine says:

    Laura,

    Now I wish I held back the paperbacks- I just donated a huge laundry basket full of books to the library! They just sell the paperbacks anyway.

  19. Hannah says:

    I’m a college student, and at the end of the semester sometimes other students will just give away any text books that the book store on campus won’t buy back. Amazon gives credit for a lot of textbooks if you mail them in, so I have made a few bucks that way.

  20. jen says:

    Probably my best deal was finding a spinning wheel for $50 on craigslist – seller was downsizing and happy to sell it and give me a bunch of other stuff for “free”. I took it apart, cleaned and lubed it, then after spinning on it for a while, resold it for $250.

    Ditto buying things from goodwill/value village and reselling on ebay.

  21. moom says:

    Paying $5 for something worth $1000 does look like unethically taking advantage. Of course the time and knowledeg needed to sell the goods for the high price should be rewarded. But is that worth 99.5% of the final price?

  22. Knowledge truly is money–on both ends.

    That’s why before you go to sell things at a garage sale (like baseball cards and the like), you should also know what you’re selling. If you don’t, have somebody take a look at it so you’re not giving your item(s) away

  23. Starshard0 says:

    I used to be an avid collector of Pokemon cards, then Yu-Gi-Oh!, then Magic. Eventually I just sold them all, entirely at a loss. When I see some old rare cards being sold at a premium it bums me out that I didn’t hold on to some of the more valuable ones. That’s life I suppose.

    I’ve tried to avoid getting into collecting as a hobby due to some of the high costs associate with them. Maybe a rock collection is more up my alley. Come to think of it, I used to have a rock collection but then I swallowed one (Quartz, I think it was), and that was pretty much the end of that.

  24. Ajtacka says:

    A friend of mine left a couple of boxes of comics at my mum’s house for storage a long time ago. We dropped out of touch years ago, and my mum no longer has space. I know something about comics, but I live in a diferent country now and I’ve never bothered looking through the boxes. My mum knows it’s possible there’s something of high value there, but finds the thought of even taking them to a comic shop too much. So they’re in her ‘garage sale’ pile and possibly someone will buy them and make some money.

    I don’t think it’s unethical to do it, it’s the choice of the seller not to research it. Possibly the woman selling her son’s cards just wanted them gone, and knew they could’ve been sold for more. Otherwise, it’s not hard to find a comic / card / coin / stamp shop and take them in.

  25. Steve R says:

    In the past I’d buy lot bags of toys at the local Goodwill. I’d sort through them and often found gems in the lot. These sold well on EBay. Also, I took advantage of the Baby Boomer market by re-selling old board games.

    As for the ethics of re-selling…if someone wants to sell an item for THEIR price there is no issue. If someone wants to buy the item at a price THEY want to pay…there is no issue.

  26. Kate says:

    Finding “deals” at yard sales, thrift shops, and jockey lots and reselling them has been going on for a long time. I think that it is ethical to purchase something that someone wants to get rid of and resell it at a higher price–the seller could have done some research before they sold the item. My husband bought a bag of toy cars from a coworker for a very low price many years ago. He eventually sold several of them on ebay and paid for part of our summer vacation. Should my husband have tracked down and given part of that profit to the coworker? I don’t think so…my husband saw the eventual value of the cars and the coworker didn’t (or actually his wife didn’t–she wanted the cars gone and would have given them away if she had to).
    Finding items in the closets of a deceased relative is another matter and I don’t even want to start writing about that.

  27. kristine says:

    My rule of thumb for my hobbies is that they must break even. They cannot cost the family money. Gardening- I spend about 100 a year, and get well over that in produce, give herbs and homemade food form the produce as gifts. No to mention the hours of what I consider entertainment: gardening and cooking!

    Biking- I put about 100 into my bike every year, and I save at l least that in gas and it keeps me healthy!

    And so on…

  28. Julie says:

    There is nothing unethical about buying something at the undervalued price it is being offered for and selling it for its true value. The person is willing to sell it for that price, had a chance to research it, and clearly didn’t – the price they are asking is one that they will be happy to receive.

    What is unethical is approaching someone with something of value (friend, coworker, stranger) and offering to buy something that wasn’t originally for sale for a ludicrously low price, making out like its worthless and you’re doing them a favour by paying something for their “junk”. Antique dealers used to go around taking advantage of people this way. This is clearly wrong. If you are the one initiating the sale, or are in a position of setting the price (ex. consignment or video game shop) where there is a trust that you will value items fairly and honestly, then you must do that.

  29. Matthew says:

    One of the best articles ever written. Every one of my hobbies is a something I enjoy but can also turn into money. Poker, Art, Cars, Collectibles.

  30. Matt says:

    One of my hobbies is biking. That already pays off a bit in that I bike to work (and got rid of a car). However, I’ve also started picking up used bikes (yard sales, craigslist, etc) that need a bit of work or a couple new parts, fixing them up, and reselling them. I haven’t gained much yet – I’ve bought 4 bikes and sold 1 so far – but the 1 I did sell I made quite a bit of money on, and as I sell the others I expect to break even at worst. The good part is that even if I don’t end up making much money overall, I’ve still gotten to pursue a hobby and gain experience!

    I would say that your rule that an item must be immediately saleable at a profit doesn’t have to be true all the time. That would be true of a couple of the bikes I’ve found – but for others, I’ve gotten a fair price given the condition. However, with a couple hours work and maybe a couple new parts, they’re worth much more.

    The danger is of course that I could end up losing money if I don’t follow through on the fixing-up and resale. However, I’m keeping a basic spreadsheet and minimizing the total “inventory” in order to combat that.

  31. Dustin says:

    Hey, great post. I do agree that you can turn a nerdy hobby into something with profit. I used to enjoy painting warhammer mini’s and now I have been buying unpainted ones, and turning them into painted jewels that many online would pay money for. I enjoy it, and it doesn’t bore me. I also do purchase items like personalized stationery. Found some cheap stationery items from the clearance section at http://www.giftsin24.com and use them to create some nice sympathy cards that people do appreciate.

  32. partgypsy says:

    I’m not mad at you but mad at that mom in the second example. I’m SURE the son knew how much those cards were worth and was probably heartbroken when he returned from break and found out his mom sold all his cards for $5. My uncle had an entire trunk filled with old comics (1940′s-1960′s) but after he moved out of my grandparents house they disappeared, probably thrown out. Moms out there please do NOT do this! Please ask your kids before you get rid of their “junk”.

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