A Guide to Selling Unwanted Items

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!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.