Yard Sale Ethics

In my

recent post about cultivating your own knowledge for fun and profit, I mentioned that you should hit yard sales, consignment shops, estate sales, and so forth as a way to put your knowledge to work for you and take advantage of underpriced items. A few commenters thought that this was unethical, so I thought I’d look at that particular point a bit more deeply.

I’ll start off by giving you a specific example of a situation where I did this in the past. As a teenager, I collected Magic: the Gathering cards (I still play with my wife using a handful of remaining cards). I had a very good idea of what some of the valuable ones were, including a few that sold for hundreds of dollars and a good number that could net $20 or more apiece.

In 2002 or 2003 (I’m not entirely sure which – I was out of college, but it was definitely before children and possibly before marriage), I visited a yard sale that was just a block away from the apartment I was renting. The couple that was running the yard sale was selling off a lot of stuff that obviously was previously owned by a teenage boy with a bit of a nerdy streak. One item was a large box full of trading cards, mostly Magic. The sticker on the box said $5. Within thirty seconds of looking through the box, I found one card I knew I could resell on eBay for $20 and a couple more that I thought could net me at least $5 each – and I had suspicions of finding some of the real valuable ones in the box.

I asked the couple if the box was really available for $5. They said it was and that much of the stuff was items their son had said he didn’t want when he went away to college. I immediately paid $5 and walked away.

I netted a nice profit from selling some of the cards, but I also kept many of the cards and some of them make up the handful of cards I still have.

Here’s the question: was I ethically obligated to tell the people running the sale that their items were potentially worth much more than $5?

My opinion is that the buyer never needs to say such a thing. The seller has the responsibility of setting the price for the item. If they want to set an accurate price, they should investigate the item they’re selling.

This is particularly true today, in the age of the internet, where you can find the value of almost any item you have. An eBay search for those cards would have quickly revealed, even after searching for just a handful of them, that the individual cards had significant value. Even just searching for “Magic: the Gathering” on eBay would have shown that such cards often have value.

To me, the question really comes down to this: should knowledge of the value of an item be the responsibility of the seller? I absolutely think so.

When I’m trying to figure out if I’m doing the right thing in such a situation, the first thing I do is put myself in the seller’s shoes. If I were the seller in this situation, would I consider it ethical and fair for the buyer to tell me that I had grossly mis-priced an item?

In a word, no. If I were the seller, accurate pricing is my responsibility, not the buyer’s. If I put something on a table at a yard sale with a sticker on it, that means I’m agreeing to sell the item for that price. If a buyer thinks that’s a good deal – and in this case, the buyer certainly did – then the buyer has every right to pay that price and attempt to turn a profit on it.

I did a similar thing with Nintendo Wiis back in 2006. During that Christmas year, you could easily resell new Nintendo Wiis in the box for $350-400 online after buying them in the store for $250. When Target or Wal-Mart put a Wii out on a shelf for $250, should I have grabbed one and ran for the checkout or should I have informed the manager that they were worth $350 before buying them?

Now, here’s a separate but connected issue: should a buyer tell a seller if they think an item is radically mispriced? I think it’s a kind thing to do, but I don’t think it’s a required thing to do.

If I had it to do over again, I would probably walk up to the seller and say something like, “This box seems like a really good deal. I think there are some cards in there that I could sell to the right buyer for more than what you’re asking.” Then, I would probably offer them more for the box than the sticker price, but I wouldn’t offer them the hypothetical resale value of the cards, either – probably $10 or $15.

Now, if I were a seller and someone did this to me, I’d refuse to take more than the $5 stated on the sticker. After all, I view the sticker price as the seller’s responsibility, not the buyer’s.

That’s my full take on the issue.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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