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How To Un-Accumulate Stuff at a Profit Using Ebay

Note from Joe – following is a guest post from one of my readers and fellow Usenet group poster, Elle. (Do you know what Usenet is or am I really showing my age?) Thanks, Elle!

Joe has run a column or two on ‘accumulating stuff.’ I ran into this in particular with two elderly relatives in the last ten years. Both relatives went into nursing homes. Their families were left with the responsibility of taking care of their belongings. Many of the relatives’ possessions were not wanted by anyone in the family. Yet the possessions had value.

Estate sales can take away much of the stress of this process. But the drawback to an estate sale is that commissions run on the order of 40%. For those wanting to retain more of the value of the goods, a low-labor alternative to an estate sale may be eBay.

Prior to this past June I had been using eBay exclusively for small purchases such as hard-to-find books, OEM car parts, swimsuits, repair parts for appliances, DVDs and more. Then in June I suddenly needed to dispose of some sterling silverware. I began doing some research. With trepidation I set up an eBay seller’s account for the first time and put some of the silverware up for auction.

I was surprised at how easy setting up a seller’s account is. Follow the prompts at www.ebay.com. If you do not already have a paypal account, then follow the prompts for paypal as well. When I started selling a few months ago, there were three fees: a listing fee (which sometimes is waived but otherwise runs around a dollar); a final sale fee (presently 9%); and paypal fees (presently 3% + 30 cents). There is no charge until you put something up for sale. In some cases, there is no charge until there is a sale. Also, eBay has recently had promotions where the listing fee for many items is waived.

The items you want to sell preferably are easily mail-able, so smaller is better. With a scale and tape measure you can use www.usps.com’s online postage calculator for good estimates. The usps.com postage calculator was invaluable and completely accurate for all my shipping costs. When posting the cost of shipping, always add one to a few dollars more than what the USPS calculator gives, to cover the cost of
packing supplies. Mailing envelopes and bubble wrap costs do add up quickly. I try to keep shipping costs low so as to increase the chance of a sale. When I am buying something on eBay, I am aware I am always a little turned off by a shipping charge clearly higher than the actual cost of shipping and supplies.

For fragile items I see eBay sellers using “standard flat rate shipping.” I have an antique clock of my relative’s that I hope to sell on eBay for a few hundred dollars. I see similar ones on eBay being offered for a shipping cost of about $20.

A friend also selling a relative’s belongings counseled me to keep my starting prices low. Try a starting price of 99 cents for items you expect to go for between $10 and $50. Try $9.99 for items you expect to fetch more than $50. Auctions seem to get more attention and better results than fixed price items, as long as the starting price of the auction is low. At auction most of the time (but not always), the item gets bid up to a reasonable value. I tried starting at higher prices and often found little-to-no interest (based on the number of views), and always no sale. All the items I successfully sold on eBay started at prices much lower than their final auctioned price.

Watching one’s auctions and the market at work is fun. About half the items I have sold were bid up substantially in the last minute.

In addition to estate sale items, I had some other items taking up space in my house. I was delighted to find them good homes using Ebay. The alternative was the city dump, which by itself costs money.

One peculiarity to me was how long it took buyers to pay. One buyer took almost three days. (I sent a reminder late on day 2, and the next day payment was made.) On average people took about half-a-day to pay. I advise waiting at least two days before contacting the buyer with a reminder. When I was heading near the post office anyway, I sent an invoice shortly after a sale saying if payment is made by such-and-such time, then I can have the item in the mail by afternoon.

I always included a hand-written thank you note. After dropping an item off at the post office, I let the buyer know I have shipped the item, so he or she can look for it in the mail.

The internet has many how-to sites on selling on Ebay. Some are a bit outdated, since Ebay’s policies do change over time. One interesting caveat is there is a wide difference of opinion on when to have one’s auction end. Some say on the weekends. Some say on Wednesday early evening California time. And so on. I am doubtful it makes too much difference for most items.

When I first started selling on Ebay, I decided I was taking a calculated risk. I also reasoned that the education I was getting from this process might offset any potentially small loss I might take. I have sold six items now. All but one reached a price that beat the price I would have obtained through other resources (scrap silver recycler; automotive junkyard; used book resale store). After six weeks of selling on Ebay, I have come to think of it as a high-tech garage sale and recycler. Overall I have come out ahead both in education and dollars.


  • Annie September 13, 2010, 12:23 pm

    A question for Joe or Elle – where shipping is concerned on ebay, how do you pre-calculate shipping if you do not know the destination beforehand? What if you end of shipping International? This has always concerned me. Wasn’t there a tool at one point where you could let buyers calculate their own shipping? Is that still available? It has been years since I used ebay. I think the kids used it for shipping Pokemon cards and now they are in college so that should tell you something!

  • JOE September 13, 2010, 12:27 pm

    In my case, my sales on eBay were US-only, so shipping was fixed, but I believe the online form allows a buyer to get the rate adjusted based on location.

  • Elle September 13, 2010, 3:59 pm

    Hi Annie,

    Good question. I did not cover this properly. For some items I used the U.S. mail flat-rate shipping boxes, so the same rate applied regardless of where in the U.S. the item went. For other items, I would come up with a conservative figure by putting in a really far away zip code. You are right that many sellers on eBay use a built-in calculator tool for each item.

    Re international shipment: For one item I sold I had two polite queries from folks not in the U.S. One was in Canada and the other in the Netherlands. They had both done their homework and knew about how much it would cost to ship the item to them, and they told me how to compute it. The site http://www.usps.com does compute international shipments. For small items, the cost does not change much but the time to deliver does. With hindsight and like some other sellers, it is a good idea to indicate whether you will ship overseas. Or maybe just say, at your auction site, to email you in advance of bidding to see whether you will ship to the person’s overseas location.

    I agree things have changed with eBay procedures. It is a good idea to study the setup for sellers thoroughly and not assume things are how they were some years ago.

  • John | English Wilderness September 14, 2010, 1:57 am

    I’ve sold a couple of things on eBay, buy I’m still a little nervous about it! At least the shipping is easy to calculate in the U.K.

  • Anji September 14, 2010, 4:04 am

    I’m a professional ebayer. we calculated our shipping abroad costs and charge a flat rate for different zones of the world. Paypal is great, how else could someone across the world pay for an item that costs a couple of dollers?

    Be careful setting low prices, it hurts when something valuable just goes for a small price.

    I sell vintage postcards and it’s always a nice feeling to know that ‘my postcards’ are going to homes where they will be treasured.

    On French ebay there exists a local announcements page where you can advertise for free locally and the buyers pick the goods up – very useful for larger items. Does that exist in the US?

  • Roshawn @ Watson Inc September 14, 2010, 7:44 am

    Good article. I do have to declutter. I just have to get over the “separation anxiety.” So far, I have only sold one personal item online (on Amazon though).

  • Elle September 14, 2010, 11:42 am

    Hi Anji,

    I looked but could not find a “free announcements for local pickup” section for U.S. folks. Has anyone seen this? I did see in the advanced search section of eBay an option to search for items available only by local pickup, but I think there are still eBay and Paypal fees for this.

    I have used Craig’s List (and some other, dedicated, free used-car-for-sale-by-owner sites) to sell a couple of cars and a very heavy automotive tool, if this is the sort of clutter of which one wishes to be relieved. (In hindsight eBay would have been better for selling the automotive tool.)

    Thank you, Roshawn.


  • JOE September 14, 2010, 12:26 pm

    John – for selling, it’s best to look for completed auctions to get an idea of the value of an item. I’ve seen auctions for a computer I was very familiar with and the seller tried to start the min bid at $400 when these were going for $200 at best. And other sellers came and went with a $150 ‘buy it now’ when they could have gotten more, perhaps. If you are afraid of getting too little, you can use a ‘reserve,’ which is kept secret. If the reserve isn’t met, no sale, but at least you see the price buyers were willing to pay.

  • Barb Friedberg September 14, 2010, 1:50 pm

    I like the idea of the reserve. It sounds like a cost/benefit analysis, it the potential cash worth the time to sell it on ebay? I’ve sold stuff that’s bigger on Craigs list, but of course the market is smaller. Thanks for the intro!

  • Dirty Butter September 15, 2010, 10:21 am

    We used to sell on eBay for the very reason you stated … to dispose of items from our parents’ estates. And we did quite well with some items. I always used 91210 (from the TV show LOL) as the zip to figure shipping, because it was easy to remember and we’re in the Central time zone. So it did a good job of getting a reasonable shipping price for most people.

    I found out pretty quickly that starting items too low didn’t pay off for us. I tried to start at a price that I would not be heart broken if it sold with one bid. Sometimes we were wonderfully surprised with how much items brought.

    We finally stopped selling on eBay and opened our own internet catalogs for some of our vintage items and for our plush animals and soft dolls. We’ve been very pleased with the results.

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