How to Sell Your Stuff

Turn castoffs into cash with these easy-sell secrets.

By Amy Maclin from Reader's Digest | November 2009

Plus: 9 Vintage Items That May Be Worth Money

Think of all that unloved stuff spilling off your shelves or crammed into your closet: the last-generation iPod, the Donna Karan dress that never fit, Aunt Sally’s porcelain shepherdess. With a little ingenuity, you could find you’re sitting on a gold mine … or at least this year’s holiday fund. Here, the Reader’s Digest guide to thinning your overstock and fattening your wallet.

How to Sell Your StuffILLUSTRATED BY EDDIE GUYFrom albums to toys, some of your old objects in your attic may be worth something.
GETTING STARTED: WHAT IS IT WORTH? That heirloom chest in your dining room looks just like the Stickley piece that pulled in a $3,500 estimate on last night’s Antiques Roadshow. Should you get an appraisal? The first thing the experts will tell you: Manage your expectations. “All you see on those shows is the highlights,” says Alex Winter, general manager at Hake’s Americana & Collectibles in York, Pennsylvania. “Don’t get your hopes up until you’ve done the research.” The second thing: “What happens on Antiques Roadshow is not actually an appraisal,” says appraiser Beth Szescila of Houston, who appears on the show. “It’s an educated guess based on the appraiser’s years of experience.” An appraisal requires extensive research, it’s backed up with comparable merchandise on the market, and it costs $100 to $150 an hour, so it’s not something you want to invest in unless you’re fairly certain of what you’ve got. That said, how do you find out what you’ve got?

Do your homework. “EBay is not a good place to do research for authenticity,” says J. Michael Flanigan, owner of J. M. Flanigan American Antiques in Baltimore, “but it’s a great place to see what people are buying and selling.” Massachusetts auctioneer Walt Kolenda recommends Kovels’ Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide, updated yearly by Ralph and Terry Kovel (kovels.com). Other sources are online appraisal sites, like instappraisal.com and the appraisal archives of Kolenda’s site, auctionwally.com.

Remember that price guides are just guides. If you find your Tiffany lamp in the guidebook for $800, don’t assume you’ll get that price from a dealer. Market values may have shifted in the year since the guide was published, and much comes down to what dealers already have and what customers are buying. Like any businessperson, a dealer has to make a profit. For a high-quality item in the Kovels’ guide, says Kolenda, a dealer can usually get between 50 and 75 percent. Go to an antiques show. Bring some high-quality pictures of your item and then walk around and talk to people, advises Flanigan. Antiques shows bring many dealers under one roof, so chances are, someone there will specialize in items like yours. Get some estimates from dealers. “If you’ve given good information and have items that are worth selling, dealers will be happy to make an appointment,” says Kolenda. “Antiquers can’t order stock from a manufacturer, so we’re always eager to make new contacts.” Some dealers will make estimates based on e-mailed photos and descriptions, while others will say that’s only a starting point. “With pictures, I can confirm a negative, but I can’t confirm a positive,” says Flanigan. “If you think it’s an 18th-century tea table, I may be able to tell you that it is not, but I cannot promise you that it is.” Many dealers will be happy to come to your home to view larger items; just ask. HOW TO SELL IT YOURSELF On eBay This old favorite is still the easiest way to get your merchandise in front of the widest audience, especially if your wares fall in the ever-popular categories of Clothing, Shoes and Accessories; Home & Garden; Collectibles; or Electronics. Some tips for a successful auction from Jim Griffith, dean of eBay education: Check out past auctions. Look at the information, photos, keywords, and prices that have worked for previous sellers. At the top of eBay’s home page, click on Advanced Search, then enter the keyword of the item you want to sell, check the box for “Completed Listings,” and click Search. Green prices mean those items have sold in the past two weeks. Make your title mean something. The 55 characters in your title should be words a buyer will search for: “Kiwi Green 5 Quart Le Creuset Dutch Oven,” not “++Fab Green Cookware LOOK++.”

Answer questions before buyers ask them. “You’re trying to re-create the experience of someone coming to your garage sale,” Griffith says. In the description, provide as much detail as you can about weight, measurements, make and model, materials, and how many times the item has been used. If the digital camera you’re selling has a scratch, be up-front and feature it in a close-up photo; that helps instill buyer confidence, adds Griffith.

Take simple photos that showcase your merchandise. Place the item on a solid contrasting background, and use as much natural light as possible.

Don’t set a “reserve” price. Minimum prices really work only if you’re a savvy seller with a valuable item, says Griffith. Buyers are looking for bargains, and reserve prices drive them away.

Consider setting a fixed price. If your item is rare or in high demand, then an auction format will likely drive the price higher. If your item is readily available, then it’s best to set a reasonable fixed price that will lure in the comparison shoppers.

Sell individually, not in lots. You might think your china is worth more as a set, says Griffith, but that’s usually not true on eBay, where people come looking for replacements.

Be patient. Most auctions pick up speed in the last 15 minutes of bidding.

At a Pawnshop If you’re on the fence about selling that old engagement ring, consider a pawnshop: You’ll be getting a temporary loan, with your item as collateral. The owner pays you cash for your unwanted bauble, then holds the item for a waiting period that varies from 30 days to six months, depending on the state. During that waiting period (which may be followed by a grace period—say, ten days), you can “buy” your item back by paying off the loan with interest. Maximum rates (25 percent in Georgia, for example) are determined state by state.

Pawning can be an easy, low-risk way to put money in your pocket, says Dave Adelman of the National Pawnbrokers Association. At Jerry’s Pawn Shop in Atlanta, Adelman sells jewelry, stereo equipment, fur coats, and power tools at prices that depend on supply and demand: “If I have all the TVs I can store, I may not go for much if you bring in another one,” he says.

To a Gold Buyer “Gold loves bad news,” says auctioneer Walt Kolenda, which is why the sagging economy is yielding all those TV commercials from jewelers offering cash for unwanted bling. Places like Good Ole Tom’s of East Hartford, Connecticut, will weigh your mismatched earrings and broken chains, then pay you by the pennyweight (about 1.6 grams). The price fluctuates according to the price of gold, says owner Tom Tinney, who was recently paying $20 per pennyweight for 14-karat; the more gold a customer brings, the better the rate. (A customer with only one small, lightweight chain might get only $12.50.)

Good Ole Tom’s also does a gold-by-mail business, as do a number of other merchants: You stick your jewelry in an envelope, mail it in, and wait for a price quote. If you go that route, warns Tinney, make sure that your package is insured for the full amount. (Also consider Red Swan, which has done well in recent consumer surveys.) Tinney also buys silver, including flatware and jewelry, at the market price, which on one recent morning was about $17 an ounce. Some premium items, such as Native American jewelry, are worth more than the silver weight and may be bought outright.