Donate |

The best ways to sell your stuff

How to make the most money with garage sales, auctions, consignment shops, and eBay

Published: August 2014
Illustration: Christoph Hitz

Todd Sigety, an antiques appraiser in Alexandria, Va., recently got a call from a woman who wanted him to look through the contents of a storage unit that belonged to her late aunt. “She didn’t think there was anything worth keeping but wanted to make sure before she threw stuff out,” he says. Sure enough, there wasn’t much of value—except for one painting. After a little research Sigety realized it was the work of a well-known South American artist; Christie’s will auction it this fall. The presale estimated value: $30,000 to $50,000.

Of course, you may not have a masterwork, or even a minor work, hiding in a storage unit. But your basement and attic may be bursting with possessions you no longer want, and you might be surprised by the amount you can pocket if you know the best ways to sell your stuff. “I find people can easily make $1,000 to $2,000 when they sell their unwanted stuff,” says Carolyn Schneider, author of “The Ultimate Consignment & Thrift Store Guide” (iUniverse, 2012). You’ll be helping both the environment—your things won’t end up in a landfill—and your bottom line.

You’ll make the most money by matching your goods with the best places to sell them, whether it’s an auction house, a consignment store, a website, or a yard sale. Just keep in mind that the IRS may want a cut of your profits. It taxes the proceeds from the sale of collectibles as capital gains, generally at a rate of 28 percent.

Under IRS regulations, collectibles include works of art, rugs, antiques, metals (such as gold, silver, and platinum bullion), gems, stamps, and coins. Your profit or loss is the difference between the basis, usually your purchase price, and the sale price. If you end up selling your goods at a yard sale, however, it will likely be for much less than you paid for them, so you probably won’t owe any tax.

When to get an appraisal

You might want to get a written opinion from a professional appraiser if you think something you’d like to sell might be worth a good deal of money—say, $1,000 or more. The results will tell how much a buyer might pay and what and how much insurance you should have to cover it.


But written appraisals can be expensive. Most professionals will charge $100 to $300 or more an hour to look over your goods, do some research, and write up a detailed valuation. If you’d like a ballpark figure, you can ask an appraiser whether he or she can look the item over and give you a rough idea of what it might be worth. Expect to pay for at least an hour of his or her time.


The American Society of Appraisers, the Appraisers Association of America, and the International Society of Appraisers can help you find local, qualified professionals through a ZIP-code search on their websites.


Auction houses

You’re probably familiar with well-known auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s, which sell fine artwork and rare antiques for millions of dollars. But there are lots of regional auction houses across the country that will handle less rarefied goods.

In the past couple of years, many of those spots have started simulcasting their proceedings online. Live auction attendees bid against online bidders in real time. Expanding the buyer base in that way often produces additional revenue for sellers, says Tim Luke, an auctioneer and the president of TreasureQuest Appraisal Group in Hobe Sound, Fla., and a former director of the collectibles department at Christie’s in New York.

A local auctioneer can give you an idea of what he or she thinks an item you own will sell for at auction. You can locate an auctioneer and auction houses in your area by clicking on the “Find an auctioneer” button on the home page of the National Auctioneers Association website. The group’s more than 5,000 nationwide members must adhere to its code of ethics.

Sell what's in demand

You’ll probably get the highest price for a bona fide antique or a collectible in mint condition by selling it at auction.

Maxmize your return

Document your stuff. Take a few photographs of the possessions you want to auction and write detailed descriptions that you can share with potential auctioneers. For example, if you have an antique chest, include the furniture maker’s name and the date and amount paid for it. Be sure to mention (and capture in photos) any restoration or repairs.

Attend a few sales. “I always suggest that people go to some auctions to see what different houses specialize in and to see which ones pull in a good crowd,” says Luke. While you’re there, ask the auctioneer how sales are promoted (online, in newspapers, and via e-mail is best) and whether they are simulcast online. Also, find out what the house’s “sell-through” rate is, which is the percent of sales that are actually completed. A good rate is about 75 to 80 percent, says Luke.

Negotiate fees. In general, you’ll pay a sales commission equal to 20 to 50 percent of the sale price. If your sale totals less than $300, you’re more likely to pay that 50 percent; more expensive items are charged lower commissions. But fees are negotiable and often depend on how much an auctioneer wants to sell your goods.

If he won’t budge on commission, he might be willing to pay to pack and ship your items to the auction house at no additional charge. You should get a contract that lists all of your costs, including fees.

Make sure your items are insured. See whether the auction house will cover your belongings in the event of loss, theft, or damage while it holds them. If not, check to see whether your homeowners insurance will cover them.

Use reserves sparingly. Ask in advance about the rules for setting a reserve price, below which you will not sell, and get the policy in writing. If your item fails to sell, some auction houses might charge you a fee of about 5 to 15 percent of the reserve price.

Find out when you’ll get paid. Auction houses wait until buyers’ payments clear before they pay sellers. Some will send you a check after 30 days, or it might be 45.

Consignment shops

Many stores now have an online presence, so more shoppers can see your items. There are also some consignment stores that exist solely online.

Sell what’s in demand

Shop owners generally want top-quality furniture, and some take only antiques. Other items, including clothing, sporting goods, household goods, jewelry, and artwork, should also be in great shape. Clothing, in most cases, should have been bought in the past year or two so that it won’t be out of style, says Schneider.

Maximize your return

Find an appropriate shop. If you want to sell through local stores, visit a few to see how merchandise is displayed and make sure they stock items like the ones you have to sell. The busier it is, the better. Find local consignment shop owners who are members of the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops by doing a ZIP-code search on its site. If you want to use a website, check the list of designers and goods it will accept.

If you have designer-brand clothing, accessories, or jewelry to sell, consider one of the new virtual consignment shops that specialize in high-end fashion, such as TheRealReal, Rodeo Drive Resale, or Linda’s Stuff.

Ask shopkeepers how much money you might make. Most consignment shop owners see sellers by appointment only, so call first. Show them your goods or photos of them. They will suggest a selling price; usually, a store’s cut is 50 percent. Ask whether your item’s price will be reduced if it doesn’t sell within a certain time frame. Most shops will generally return unsold items after 90 days or may donate unsold items to a charity and give you a receipt. Shops should give you a written contract that spells out who is responsible for lost or stolen goods, the payment schedule, and what happens if your goods don’t sell.

Check website terms carefully. Before you deal with any website, see what kind of traffic it gets, what it will charge you for its services—including the percentage of the sale it will keep—whether your items can be shipped to it and returned free if they don’t sell, and who pays credit-card and PayPal processing fees.

Linda’s Stuff, for example, is hosted on eBay, so an international clientele will see your merchandise. It gives consigners 80 percent on designer goods sales of more than $5,000, 75 percent of sales greater than $1,000, and 62 percent for any lesser amount. The site will pick up your stuff free, but you’ll have to pay to have unsold items returned to you (or it will donate the items and send you a receipt). If it determines your goods are not authentic (or they can’t be authenticated), it will charge you $20, plus return shipping. But Linda Lightman, the site’s founder, says her company absorbs all PayPal and eBay fees.

Online sales

Putting up your items on eBay or Amazon will attract millions of potential buyers. You’ll need some marketing savvy to make your offerings stand apart.

Sell what's in demand

One-of-a-kind items, gently used sporting goods, clothing, electronics, and popular collectibles sell best, says Lynn Dralle, who runs TheQueenofAuctions.com, a site that helps people sell goods on eBay.

Consider posting easy-to-ship items on a site such as Amazon or eBay. If you have heavy, bulky items to sell, try free online listing services such as Craigslist. The ads are divided into local regions, allowing buyers to pick up items themselves.

List it right. See what similar items are going for on the site you choose. On auction sites such as eBay, check the prices items actually sold for (the “completed listings”), not the minimum-bid prices.

Maximize your return

Get some help. If you’re new to these sites, Amazon, Craigslist, and eBay have helpful tutorials explaining the steps to selling on their sites.

Keep descriptions short. Most buyers research by title, so include all you need there. Include any condition info, such as pristine, chipped, or stained.

Investigate the fees. You can generally list up to 50 items per month for auction on eBay free, for example. You’ll pay a sliding scale of fees, depending on what the item is and how much it sells for, plus a shipping charge (its site has more details). Amazon charges 99 cents per sale plus a sliding scale of fees if you post fewer than 40 items per month, plus shipping charges and a referral fee (see its site for more information).

Yard sales

Although planning and running a yard sale take up a lot of time, you don’t have pay anyone a commission on the money you make. But before you post signs, call your town’s government office to see whether you are required to get a permit to hold a sale. If you do, it will probably cost only a few dollars, but the cost of a fine for neglecting to get one could wipe out your profits. Also ask whether there are restrictions on where you can post signs to your sale.

Sell what's in demand

Just about anything that’s not precious enough to put in an auction, consignment shop, or online—including broken items—is fair game. “People often buy things for parts at garage sales, especially broken electronics,” says Lynda Hammond, author of “Garage Sale Gal’s Guide to Making Money Off Your Stuff” (Gibbs Smith, 2011).

Maximize your return

Don’t price anything. Figuring out what to charge is the most time-consuming and stressful part of garage sales, says Hammond. Ask buyers for their best offer; they will often name a price that’s higher than the one you would have suggested. “I had a friend who wanted to get rid of a dining room table and chairs and was going to put a $150 price tag on it before I convinced her not to,” says Hammond. “A man at her sale told her he only had $400 on him for the set; she was so flustered she talked him down to $300.”

If people seem too shy to negotiate, then you can name a price. To get an idea of appropriate valuation, check out Statricks.com. It aggregates pricing data from online auction sites such as eBay and classified sites such as Craigslist on hundreds of thousands of used products, including small appliances, bicycles, cell phones, computers and accessories, musical instruments, photo and video equipment, sporting goods, and video games.

Make enough directional signs to attract people to your house from major routes. Hammond suggests using signs no bigger than 15x15 inches that simply say “Sale” and have an arrow pointing the way.

Get the word out. You can place free classified ads on websites such as Craigslist, eBay Classifieds, GarageSaleHunter, and YardSaleSearch. Make sure you mention the categories of items you’ll be selling. Also post information about your sale on social-media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Go through your stuff. There’s a good chance you’ve forgotten about a $20 bill you slipped into a jacket pocket or keepsakes you stashed in drawers.

Start on Thursday or Friday. And start early—say, 6 a.m. or 7 a.m.—to ensure that you’ll get the going-to-work and driving-the-kids-to-school crowd. “You’ll have few other sales to compete with, and you’ll get serious shoppers,” Hammond says. You can always continue the sale during the weekend if you have items left to sell.

Be friendly. People are less likely to buy from someone who is reading a book or talking on the phone, and more likely to buy if you greet them and are available to answer questions and negotiate.

Think about security. Keep your house locked during your sale, and keep your money and a phone with you at all times. People toting counterfeit bills sometimes turn up at garage sales, so turn down payments in big bills.

How to decide where to sell your stuff

This decision tree will help you decide which venue makes the most sense, depending on the type of goods you plan to sell and their condition. First, you’ll want to determine whether you have any items that are valuable—say, worth $1,000 or more. If you’re not sure, you can look for similar objects in reference books or on websites for collectors. For example, if you think a piece of furniture might be a somewhat valuable antique, check out  “Antique Trader Antiques & Collectibles 2014 Price Guide” (Krause Publications, 2013). You can also find a price guide to more than 900,000 antiques and collectibles at Kovels.com. If you determine it might be a valuable object, it’s probably a good idea to have it appraised.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the September 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magzine.
   

E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters!
Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

Money News

Connect

and safety with
subscribers and fans

Follow us on:

Cars

Cars New Car Price Report
Find out what the dealers don't want you to know! Get dealer pricing information on a new car with the New Car Price Report.

Order Your Report

Mobile

Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more