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How to Get Cash for Your Trash

Tips on turning throwaways into money by using eBay and Craigslist

Article highlights:

  • You might be surprised at what people are willing to buy
  • You should start slow to get the swing of selling stuff online
  • Sometimes free is as good as selling


"Everything Must Go"

That was my wife's unconditional instruction to me as we began the process of moving out of our home of 20 years to "downsize."

I am an admitted pack rat. A hoarder. I have the embossed matches from my bar mitzvah in 1963, the commemorative coin from the 1964-'65 World's Fair and The New York Times from Neil Armstrong's moon landing in 1969. But now my 1966 stereo amplifier had to go, along with my collection of vintage software and things I didn't remember ever getting.

Cluttered household items

— Comstock/Getty Images

Even though I had been buying and selling items on eBay for years, I didn't think there was much of value in the pile destined for the dump. Then I found an unopened collection of CD's loaded with thousands of digital images. My son, who handled most of the eBay transactions in the household, said it should be consigned to the dump pile. I suggested giving eBay a try. Bottom line: a buyer in Great Britain paid $500 for it. So eBay became my new way to convert the trash to cash.

Jim "Griff" Griffith's formal title is senior manager of seller strategy at eBay. But he's better known as "The Dean of eBay Education." Griff was recruited to become the company's first customer support representative because of his involvement on the site's chat room in its early days. He tells me that my story isn't unusual. A boomer himself, Griff says downsizing is often a reason for newbies to take their first steps on eBay.

Start Slow

Griff advises getting off to a slow start. First, buy a couple of small items on eBay, just to get used to the transaction process. Then you can start selling. You can find how much other people have paid for the items you are selling by going to the Completed Auction section on the eBay website.

Once you know whether what you've got is worth selling, then prepare your listing. Griff's number one piece of advice: be very thorough in describing your item, including not only what it is, what it does, but its complete condition — dings, dents, scratches and all. And use lots of pictures. The more accurate you are with your description, the less likely you'll have to deal with an unhappy buyer or a returned item later on.

Don't bite off more than you can chew. While it's nice to be able to transact business from your desk, this does take some time. That means preparing the listing, answering emailed questions, packing and often going to the post office to ship the item.

Start off with only a couple of items until you get a sense as to how this will work for you. Griff points out that only about 3 percent of eBay transactions result in a return. You should have a stated return policy. Even if you say you won't accept returns, eBay's Buyer Protection Plan allows an unhappy buyer to file a claim against you.

My own policy is that I'll accept a return only if the item was "not as described." That means I'm somewhat protected from "buyer's remorse." Your reputation on eBay — your seller rating — will play a big part in how the marketplace reacts to your items, so keeping the customer satisfied is good advice.

If you're looking for advice on how to get started, there's lots of it available online from eBay and all over the Web. Griff suggests joining one of your local Meetup groups that is devoted to eBay. You'll meet like-minded people, hear lots of good tips and maybe make some friends in the process.

One last eBay note — the company is changing its listing policy effective April 20, so you can list up to 50 auction items a month, even using the fixed price "Buy It Now" feature, and pay a fee only if the item sells.

The Stuffed Sofa Syndrome

While eBay might be great for selling items that fit into a carton, what about all the big items that aren't going to fit into your new place? Think sofas, chairs, tables, desks, air conditioners, lawnmowers, patio furniture and so on. You're just not going to be able to ship those. So you might consider a local classified.

Craigslist is free and widely available. But don't expect to strike it rich.

While shoppers on eBay may be looking for hard-to-find items, just about everyone trolling Craigslist is looking to get stuff really cheap, or even for free. You're likely to shorten the process by pricing low. Remember, in the case of big items, you will be inviting people to stop by and look, so if you're worried about safety, you might want to have someone else around when the potential buyer shows up.

In a pinch, you might even consider giving stuff away on Craigslist. I know it may run against the grain, but giving it away means you'll save the time of carting it to the dump, or the expense of paying someone to haul it away. And it's the ultimate form of recycling. I know of plenty of 20-somethings who've furnished their entire apartments from free stuff on Craigslist, all the way to the dishes and televisions.

And, yes, I was sorry to see my kids' wooden rocking horse gallop into the back of a stranger's pickup truck. But my wife said the alternative was giving the horse my space in the new place.

Giddyap, fella.

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