I was sitting at home watching a Family Guy episode when my phone rang. It was Mom.
“Honey, we’re moving to Arizona.”
The panic set in quickly. My 70 year old parents lived in a 5,000 square foot home filled to the brim with stuff they’ve been accumulating for 40 years. This would be no easy task, and one many others with aging, semi-hoarder parents are inevitably faced with.
The trouble with moving
If you’ve never moved across the country before, I don’t recommend it. Unless of course you are willing to part with 95% of your stuff. Moving is horrendous.
We set up a plan to tackle the monstrous task ahead of us. It would ultimately end up including a handful of Craigslist transactions ranging from humorous to painful, 5 major trips to goodwill, several trips to the city dump, a semi truck full of items that would be kept and moved to the new house, and another 15 foot U-haul truck full of stuff that we thought we could sell on our own at a later date.
Stop for a moment and picture what a normal two-bedroom apartment looks like. Now picture that same apartment with the addition of a 15 foot U-haul truck full of stuff in the middle of the floor. There was barely room to walk.
Here’s a picture after about 6 months into the project. You can see we still had quite the mess on our hands.
Getting rid of the stuff
As we looked around the house, it was overwhelming. We didn’t know where to start. Worse, we couldn’t identify half of the stuff that was now clogging our already too small living space.
We began by grouping items into three different buckets: selling online, selling in-person, and donating.
The majority of our sales took place on eBay. eBay has a huge audience, an easy to use interface, and took a reasonable commission for allowing you to use their platform. There are many places you can sell your stuff online these days. There are specialty clothing shops, places to sell books, gift cards, furniture, or even wedding dresses. If you have a ton of different items like we did, I recommend picking a place like eBay where you can sell almost anything. It’s too much work to set up profiles and gain credibility in your reviews to just to sell a few things on a specialized platform. Pick a platform and stick with it for best results.
Selling in Person
We used Craigslist for our in-person sales. Only 5% of the items we sold were in person and they were items that were heavy furniture or things that were very challenging to ship. Of course these days Craigslist is much less popular and there are several better alternatives. For all the advantages of selling in-person, it requires a fair amount of patience regarding haggling, directions, and flaky people.
Some unique items for sale
We had a collection of oddities and difficult things to sell. While each item we sold had a history and its challenges for shipping, these were some of our best and worst experiences.
Large Market Basket
This little gem took some creative wrapping skills. We were able to take two boxes, one on each side of the basket, and somehow securely fasten them together to ship. The shipping cost just over a $100 with USPS at the time, but we sold it for $300 minus eBay fees, so it was worth it. A funny side-note, we received a call from a tiny USPS store in the remote area of Illinois where it was bound to ask if we had actually paid the shipping cost. (We had). Apparently at the time, they had been experiencing people lying about the weight of packages to get a discount on shipping. The bottom line: be creative with your packing and don’t be afraid to ship large oddly shaped items.
George Foreman Rotisserie Cooker
While less unique than other items, this is a prime example of something that is more difficult to ship than it looks. Sure it fits in a nice box. It’s also half glass and doesn’t like to be turned up-side down. This little gem didn’t make it through shipping. We later got a picture of it with the glass shattered. The bottom line: Packing matters!
This was another packing tragedy. We took this object to UPS to ship for us. They did the packing and somehow it still didn’t end up making it unscathed. The lesson here? If something is really valuable, make sure you purchase insurance for your shipment or triple check the package job. Even then, you should just buy the insurance. Interesting, the top part of the instrument made it just fine. It was the little hand crank on the bottom that had been turned on it’s side and crushed. We ended up negotiating a lower fee on the item because they buyer really wanted it and was going to attempt to have it fixed.
These shells were extremely fragile. Each piece was painstakingly wrapped in bubble tape, inserted in a box with peanuts and placed inside another box with protective wrapping. It was mostly certainly not worth the time and effort to sell. As much time as it took, the alternatives weren’t great. They would likely have been crushed at most donation places centers and they were to beautiful and unique for the landfill. In the end, the buyer was pleased they received the shells in the condition showed online and they ended up in a loving home. The bottom line: Don’t be afraid to ship extremely fragile items, just use care in the packaging.
How much did we make?
When it was all said and done, minus the cost of shipping and eBay fees, we walked away with over $10,000. The retail of these items when the originally purchased far exceeded anything we got for the pieces. The good news is that while our parents were ultimately taken to the cleaners on their purchases (they had purchased some thinking it would be an investment), they did get to enjoy many of the pieces for a long time.
A few caveats to consider when you’re selling things online. If you make a profit on your item: (ie, you buy a widget for $100 and sell it for $200), you MUST declare this on your taxes. It is considered income. If like us, the item was purchased for $200 and sold for $25, well then, no tax event needed. Small business owners should check in with their tax accountant to see if they can deduct the loss.
You can imagine after selling 100s of items on Ebay you might learn a few thing or two. For anyone just starting out, these are my top tips for having a successful experience.
Packing is everything.
If we had an issue with one of our sales it was most likely due to our poor packing job. It’s amazing what can happen to a package once it’s out of your sight.
- After your box is packed up, shake it. Yes, shake that package like a salt shaker. If you hear any movement, or rattling, you likely haven’t packed it well enough. Extra room in a package is a recipe for disaster.
- Think about your item from every direction. Can you turn the box upside down and have it stay safe ? On it’s side? Diagonally? The odds of your box remaining “right side up” during shipping are almost zero. Your package needs to be turned this way and that and still come out OK on the other side. That means if something is really heavy on the bottom and fragile on the top, be prepared for it be shipped up side down. Never forget the George Foreman Rotisserie debacle.
- Cover up any old bar codes, shipping labels or other markings on the box you use. Make it easy on the post office. You don’t want them sending your package to the wrong spot.
Boxes and packing materials are expensive.
Once you’re an excellent packer, that’s great! Where are you going to get packing materials? Boxes, packing peanuts, foam, paper, they are all expensive! Don’t go to the post office and buy their materials. You’ll spend a small fortune and cut deeply into your profits. What to do instead?
- If you work in an office building, head down to the loading dock. There are always extra boxes laying around.
- Live in a house? No problem. Let your friends and neighbors know you need boxes. You’ll quickly end up with far too many.
- Living in an apartment? Hit up the recycle bin. Don’t just stop there… check out the bins at nearby complexes.
We live in a time when online shipping has exploded. If you’re paying for boxes, you didn’t try hard enough to find free ones.
Postage is expensive.
Right up there with packing issues, postage is the other issue with online sales. To save yourself time and money, weigh and measure all your items at home and then pre-pay postage through eBay. Not only do you get a discount for buying the postage online, you don’t to wait in line at the post office. Sadly, we didn’t learn about pre-paid postage until much later in the process than we would liked. Don’t make our mistake!
Bonus tip: The “if it fits, it ships” priority boxes that USPS offers are great. It doesn’t matter how much it weighs as long as you can get it in the box. This can be a great alternative for heavier items that you want to ship quickly without the extra price tag.
Writing your ad matters.
This is the number one thing you need to pay attention to when selling online. The better you describe your items and the better photos you include, the higher likilihood you’ll be able to sell your item. Here’s a few tips:
- For photos, make sure you have appropriate lighting in the house. Zoom in on any imperfection or damage on the item. You must disclose an accurate description of the condition of your item. Failing to disclose damage is a big reason why users end up returning a product. Bonus tip: Don’t take the “stock” photo of your item from the web. Buyers want to see the real product you’re selling. Even if its brand new, your ad will have more credibility if you took the photo.
- Make sure you include detailed measurements of whatever you’re selling. This is especially true for clothing. If you’re not sure what type of measurements you should include, do a quick google search of your item and see what others have done.
- Describe the condition as honestly as possible. If you’re not sure if something works, be sure to include that in your ad. This is a critical step in writing your ad. Why? Keep reading to find out.
Example of a bad photo vs a good photo.
Ebay customers are always right.
Yep, we learned this the hard way. Many times over.
If a customer complains about something in your ad, or wants a refund, work something out with them. Maybe offer a partial refund, offer to pay return shipping or send them another widget if you are selling more than one. Yes that advice applies even if you put “non-refundable, non-returnable” in your ad. Why? Because eBay always sides with their customer. Well, maybe not always, but I would wager to guess it’s 99% of the time.
Don’t believe me? Fine. Tell your disgruntled customer to buzz off and watch what happens. First, the customer will leave you bad feedback, then they will complain to eBay and you’ll be refunding them anyway.
Auctions are a double edged sword.
We had some great luck with auctions. We got far more for many of our items than we would have with a “buy-it” now price. The flip side? We also took a beating on the auction side. Sure, you can take a look at “completed listings” and see how they did. When it really comes down to it, you never know where your item is going to end up. Your choices are to include a reserve on the auction (which for some reason people do not like), or roll the dice and hope it does well. The bottom line: Ask yourself if you like to gamble.
Online sales are easier (and safer) those most in- person sales
The great thing about online sales is that you never have to come face-to-face with your buyer. You don’t need to worry about being robbed, mugged, or later stalked by the potential buyer. You also don’t have to worry about them showing up at your house screaming at you because the item you sold them is no longer working. To be fair, if you use your real shipping address on your package someone could track you down, but it’s unlikely. If you’re really worried about that you should use a PO box.
Ultimately, there will always be a need for in-person sales. After all, somehow selling a wooden apple press on Ebay doesn’t seem too appealing. It’s too expensive and bulky to ship. And while the magic and allure of Craigslist waned many years ago, there are safer alternatives like Facebook Marketplace to consider. Facebook Marketplace is currently the only place I’ll consider selling things in-person. Why? Because I get to see if they have an established profile and if they’re a “real person.” Sure, you could still come across a crazy person with a normal looking profile but the odds of them being a normal buyer go up exponentially.
Was it worth it?
At the time, yes. We were relatively young, needed the money, and we got to help my parents recover a mere fraction of the money that was spent on all that stuff over the years. Would we do it now? No.
The mishmash of items we were charged with selling were far out of our comfort zone. Antiques we knew little about, bulky and fragile items to pack, and the time it took to write a proper ad for many items took more time and effort than we would want to sacrifice.
We still sell things on eBay to this day, but we definitely pick and choose our battles. No more rolling pins, chocolate molds or depression era glass to pack up and ship off.