Turning trash into treasure

If you're like a lot of people, you have a garage full of things you've been meaning to get rid of for years. And the strange truth is that someone would probably give anything - or at least a few bucks - to own your Charles and Diana wedding commemorative fondue set. Finding the ideal buyer for your treasures is where online auction sites come in.

Sites such as eBay and Sold.com.au make posting a description and photo of your item only slightly harder than placing a bid. If you've caught the auction bidding bug, selling some equipment you no longer use - last year's digital camera, say, or the electric guitar your son abandoned - is a great way to finance your habit. Before you start, here are a few tips to ensure that everyone logs off happy.

Before you list

  • Sell to others as you'd have them sell to you. Try to equal a time when you received exceptional customer service.

  • Study the auction site's rules and policies thoroughly, including all payment options and requirements. Make sure you know which kinds of items can't be sold on the site. Some things, such as fireworks, animals, and tobacco products, are prohibited; and items like airline and concert tickets may carry restrictions.

  • Take some time to understand the auction site's charges, which can be complicated. In most cases, sellers pay at least two fees (more if you want special placement, colour banners, or other features to distinguish your offering). The first charge is a ‘listing' or ‘insertion' fee, which is usually non-refundable and is generally based on the starting bid amount or minimum selling price that you set when you first list an item. The second fee is a percentage of the final sale price (known on eBay as a ‘final value fee'). Different auction sites have different fee structures, and the fees themselves vary by category of item, sale price, and other factors.

  • Know the charges you'll incur for using payment services such as PayPal. Using these services expedites payment and can be more convenient for the buyer, but you should plan on paying a small percentage (typically 1 to 3 per cent) of the selling price, plus an additional transaction fee.

  • Consider holidays, seasons, and other factors that could affect the number of bids you'll get. For example, you might have better luck selling skis in July than in January, and you probably won't get barraged with bids if your auction is timed to close on Christmas Eve.
Setting a price
  • Don't set the minimum bid at the price you hope to get. If you're listing a watch worth about $100, don't set a minimum of $100. That kills prospective bidders' interest by removing any chance that they'll get the item at a bargain price. Instead, set the minimum bid low - many sellers set it at a dollar, even for valuable stuff - and let the magic of auction economics push the price up.

  • You can set a reserve (an undisclosed minimum selling price) if you can't bear to part with an item for less than a certain amount. But sites may charge extra for this option, and many bidders won't bid on items with reserves.

  • To learn how to set realistic minimum bids and reserves, look up the results of past auctions for similar items. Both eBay and Sold.com.au let you search for items in completed auctions. To search in completed auctions on eBay, first search for an item in any search box. When the initial item list appears, click the Search Completed Items link near the top of the page. On Sold.com.au, click Advanced Search, hit the By Closed Auction tab and type your search term in the Keyword box.

Once you have a list of completed auctions in your browser, look for those items that match yours as closely as possible, then click on the links to those items. Pay special attention to condition, age, and similar information. Try to check several similar items and take an average of the winning bids. That will help you estimate a figure close to what the price of any similar item will fetch in a future auction.

Creating a listing

  • To find a suitable category for your item, search the site for similar goods. If your item falls logically into two categories, consider listing it in both (for an extra fee). For example, if you're selling your great-grandfather's violin, list it in ‘Musical Instruments' and ‘Antiques'.

  • When you write your listing, describe the product honestly and in detail, even if it has faults: disclosing that your Wedgwood platter is chipped on one edge ensures that you won't have an unhappy buyer later. When writing the description of an item, include all pertinent information. Always include model numbers, serial numbers, measurements, and the age.

  • Include a photo if possible, but make sure it's clear and crisp; buyers might think you're trying to hide something with a fuzzy picture. And don't include a big picture that will take a long time to load over a dial-up connection.

  • Create an effective title for the item, by including all the important keywords relating to the item. For example, "Early Conn Baritone Saxophone" is far more effective at attracting bidders than "Cool Old Sax". Be specific, spell all words correctly, and avoid auction buzzwords, like "Wow!" or "Look!".

  • Offer a money-back guarantee. Buyers will be more comfortable bidding if they know they can get their money back. But be sure to set a relatively short time limit - say, a week after receipt - so a buyer doesn't try to return your old scuba gear months later after flunking the certification test. To limit your expenses and discourage frivolous returns, state up front that you'll refund only the bid price, not the shipping charges.

  • Include with the item description an estimate of shipping and insurance fees as a courtesy to bidders, who typically pay the fees.

Managing your listing

  • Use a counter, offered by most auction sites, to see how many people look at your items. If you sell similar items regularly, counters can help you determine the interest in that category.

  • Check the feedback on people who are bidding. Most sites allow you to refuse to sell to bidders with shabby records, to block unwanted bidders, or to approve people before they're allowed to bid.

  • Consider whether you want to sell internationally. Some sellers opt not to because there may be restrictions on goods that can be shipped. Another obstacle is arranging payment. Buyers may be required to pay large third-party fees with some types of payments, so you might want to stick with services like PayPal for international buyers.

  • Answer all e-mail questions promptly, courteously, and completely. Anyone who bothers to write to you is genuinely interested in your item.

Closing the sale

  • When the auction is over, send the winner a prompt e-mail confirmation that includes the winning bid amount and your contact and payment information. Ask the buyer to confirm receipt of all the necessary information.

  • Never ship a product until you have payment in hand. (Depending on which method the buyer uses, you may have to wait for the payment to clear.) Be wary of any buyer who pressures you to ship an item before you have the cash.

  • When packing your item, use lots of protective materials to help prevent damage during shipping.

  • When the entire transaction is complete, post feedback about the buyer (positive, neutral, or negative) on the auction site. This will help make the site a safer, more reliable place for everyone.

Follow these rules and you'll be clutter-free by 2003 - and possibly a few bucks richer. Come to think of it, maybe you could use the extra cash to bid on that mint-condition set of golf clubs you saw posted on eBay.

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