From Trash to Treasure: Buying and Selling on eBay

While few of us may ever find a need to put our corporate jet on, as Sarah Palin did, we have all at one time or another wanted to sell good stuff we no longer want or need. Garage sales and consignment shops have been around a long time and fill that need fairly well, but eBay can go them one better if you’re willing to take the time to learn the ins and outs. eBay has 180 million users — probably more with every word I type — and about 2 billion auction listings each year; that’s about 11 listings for every user. If you’re a buyer and you can’t find what you’re looking for on eBay, which lists everything from handcuffs to caskets, it’s going to be pretty darn hard to find. But there are tricks to getting what you want for the price you want.

If you’re a seller, you’re competing with a couple of billion other offerings, so you need to know the tricks to attracting buyers and getting a good price.
What’s in this article is a mere overview. There’s a lot more information and detail right on the eBay site (, so this is just enough to get you started.


The overall process for buying and selling on eBay is pretty simple, but the devil is in the details:

Someone who wants to sell an item pays eBay a fee and posts the item on the site with a description, photo, shipping costs, an opening price (the lowest acceptable price to bid) and a closing date (the last date and time you can bid on it).
Interested buyers contact the seller with questions, if they have any, and post bids on the item.
The buyer with the highest bid at the closing date and time wins the item.
The buyer pays for the item, and the seller ships it to him or her.


One of the most important things to do before you bid is to read the seller’s feedback. Feedback is provided by previous buyers and can give you a good idea about the seller’s reliability in terms of shipping on time and the quality of the item. Good feedback comes from describing the item honestly, posting accurate photos and shipping carefully and promptly. A seller with a feedback score of 100 has had at least 100 positive ratings, although you won’t know the number of negative ratings unless you go to “meet the seller,” where you can see the positiveto-negative feedback ratio. A score of 98 percent or higher is a good sign, and lower calls for caution. eBay has a good deal of information about how to spot fraudulent offers. The No. 1 red flag is that an offer that seems too good to be true probably is.

Also take a careful look at the shipping costs and take them into consideration in your bid, as they’ll be added to the amount you pay. Be sure the seller uses a secure checkout and payment process, such, and read any refund/return policies.


BUY IT NOW — This is a price you can pay if you want to buy the item outright, without bidding.

RESERVE PRICE AUCTION — The seller has set a minimum price but hasn’t revealed it to buyers, so even a “winning” bid may not win the item if it’s below the reserve price.

DUTCH AUCTION — Also called a multiple-item listing, this is an auction that has more than one identical item for sale, so there can be multiple winners.

PRIVATE AUCTION — Only the seller can see what’s been bid; buyers have to make their best bids without knowing what others have bid.

BEST OFFER — Rather than an auction, this kind of offer allows the seller to accept or reject any offer he or she chooses.

PROXY BIDDING — This is when you as a buyer submit a bid that is the maximum you’d be willing to pay, but the bid that’s revealed to the seller and other buyers is only the amount needed to win the current bid, not the maximum amount you’ve submitted. The eBay system will continue bidding for you automatically until your maximum is exceeded by another buyer.

SNIPING — Some people use sniping software to bid for them. This software swoops in during the last seconds of an auction and outbids everyone else if the current highest bid is lower than their set maximum on the item. You may think you’re about to win an item as the clock rolls down, only to find that someone else’s sniping software jumps in and outbids you with seconds to go before the auction closes, leaving you no time to respond.

NIBBLE BIDDING — This is the timeconsuming process of checking the auction several times a day and constantly upping the bid by small increments. Sound daunting? It isn’t; it just takes a little practice and a careful eye. And eBay even has a “practice bidding page” among its many tutorials to get you used to the process. Many seasoned bidders suggest you bid as late in the process as is comfortable, bid as high as is comfortable and hope for the best.

Remember also that if your bid meets the reserve price, you’re obligated to make good on it, so don’t bid higher than you’re willing to pay just to see what happens or think you can withdraw the bid later: Under normal circumstances, you cannot withdraw or decrease your bid. (There are a few exceptions.) While nobody’s likely to arrest you for not making good on any bid you win, you may be blocked from bidding again — and not just with that one seller.


You may have just one item now and then that you want to sell, or you may be thinking of making money by buying items you find at garage sales or on clearance at retail stores and reselling them for a profit. The selling side of eBay is more complex than the buying side, so it’s a good idea to do as much research as you can into the process before getting started. Here are a few fundamentals.


To sell on eBay, you’ll need to establish a seller’s account to verify your identity and provide information to ensure that you will pay your seller’s fees and to help limit fraud. When you post an item for sale, you will pay an insertion fee based on the reserve price you set for your item plus a final value fee, a percentage of the winning pay them a percentage of the amount your buyer pays. eBay doesn’t keep track of your sales and report them to the IRS, but you’re obligated to pay income tax if you make a profit on something you sell and to pay sales tax in some states if you sell within your state.


Your listing must say how buyers can pay you; most sellers use PayPal, but you can also accept checks, money orders and credit cards. A PayPal account is easy to set up; your buyers deposit their payments to your PayPal account, which you set up so you can move the money into your checking or savings account. (If there’s a positive balance in your PayPal account, you can also leave it there and use it for payments to other vendors, such as if you decide to bid on an eBay item.)

If you choose money orders or personal checks, eBay will e-mail your winning bidder your address so he or she can send payment. As for credit cards, you can use credit card services, for which you pay a monthly fee, as well as a percentage of the amounts paid using the card.


You’ll need to ship items to your winning bidder, so calculate what it will cost to ship them — including packaging materials — before posting them so you can pass the shipping costs on to your buyer. If you have a particularly heavy item, for which shipping costs would outweigh (haha) the value of the item, you may want to post your item for “local pickup only.” This will significantly lower the number of potential buyers, but at least you won’t have to figure out how to ship a couch.


OK, so you have your item and your shipping costs, you’ve set up your seller’s account, and you’ve identified how you want buyers to pay you. Just go to “sell” and start making decisions about your offering. You’ll be asked whether you want to sell it at a given price or conduct an auction, whether you want to set a

reserve price, what category to list it in, what you want for a headline, how long you want the listing to run, and so on. Here are some tips for making your listing effective:

Get some seller feedback. Start with small items. If you have no luck finding buyers because you have no feedback on your seller profile, you may have to get creative to attract some.
Set a starting price, rather than a reserve. Since buyers can’t see your reserve price, they may be less inclined to bother with a bid. To maximize bidders, set a starting price that’s the minimum you would sell for and no reserve.
Be realistic with your price. Do some research to be sure your starting price is fair and even attractive.
Make it professional. Use HTML tags to format your text. It’s not as hard as it sounds. eBay even has an HTML text editor that makes it easy.
Photos, photos, photos. Your photographs should be accurate and well lit and should depict the item accurately and completely. You can use eBay’s “picture services” to store and display your images, or you can provide a link to a separate Web site where you have your pictures displayed.
Choose your category carefully. You can list it under multiple categories, but your insertion fees will increase.
Use good key words in your headline. Use words that your buyers are likely to use in their word search. If it’s a necklace, put “necklace” in your headline. Don’t try to lure buyers in to look at your listing with misleading words like “gold brick” when what you’re really offering is baby clothes.
Make your item description clear and complete. Answer the questions your potential buyers will have about color, condition, size, etc.
Be clear about shipping costs. If you’re not willing to ship to a foreign country, say so. If your shipping costs include insurance, say so.

There’s a lot to know, but getting started is half the battle. Before you know it, you may be moving up to having your own virtual store for those great buys you seem always to be running into — or you may just be happy getting a few extra bucks without the hard work of a garage sale.

Either way, once you get going, you may find yourself ready to list that dusty old private jet after all.

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