Turning garage sale junk into eBay gold

On Saturday night, I attended a party with some of my former high-school classmates. Many of the other guests were artists. I don't know many artists, so it was fascinating to listen to their stories, especially about the economics of selling art during a recession. I learned a lot.

Later in the evening, I spent some time chatting with my friend Jonathan. He asked me about the blog. “What are you going to write about tomorrow?” he said.

“Well, I'd like to write about earning extra money,” I said. “That's the topic for the podcast I'm doing Monday afternoon, and I think it would be fun to also post an article related to the subject. I've been picking the brains of these artists, hoping to find a story, but I haven't found one yet.”

“I've got one,” Jonathan said. “Let me tell you how my mother earns extra money.”

Garage Sale Gold

“My mother makes money on eBay,” Jonathan said. “She likes to travel, but it's not something she could normally afford to do. So, she's found a way to generate extra cash that she saves just so she can off to Europe — to France or to Italy. Wherever she wants to go.”

“How does she do it?” I asked.

“She shops at garage sales,” Jonathan said. “She goes with my aunt. They each have certain things they know a lot about, and so they go from garage sale to garage sale, searching for hidden treasures. They buy them, take them home, and auction them on eBay. It's simple, but it works.

“Here's an example,” he said. “Recently, my mom bought a monkey perfume bottle for ten bucks. She sold it on eBay for $150.”

“A monkey perfume bottle?” I asked, completely baffled. Jonathan laughed.

“Yeah,” he said. “I know it sounds crazy, but it's true. That's the thing. People don't know what they have, so if you're educated about what certain things go for, you can get some great deals. Sometimes you have to play dumb, you know. If you find a great value, you don't want to appear over-eager.”

“That reminds me of something that happened a few years ago,” I said. “A friend called to tell me about a nearby garage sale. This guy had a couple of boxes of comic books. Usually garage sale comic books are junk, but this guy had a bunch of great stuff from the late 1960s. He wanted $5 a piece for them, which was more than fair. I thought about making an offer of $100 or $200 for the entire lot. I was going to lie to him and say they were for my non-existent kid. I wanted to play dumb. But I didn't have the guts. I left without buying anything. I should have at least made an offer. There were a couple of thousand dollars worth of comics there!”

“That happens all of the time,” Jonathan said. “My aunt once found a nice set of luggage marked at $100. She knew it was worth more, but she couldn't bring herself to buy it. Her son told her to do it, but she didn't. Later she saw the same set on eBay. One of her competitors had bought it. It sold for two grand!”

Competitive Business

“Your mother and your aunt have competitors?” I asked.

“Sure,” said Jonathan. “A lot of people do this. There's a group of them that go around from sale to sale. You get so you see the same people. Some of them are competitors. Other people have specialized niches. They know one thing really well, and they hunt at garage sales until they find it.”

“Interesting,” I said. “I remember once we were having a garage sale. I came home from work, and Kris pointed out a guy rummaging through my compact discs. I had hundreds of CDs for sale. Kris told me he'd been at it for about an hour. Eventually, he came up and tried to talk me down on prices, but I wouldn't do it. I was shocked at the CDs he'd selected. It wasn't the common stuff. He somehow knew every single hard-to-find or expensive disc that I'd accumulated over the past decade. Even the classical music. It hurt to sell that stuff.”

“Yeah,” Jonathan said. “There are a lot of people like that. Some are just collectors, but others are like my mom, who will just turn around and sell the stuff for a profit on eBay.”

He paused for a moment and then added, “My mom has no shame. She's one of those who's knocking on doors at 7am. She'll read about a sale in the paper, and she'll be there early, trying to get the best deals.”

“Don't people get mad?” I asked. “When Kris and I hold sales, it drives us crazy when people show up early.”

“Sure, they get mad, but she doesn't care. A lot of people turn her away, but many don't. They may be mad, but they're happy to take her money.”

Love It or Leave It

“The thing is, my mom loves this,” Jonathan said. “She'd do the garage sales even if it wasn't a way to earn extra money. There's a lot of time my mom buys stuff and gets nothing. But she doesn't care because she had a blast garage-saling for three days.

“A friend of mine is always trying to convince others to start side businesses. He says that you can't do it for the money, though. You have to do something you enjoy. You have to take other stuff into consideration. If you do it just for the money, there's a good chance you won't stick with it because you'll discover you don't like it.”

I thought of a conversation I'd had earlier in the evening with one of the artists. He makes interesting clocks. He doesn't actually make the mechanisms, but he creates artistic clockfaces. We talked about the economy, and he told me business has been rough lately. He doesn't sell a lot even during the best of times, but the last few months have been even harder. But he keeps doing it because he loves it.

In the end, Jonathan summarized his mother's strategy: “My mom doesn't make a lot of money, but she has fun. And she's able to earn enough to travel. She's traveled to Turkey and Costa Rica and Switzerland.”

“And this is just off of garage sales?” I asked.

“Yup,” said Jonathan. “It's garage-sale money.”

Photo credits: Garage sale by M. Gifford, Matchbox cars by Daniel Spils, Switzerland by MK Media Productions.

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Sam
Sam

This is a good idea but the folks that I’ve seen do this are cut throat and really unfair to the garage sale folks. I’ve volunteered at my neighborhood garage sale, which we use to raise funds for activities, and these folks (it is not hard to figure out who they are) come really early and make really low ball offers for the whole box (books and CDs are really popular b/c they resell on amazon.com) and are not truthful about how many are in the box, etc. This past year, we were selling CDs at $1 a CD out… Read more »

KC
KC

When I worked at the Memphis Public Library we’d have discard sells – getting rid of items that were being removed from the library collection and some donated books. We’re talking about 10s of thousands of items we’d be selling. Anyway we’d have book dealers and record collectors come through and spend 2 out of the 3 days we were open sifting through the stuff we had. I had one guy tell me he bought about $20 worth of records that he was sure would bring him close to a thousand dollars on the internet market – I have no… Read more »

Dave
Dave

I did this for a few years while in university, only I hit up thrift stores instead of yard sales.

I would go every day on my lunch break looking for bargains – just like the woman in the post, I had certain items that I “specialized” in, so I knew what I was looking for.

Some of the things I have sold over the years?
Vintage floor buffers
Analog “flip” clocks
70’s spaghetti lamps
Electric typewriters

I was out yard saling the other weekend and picked up a “Wurlitzer Electronic Piano” for $40. Average eBay sale price is around $1500. Nice! (but I’m keeping this one…)

Brenda
Brenda

“He makes interesting clocks. He doesn’t actually make the mechanisms, but he creates artistic clockfaces. We talked about the economy, and he told me business has been rough lately. He doesn’t sell a lot even during the best of times, but the last few months have been even harder. But he keeps doing it because he loves it.” Heh.. me too. The clocks are my best sellers. It really is hard to sell art in these times. People are pickier, and more people want less expensive options (instead of original art, they’d rather buy it in magnet form for $3.00).… Read more »

Christine
Christine

I do this! First off, no one running a garage sale has to give you any price you want. If you offer low, they always have the right to refuse. It’s not insulting or rude, It’s business-On both sides. Most of the time I cute the price in half right off. About half the time people say yes. I also would go to garage sales anyway and I love the thrill of the hunt! At this point most of the items I purchase I can resell but this is after a long time of trial and error. Sometimes I still… Read more »

Charlie@PayLessForFood

Something that else that also sells well are used books. You may have a gold mine in your own closet. Its easy to check out. Check any book you have for a 13 digit or 10 digit number usually located on one of the first two pages of the book or above the bar code located on the back of the book. This is known as the ISBN number. Go to Amazon.com and type this number into the search box. A description of the book should be returned. On the upper right hand corner should be located the used price… Read more »

Wise Money Matters
Wise Money Matters

Huh. Makes perfect sense. I might have to try this sometime.

Becky
Becky

I’m sure lots of people do this. My mom goes to yard sales and buys and tries to resell at a very reasonable price–she does it at her own yard sales. She buys watches that have quit working–often for a quarter. She replaces the batteries and sells them for $1 or $2. She gets the batteries very cheap at the chinese flea market and they are just pennies each. We’ve tried to talk my parents into getting the interet so mom could resell on Ebay, but they just won’t “do it”. I suppose at almost 77 and 82, I can… Read more »

seloua
seloua

My father does this as well, but instead of garage sales he buys homeware items from local markets in his birth country that are quite fashionable in the UK at the moment, when visiting family. He makes enough from a suitcase or two of goods sold over 2 or 3 months that it pays for his next flights out there, and genuinely enjoys the ebaying too.

frugalscholar
frugalscholar

There are more and more people doing this now, esp with books (because you can use Scoutpal, a scanner of isbns,which links you to Amazon through your cellphone). Lots of dealers work through swap sites, like Bookmooch also (they’re the ones who ask you to doublecheck the edition of your textbook, because they need the most recent). Therefore, I think there’s a lot less money to be made, unless you are expert in an obscure field. I also WISH library sales and other charity orgs would look up the worth of what they have, so that more money can go… Read more »

Greg
Greg

I used to be big into garage sale-ing back when I was in University. I’d wake up every Saturday morning at 7am and hit 30-40 sales before noon. I used google maps and my gps to plan the most efficient routes. My target was retro video games. I had some good scores, like picking up a copy of Final Fantasy 7 for PC for $1 and flipping it for $100 on ebay. Like a lot of people though, I’d generally lowball on every offer. Showing people the money in your hand (the forum I frequented coined it the “Cash in… Read more »

Beth
Beth

Sounds like an interesting idea. I don’t think I’d feel comfortable doing it if it meant lying though. If I was selling interesting items, I’d be tempted to go through a consignment shop rather than hold my own garage sale. (There are a lot of flee markets in my area, so it isn’t hard to see what might be worth something).

econobiker
econobiker

Buy low and sell high. My spouse and I do the same things with books but dump the books at a local used book/dvd/video game store for credit to buy the books/video games that we want. We bought out all of the books/vhs videos at a church sale late one Saturday afternoon for $20- filled up the rear seat and trunk of a Hyundai Elantra. The first box alone got me $$15 cash and $28 in credit from the store. At one point we had about $120 in credit – and that after we still had bought some items. Within… Read more »

Michele
Michele

I did this a few years ago when I wanted to go on a trip to Nova Scotia. I raised about $1000 over the course of a summer, and did a long labor day weekend in Halifax.

I have thought about going back to ebaying again, I was for a time running a perpetual garage sale, but changes in their policies, had made it hard to make any money on certain items.

DD
DD

We had a garage sale once. I got a kick out of the people lining up early and then asking for deals right away. I was on one side of the garage turning down the offers, while my wife was on the other side saying yes.

I’d say we made about half of our money in the first 20 minutes. The vultures picked us clean!

Scott
Scott

A few years ago there was a PBS show that was filmed in Britian where contestants bought items at a flea market one day and then the next they sold their items at an auction. The two teams had equal money and the “winner” was the team that made the most on their items. It was pretty intriguing and also not real easy to make big bucks.

Diasdiem
Diasdiem

I’ve been garage sale-ing every couple weeks for a few months now. I scan the advertisements on Craigslist for my area, pick the ones I want to hit, and chart my course on Google Maps. Mixed success so far. The best I’ve done so far, is getting a 4-drawer lateral file cabinet for $10, when a new one will run about $500. I actually decided to keep it myself though, and am just going to sell my old 2-drawer file cabinet. Particularly since I don’t want to wrestle that monster down my stairs again.

Steve
Steve

One local thrift store has a display case where they put things they have looked up on ebay. They print out a recent auction where an item went for, say, $1000, put that up next to the item and mark it $200 or $300. So, they’re at least aware of it and deliberately choose to do it that way. Some of the yard sale hawks are pretty sleazy. There’s nothing wrong with making a lowball offer on something; but if you have to tell lies to make the sale, there’s something wrong there. A good movie showing the “yard sale… Read more »

Digigirl
Digigirl

My ex-husband and I used to do this with role-playing games (D&D, etc.). We’d hit garage sales and small gaming conventions, buy up the good stuff for cheap then hit the big gaming conventions or e-bay and resell for more. That was years and years ago, though. I don’t have the market knowledge anymore. Plus, I think that market has decreased dramatically. JD – question for you! My boyfriend and I are embarking on a major financial rehaul. Just getting serious about getting out of debt, building an emergency fund – all that just emerging from “fumbling in the dark”… Read more »

Shana
Shana

“My mom has no shame. She’s one of those who’s knocking on doors at 7am. She’ll read about a sale in the paper, and she’ll be there early, trying to get the best deals. Sure, they get mad, but she doesn’t care. A lot of people turn her away, but many don’t. They may be mad, but they’re happy to take her money.”

Jonathan’s mom is an inconsiderate jerk, and THAT is nothing to be proud of.

MKL
MKL

My Father-in-law has been doing the equivalent of this for years and years with cameras and camera lenses. He has an added ability in that he was a machinist (retired now) so he can take lenses that are cast-offs or decades old and make them look and work as though they are brand new. He used to hit flea markets and garage sales all over Northern California, now he does a lot of his buying and selling through eBay. He’s made a full after retirement career from doing this, and has clients all over the world, especially in Japan and… Read more »

Lindsay
Lindsay

Back in the mid 90s we found it trivially easy to make money by buying items at antique stores and flea markets and reselling them on ebay. However, by 2000, most of those places knew about ebay and either put the “good stuff” on ebay directly or set the prices as high as ebay. One item we liked to resell changed in price locally from $0.25 to $75.00 in one week because the store owner looked it up on ebay.

Tim
Tim

ugh, I hate these vultures and you can spot them a mile away. I’ve set up yard sales a few times, but never again. Here are some of my bad experiences with these folks: 1. people google my address to get my phone number and call me asking for specific items at all hours of the day and night 2. they show up a day or two before the yard sale knocking on my door for a ‘preview’ 3. people show up at 6a for an 8a yard sale knocking on the door when it’s obvious we’re not set up… Read more »

Abbey
Abbey

Anyone that makes homemade items, like artists, might want to think about putting their stuff on Etsy.com. I love to look there for creative gifts.

Leah
Leah

I did this for awhile after college (2005). I never made enough to live off of, but I did make enough to buy a macbook (worth it for me). I won’t list what I sold because few people did it and I’d hate to ruin my market there. Suffice to say I still collect the stuff from time to time, and I may sell it again someday, tho I don’t like all the new crap you put up with on ebay. For those who don’t like the “vultures” at their garage sale, here’s how my family does garage sales: 1.… Read more »

Amy
Amy

I’m glad someone brought up “Fee-Bay”. I use ebay on and off to sell items I own to raise cash. It’s been a few months, but as I recall Ebay charged a listing fee, and a small selling fee calculated from how much I earned in the selling. Not to mention that Paypal takes a cut from the paying process as well. It can add up if you’re listing a bunch of items, and/or cut into your profit margin if you only sell 1 or 2 things. I like to use craigslist or ‘swap’ sites I’ve found that specialize in… Read more »

Diana
Diana

I do this at yard sales but with children’s clothing. I buy low at 25 cents to $1 for each item and then resell them on consignment where I get about $2-$10 for each item that sells. I try not to lie about what I plan to do with the clothing but I don’t volunteer the information either. It’s a LOT of work to turn around and resell it and it takes a lot of time–so I think that’s a deterrent to the sellers in the first place. They want to just get rid of it and the get money… Read more »

Todd @ The Personal Finance Playbook
Todd @ The Personal Finance Playbook

My wife does this on Craigslist. I love the bargain hound that she is, but for the most part I don’t think it’s a very good return on your time. Her time especially (she’s a doc). Still, a profit is a profit.

dreamin2u
dreamin2u

About 2 months ago I started attending auctions and attempting to sell the items elsewhere. Here is a couple of things I’ve learned the hard way! Right now, the market for comic books, trading cards and other low cost “collectibles” is WAY down. (My theory is that with so many people suddenly needing cash, the market is flooded.) eBay has actually lost me as much money as it has made me. Amazon has slightly higher commissions, and many small sellers have issues with their default shipping rates, but it IS much easier to list items there, especially if you know… Read more »

Deb
Deb

I sold vintage clothing, footwear & leather bags on Ebay for a couple of years, and actually made enough extra money at it to cover our groceries and utilities monthly. I did it as a side venture to my day job. I found a vintage `Tank Girl’ (old comic book & movie character) shrink tshirt for 20 cents, and sold it for $22 on Ebay – the bidding war for that shirt was amazing to watch. I found an old mexican circle skirt for $5 at a thrift store, sold it for $108. The problem is, what to do with… Read more »

Trini
Trini

Hey folks, not to be a killjoy, but I hope you all realize this is taxable income! For example, if you buy something at a yard sale for $10 and sell it on ebay or wherever for $100, you have a taxable gain of $90 that you’re supposed to report on your annual tax forms. (This doesn’t necessarily apply to the people who are holding the yard sale – e.g., if you bought a camera for $100 and sold it for $10, no tax to worry about because your basis in the item ($100) was higher than your “income” ($10),… Read more »

cyn
cyn

WRONG…. If you buy it for $10 and you sold it for $100, you do NOT have a taxable gain of $90…Sell for $100 – $10 cost, -$15 ebay fees, – $5 pay pal fees, -$7 shipping (small item), -$3 gas to find it & send it….= taxable gain of $60…..Keep your receipts though, because pay pal reports the ENTIRE amount of $100, like you produced the item from thin air….sucks.

Ryan
Ryan

My friend recently starting selling some of her clothing designs on Etsy. She made a few hundred dollars a month but said it was very time consuming and she had a decent amount of work to do at the end of the year to properly file her tax return. The online sales tax rules caught her off guard.

Deb
Deb

@Trini, excellent point. I was careful to claim my Ebay sales as a legit home based business, and paid taxes on the profit. However, I also go to take those all important tax deductions, including my receipts, my mileage, and my groovy Canon Rebel camera.

I’d recommend to everyone selling on Ebay, or who makes extra income in a similar endeavor, to claim it on their taxes. It’s very unwise not to – and the IRS always wins the war.

Liz
Liz

I only participated in a garage sale once, one that my neighborhood has every July. I sold some nice used items of a deceased uncle of mine that we couldn’t use ourselves. Needless to say, that experience irritated me so badly that I refuse to do it ever again. The eager beavers knocking on my door two hours before the start time were annoying, but it was the low-ballers who really infuriated me. I wasn’t offended at someone who gave me an honest offer that was a couple dollars less than what I was asking; it was the people who… Read more »

Maxine
Maxine

Yeah, I actually avoid having garage sales too because of bad experiences with “vultures”. I think the problem is that we’re doing it as non-professionals trying to make a little money on the side whereas the (there’s got to be a better term than “vultures) are professionals who do it for a living. I don’t work in sales personally so it makes me very uncomfortable when someone is really aggressive with me. I don’t know how to emotionally detach and accept it as part of the “game”. And it’s a game that’s not worth it for me, for what, a… Read more »

Moxiequz
Moxiequz

“Ebay has really changed, though, and not in favor of sellers. The fees have become outrageous, sellers have virtually no rights or recourse should they encounter an unethical buyer, and then there’s the Paypal only situation, which again skims more money from the seller. Ebay’s business model is now geared towards becoming Amazon.com II, and isn’t as supportive of small, independent sellers anymore. Really too bad, because those small indie sellers made Ebay the fascinating, fun place to shop that it used to be.” @Deb – this is so true. I’ve had the exact same impression. I used to be… Read more »

Will
Will

I recently turned my house into a rental and I had to get rid of everything that I owned in 4 hours. I took a two step approach: 1) Setup a moving company to come to my house at 9:30am on Sunday to move everything in my house to consignment. 2) Posted a “Moving Sale” on Craigslist at 6:00am that same morning. The goal was to sell as much as possible since I was likely to get more out of the direct sales than through consignment. The results were outstanding and I was able to sell over 70% of my… Read more »

Peggy
Peggy

Ex-Powerseller here. About ten years ago I was able to make a serious contribution to my family’s finances by selling books on eBay. I was even profiled in a book on eBay business startup by Entrepreneur Magazine. Since then, eBay has indulged in annual February Feeding Frenzies in which the fee structure radically changes and rules are modified to allow the proliferation of dishonest buyers and sellers while restricting the freedoms of the honest. When the economy took small dive in the autumn of 2001, booksales went south big time and haven’t really rebounded strongly. As eBay changed their browsing… Read more »

Chris Cruz
Chris Cruz

I also used to be a Ebay Power Seller. I still sell things here and there if I come across something that I know will sell but I dont nearly sell as much as I used to. I used to go to bargain clothing stores and outlets to purchase clothes and sneakers and resell them on ebay for pretty good proffits. The journey to find the next big seller is exciting. BUT you have to know what you’re selling. You just can’t buy a bunch of “vintage” stuff at a garage sale and expect it to sell for $100 on… Read more »

Suzanne Rielle
Suzanne Rielle

In response to Diana, #27, and others looking for another outlet…. People often prematurely sell their nice designer kids clothing at garage sale – cheap! Simply because they don’t want to take the time to list or consign. It’s a great way to find bargains if you enjoy shopping the garage sales and know your brands. At LoobaLee.com, we’re a new buy/sell site custom to designer children’s clothing (we have over 850 brands identified) and specifically designed to be easy & efficient for busy Moms, level playing field, and low cost (Just $3.99/mo. for unlimited listings – no backend fees).… Read more »

Ryan Freed
Ryan Freed

In response to Suzzane #40. People sell a lot of things at garage sells that are worth more than they are asking for such as designer clothes. They don’t want to deal with the hassle. Ebay is such an easy way to make money off of items like this. I am a college student and started an ebay company as a summer job and ended up making more money than I could have at any regular job. Rather than garage sales I bought and sold wholesale items. Difficult to find, but rewarding when you did.

mutuelle
mutuelle

Well done, J.D,the business idea of ebay ,is so powerful l,I wonder why some people don’t explore it to work from home ,part time or long time ,while it touches all the markets around world,and all kind of products.Making some searches about this business,I found that it’s important to make a plan for anyone who wants to start this,Internet is full cool articles about this , you may check out 2 websites, ezinearticles.com and ehow.com

Good luck for anyone.

Seth
Seth

I am going to start garage/yard sale-ing! I sell CDs/DVDs on half.com but am running out of items to sell. I think finding a niche is a great idea to make a little extra money. You also need a source of inexpensive items, and this is a great idea. I also got another bonus idea from this post – making clocks and selling them on eBay! I made a Boston Red Sox one for myself and it came out amazing. I will have to pursue this….thanks!

http://pennyforyourdebt.blogspot.com

DDFD at DivorcedDadFrugalDad
DDFD at DivorcedDadFrugalDad

I used to do this myself– I looked for books, CDs, baseball cards, and other items I know I could flip for a nice profit.

I would like to get back into it, but searching is time consuming . . .

mutuelle assur-online
mutuelle assur-online

Yeah, I actually avoid having garage sales too because of bad experiences with “vultures”.

Sandy
Sandy

I have a bunch of stuff to get rid of and I wouldn’t mind making a little money from it…models, car racing set, cars, football cards, baby swing, baby walker, stuffed animals. I would like for someone to come to my home, give me some money and take it away. I live in Raleigh, NC – anybody have any suggestions??

Roman
Roman

When me and my best friend jacob were in highschool. We were riding our bikes one day and stumbled across a yard sale. They were selling this cheap looking PaintBall Gun for 10 bucks. We thought it was kool so we got bought it.

We went on craigsllist later on and sold that same paintball gun for 50 bucks. It only took a day or two to sell it.
We made 40 bucks right there. Imagine if we spent out time riding around and investigating whats best in all the yard sales in the city.

Jamie Michael
Jamie Michael

I love hearing these stories because it inspires me to go out find new things to buy at Garage Sales. I actually make a full-time income doing this while I work on other ventures. There are many items that can be found every week that take very little specialized knowledge. I buy electronics, games, and many other items each week to make $500-$1000 each week. There are competitors, but you just have to know what you’re doing. They can’t be everywhere at once and they don’t buy everything. I have started to document all my buys on my blog at… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah

My friend was at a thrift store and saw this woman taking a pic of an item with her smart phone and it right away told her what others were selling it for on ebay and amazon and such…I want this app but am having issues finding it…anyone know of such?

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