21st Century Alchemy

Slightly less snarky intro

When I was in college, I always asked my parents for extra food money. “Why can’t I have whatever I want? All the other kids’ parents probably give them lots of money,” I protested. Well, I’m glad they told me to figure it out on my own, because now I have over 12 years experience selling junk online. (If only the kids on Wall Street had such parents!)

One man’s trash…

Do you have a pile of junk that you don’t want anymore? Have IBM laptop with a cracked screen from 2002? How about an AM/FM radio with weather alert? Beanie Babies? Toys? Record albums? Someone out there wants it, and you’d be surprised what that someone wants to pay you!

Likewise, do you need banana-seat bikes from 1970? Gift cards? Lunchboxes or ashtrays? People have weird stuff, and people want other weird stuff.

Where can these buyers and sellers meet? Flea markets are really fun, but the offerings are neither specific nor searchable nor national… and none of the electronics you buy actually work. HOWEVER, the Internet has a gravelly parking lot out back, which is home to a 24-hour worldwide flea market… known as eBay.

eBay was founded by Pierre Omidyar, a computer programmer who wanted to see what would happen if average Joes could sell things online as easily as big businesses could. The first item sold? Pierre’s broken laser pointer – and it went for over 14 bucks. Read a short history here.

ANYTHING and everything can be found on eBay. Beyond that, there are some things you just can’t find anywhere else! The one thing they do well is bring people with random clutter together with people who need it badly.

At one point I sold a ball of dryer lint for 3 bucks! For a few years I was selling Mac laptops where each part was 100% guaranteed to be damaged, cracked, or otherwise broken… and got $100 each for them. Back in its infancy in the late 90s, people were getting in trouble for posting things like human kidneys!

Weird Al even did a great song about it; take a break and enjoy it here.

Signing Up

First, visit www.ebay.com (If you’re using Internet Explorer, promptly download Firefox, otherwise your computer will explode). On top, it says “Welcome! Sign up or register.” Click Register and fill out your info. (For more detailed information, click here.)

You’ll also need a PayPal account: eBayers used to mail each other money orders for payment, until PayPal came out. Think of it as your online bank account – you can add money to it via your bank account or credit card, and send payments to anyone instantly! PayPal (a subsidiary of eBay) takes a commission of 3% on most transactions. Here’s the problem – PayPal is now REQUIRED on most eBay transactions – meaning eBay is double-dipping commissions on these transactions!

Buying is Exciting!

Buying on eBay is truly exciting, and the company knows as long as there are excited buyers, the sellers will still show up. Entering into a bidding war for a Hess truck, model train, or remote-control airplane can be thrilling. Searching for laptops that only need minor repair to double their value is one of my favorite hobbies. Finding something very rare that you desperately need to fix a car/boat/laptop/meatloaf is really awesome.

The Selling Process

Now that your eBay and PayPal accounts are set up, you can start searching your closets for junk. Take a couple of good photos of each item on a clean surface such as your table or floor, like this:

Then, you log in to your ebay.com account click SELL up at the top. First you’ll type in what you’re trying to sell, and eBay will try and suggest a category. I usually click Browse and select my own category. After that, it’ll probably take you into Simple Mode to create your listing. You can either click “Switch to form with more choices” or continue in Simple Mode until you get the hang of things.

Create a title, such as “Lot of 2 Scooby Doo Lunch Boxes, Vintage, EXC COND” – meaning excellent condition. Be extremely careful – if you write “like new” or any other words on their capricious banned list, they will freak out.

Next, write a description – make it short and sweet yet accurate. Note the condition (mint, poor, scratches, etc.) and make a note if it comes in its original box or lacks accessories. Check out some other people’s descriptions for ideas. Furthermore, IF YOU TYPE IN ALL CAPITALS OR mispel evrthingg than nbodly’ll buy YER STUFFF.

The next steps involve uploading your photos, setting a starting price (bids start at that amount and go higher), setting a reserve price (meaning the sale isn’t valid unless the price is greater than $X.00), as well as a “Buy it Now” Price (The first bidder has the right to buy it for an amount you specify- but eBay triple-dips on those). If you’re a business, you can set Sales Tax rates. Also, make sure your shipping estimates are accurate – I’d highly recommend starting a free account with FedEx to ship items over 1 lb, as they give huge discounts to account holders.

Finally, if you’re using Simple Mode, eBay has this saccharine sentence at the bottom that says “Block buyers who’d make it difficult or more expensive.” What the heck does that mean?

According to the little help bubble, if you enable that option, eBay conveniently blocks those nasty rebels out there who refuse to use PayPal. Obviously they’re terrorists and/or forget to hold the door for old ladies.

Note that as a new seller, eBay/PayPal may keep the money you’ve made in custody for up to 170 centuries, just to ensure you’re not a scammer. My buddy Billy started selling on eBay back around the time of Columbus and he still hasn’t received a Doubloon for his efforts!


That’s it! For the rest of the week you can sit back, comforted by the fact that someone wants your clutter. Check my.ebay.com daily, watch the price go up, and answer questions. 99% of all questions will be from idiots or scammers.

All eBay buyers are psychos. End of story.

I could write a book (or article) on the experiences I’ve had with eBay buyers! Many eBayers want brand-new quality for less-than-used prices. I sold a MacBook Pro to a girl in Australia who wanted to return it because it had a scratch on it!! Anytime I’d sell the top lid for an Apple laptop, auction winners would assume it was an entire computer that I just happened to sell them for $10! Nowhere is the “gimme” society more evident than on eBay.

I’d highly recommend selling only to the US and Canada. Selling to customers in Europe is cool and broadens your reach, but it can be hairy, too! As of 2011, the Greek post office is completely dissolved, and the Italian one has never delivered a single package to anybody in its existence. I once had a customer from Norway who wanted me to send his item to him in good faith, promising to pay his postman cash when he received it! I told him I couldn’t offer that service through his undoubtedly-horseback-riding postman.

Each morning, you will receive at least 70 billion emails from factories in Asia, such as this zinger:

We are professional MP3 Player,MP4 / MP5 Player,MP6 Player,E-book Reader,I-Pud accessorie,IPHOE accessories and factory and supplier in China. .. E-mail to welcome: admin@ factorygrobal.com is ability, strict manufacturing process management and rich stable sensual experience, we consistently pay attention to the quality control and continuously innovationn! !

Despite their promotional skills, some of those guys sell really neat gadgets!

However, all stories pale in comparison to that of my Hungarian friend… let’s call him “Borat.” Borat was a pretty nice guy who wanted one of my parts, but thanks to the Babelfish translator website, never could tell me exactly what he wanted…

Hello, taking into account the time insight would have paid given. Do you like to know, if the referred to above and the period of grace your hospitality, I know when I fight, that the new! Please give me the period of time, and the quality time do you want! Thank and salute.

And later on…

Why not you intrigue for the given to my date? I can pay, for why you send not country! Quality forbade to have in the intimate retraction bid situation! Why, for one instance the verification of when scratches were discovered in the settings finest! I embrace.

I actually printed his letters out and taped them to my office wall!

Salt in the Wound

Ever since the dawn of Mankind, we have been trading with each other. Stones for sticks, peas for carrots, horses for land, and now Ninja Turtle action figures for electronic cash. In all of these transactions, both parties had the right to complain about each other… until 2008 A.D.

Originally, eBay buyers and sellers could leave a 1-sentence comment about how their experience was with each trading partner. Positive feedback could be along the lines of “What a guy! Paid promptly, A+, would deal with again” and negative feedback something like, “Buyer took 2 weeks to pay, BEWARE!”

Thanks to a decision in early 2008, though, SELLERS CAN NO LONGER LEAVE NEGATIVE FEEDBACK FOR BUYERS! Maybe the buyer took too long to pay, maybe he was a jerk, maybe he ruined your product and demanded a refund? Maybe he just felt like it? TOO BAD for you. eBay’s feeble reasoning: You might leave retaliatory negative feedback for that buyer. WELL THAT’S THE POINT! If he’s a jerk, you should be able to warn others! Check out this article for more info.

Beyond that, buyers may now rate sellers using 1 to 5 stars, on aspects such as promptness of delivery, fairness of shipping costs, and accuracy of description. If a disgruntled buyer gives you less than 5 stars on any category, eBay hires Dog the Bounty Hunter to show up at your doorstep and give you an atomic wedgie.

Because of this, some eBay sellers are including cards in their packaging, such as the one below, begging for your clemency!

Sometimes buyers don’t even bother emailing you asking where their product is. Some of them go straight to PayPal and cry that it’s been a whole 6 hours and they haven’t received their package in the mail yet! At that point, PayPal suspends the money in the seller’s account until the buyer decides he’s satisfied.

I had [luckily only] one occasion where a buyer demanded a refund, and mailed me an empty box! Since he provided PayPal with a tracking number, that was proof enough for them, and I lost the money. In summary, both eBay and PayPal have no regard for their sellers.

To quote Omidyar, “Remember that you are usually dealing with individuals, just like yourself. Subject to making mistakes.” Unfortunately, eBay and its buyers fail to keep this in mind.

Other stuff to watch out for

Again, your description could make or break your listing. A poor description means people will be asking you more questions and your auction will end at a low price. Concise descriptions with a little color (maybe a Christmas tree theme) inspire confidence in consumers. It’s staggering how many 7-year old laptops are sold for WELL over fair value because an uneducated buyer simply sees the words “BLAZING fast and Internet ready!”

Also, don’t distract yourself listing items worth $1. I used to spend too much of my valuable time listing items that only sold for $1 – hoping I could make a few bucks on the $7 shipping fee. Well, that’s all you get, a few bucks. Not worthwhile. Your best bet is to make “wholesale lots” or “grab bags” of the small parts.

Finally, if you’re going to sell software on eBay, make SURE it’s in the retail box. (Likewise, don’t sell counterfeit purses.) In a Cyclopean effort to curb piracy, the watchdog group BSA (http://www.bsa.org/) scours eBay all day long, looking for software auctions. If they see an auction for a piece of non-retail-boxed software, they command eBay to take disciplinary action (including but not limited to humiliating “tutorials”). In all seriousness, I knew a company that was selling tens of thousands of dollars per month on eBay, but because of an accusation from the BSA, their account (and most of their income) was destroyed.

Not just your stuff

Pretty much everyone in my hometown of Rochester stays home all day and buys trinkets on Home Shopping Network. That makes for a LOT of junk to sell! I used to sell for family, as well as a small business in Iowa. Small businesses with a lot of valuable surplus equipment are a great find.

If you’re good at photographing/describing, responsible with packing/shipping, and diligent with appraising/listing, you can make a lot of money selling things online for others, and it can be very enjoyable. If you do sell for others, be sure to download a PayPal statement every month so you can claim your profits as income! Since I can’t provide tax guidance, talk to your accountant.


As eBay continues to erode your freedoms, you’ll be glad to know it isn’t the only way to sell your junk online:

  • The most similar competitors are Blujay.comOnlineauction.com, and Webidz.com.
  • YardSellr.com (really cool) and Axadax.net look VERY PROMISING! Definitely check them out.
  • Craigslist online classifieds (see my article on the Craigslist experience here).
  • Stootsi was a really cool site where small businesses could sell items, but it has since shut down.
  • Ubid! – my favorite site for refurb big-ticket items such as TVs and laptops (only businesses may sell on Ubid and a similar site Woot).
  • Sell.com – The world’s largest collection of bootleg Seinfeld DVDs, with a sprinkling of eBay ads.

Finally, if you’re a business looking to buy large quantities of parts, you can become a paying member of either BrokerBin (more US-based) or Alibaba (more Asian-based sellers).

All of these alternatives are much more lenient toward sellers. Unfortunately, for selection, price, and buyer audience, nothing beats eBay. They know it, and that’s why they act like the only girl at an RIT party. If you sell something they deem questionable, they know there are millions of sellers waiting to take your place!

One Mooo Ting

Bid-tainment sites such as Quibids and Bidcactus: Pour 1 cup eBay, 1 cup casino, and 1 cup scam, shake well. You’ve seen the ads online: “ZOMG YOU CAN WIN A MACBOOK FOR $29!” Basically, these sites charge you 60 cents every time you put in a 1-cent bid, then the auction randomly ends at some outrageously low price. Even when they arbitrarily end a laptop auction at $29, that amounts to 2,900 60-cent bids, or $1740, for a laptop that’s worth around $900.

These sites are okay ONLY if you know how it works and just want to have some fun. For further reading click here.


If you’ve got a few things you just want to get rid of fast, then go ahead and list them online. However, your best bet is just to find an eBay lister in your area! They’re becoming fewer and far between lately because of all the outrageous seller pressure, but if you’re lucky you’ll find a dude who can get rid of your stuff fast, take a percentage, and hand you a check soon after. (Contact me if you need some names!)

As always, thanks for reading, folks, and happy bidding!

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