Spring Clearance

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The free flow of money in the '90s bull market has brought with it a free flow of stuff - much of it right into your garage.

Perhaps it's time to clean out.

As warmer weather beckons northerners to air out garages and crack open basement windows, bargain hunters are venturing out. And now's the time to catch them if you want to convert your has-been treasures into a few extra bucks.

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As a rule, the more work you do, the more money you can get for your stuff. On the other hand, the point of diminishing returns comes quickly. "There are two techniques to getting rid of stuff," says Mike Dowd, owner of Mike's Garage Sale in Wellesley, Mass. "The slow dime, where you try to get top dollar. And the quick nickel," where you clean out and try to make money on volume.

Mr. Dowd helps people clean out garages and homes by taking stuff they don't want on consignment and selling it in his own monthly garage sales for a 50 percent commission. And he's definitely of the quick-nickel persuasion. "The cry I hear [from customers] is, 'We don't want to see it again,' " he says.

People are trying to simplify their lives, says Gerri Detweiler, a longtime consumer advocate. "The economy's booming, and people are busy and want to slow down," she says. "Having less clutter has psychological value -less to clean, insure, and maintain. That can mean more time to pursue things that are important to you."

People try to sell their excess stuff to keep it out of landfills, says Kate Holmes, editor of the "Too Good to Be Threw" newsletter for secondhand shoppers and resellers. "It's not dollars, it's common sense."

And that's driving a boom in secondhand sales.

The Internet, with its search engines and worldwide community, is a natural tool for selling. Online-auction sites let users reach a nationwide audience and hopefully find the top price the market will bear for their items.

Just remember, even "virtual" auctions are a lot of work. Besides photographing your wares, placing ads, monitoring your auctions (usually daily), and answering e-mails, you also do the packing and shipping.

Sometimes payment can also be difficult to collect, says Ms. Holmes. Some new systems allow private sellers to accept credit cards, but they still work best for people who sell a lot. And escrow services can guarantee you don't have to ship an item until you're paid, though they're not widely used, says Tony Surtees, general manager of e-commerce at Yahoo! in Santa Clara, Calif. Even so it can be frustrating to have to find another buyer after a sale falls through.

The key to selling old treasures is to find out exactly what they're worth, says Nancy Castleman, editor of the Pocket Change Investor in Elizaville, N.Y. That means checking out online auction sites and visiting second-hand stores to see what similar items are selling for.

Getting mystery items professionally appraised can avert shocks to sellers. One simplifier unknowingly dropped off a Picasso etching at a Goodwill store in Orange County, Calif. Goodwill authenticated it - and sold it at its Web site last fall for $1,800.

And in February bargain-hunter Joan Comey-Smith learned that a small painting she bought for $1.99 at a thrift shop was an original Rodin worth $14,000.

Almost anything can be a collectible. One Yahoo! auctions regular is famous for collecting toasters, says Mr. Surtees.

Plan before you 'post'

The first key to selling used stuff online is choosing the appropriate auction category. When Dave LeClair, a regular eBay auctioneer who goes by the screen name Bookscout, found a signed original Clarence Darrow book listed as an antique, he bought it for $301. When he listed it under rare books, it sold for $560.

The best aids in selling online include a good photo with your ad, a complete description, and any information that documents your item's originality, says Surtees, who has written an online book on how to be an effective auctioneer.

Another thing that gets noticed are report cards on sellers written by previous buyers who have dealt with them. To keep on a buyers' good side, make sure your ads are honest, always keep your promises, and pack items well when you're shipping them, says Surtees.

Advertising online generally costs little ($2 on eBay, for example). Sites charge extra for more-prominent listings, which greatly increase traffic. Basic ads on Yahoo! are free.

If you have items too big to ship, or don't want to put the time into an online auction, try a local consignment store. Resale stores are doing a growing business in furniture, electronics, and men's items (power tools, etc.), says Holmes. The number of resale shops continues to grow with more than 15,000 across the US, says the National Association of Resale & Thrift Shops.

In general, stores either take goods on consignment or buy them for resale. A few do both. So before you cart your whole garage around town, visit several stores to see what kinds of products they sell, the prices they ask, and the general quality of their goods.

Most consignment and resale shops sell women's clothes, household decor, baby items, and books. More and more sell furniture and electronics. But computers, software, and sporting goods become obsolete too fast for most stores to want them.

Selling it from the curb

If you'd rather get rid of everything at once and have a chance to meet your neighbors, yard sales are tried and true. Here, experts say, try for the quick nickel.

Most sales end up taking place before opening hours on Saturday morning, no matter what hours you advertise. That's when antique dealers scour for finds.

Most garage sales bring in $100 to $200, depending on weather and amount of advertising, says Ms. Castleman.

If you have more than a few large, valuable antiques, advertise in a local newspaper, she says. Or tack up signs on supermarket bulletin boards and local signposts. Be sure to advertise a rain date. And list all of the best items in your ad.

On the day of the sale, put up signs - readable from moving cars - to mark every turn.

The most successful garage sales bring several families together either in a single neighborhood or at a church rummage sale, says Castleman, because they draw more buyers.

Giving items away is also a great way to attract customers. Castleman suggests putting out a box of stuff marked "free." It generates goodwill, and you won't have to cart the stuff to the dump.

Dowd's approach: Mark everything down 50 percent by 10:30 a.m., and mark it all free at 12:30. "The look on people's faces when you tell them it's free is amazing," he says.

Some areas have "going rates" for pricing. In upstate New York, where Castleman lives, paperbacks go for 25 cents, hardbacks for 50 cents. Nothing's final.

With today's dealers, "You'll have something marked $15, and they'll offer 50 cents," he says. "And you bargain up from there." Still, he sometimes tries a reverse approach. If somebody asks if you'll take $10 for something, offer it to them for $7. "You know what happens? They buy something else for $10," he says.

Just don't worry that things won't sell. "You'll be amazed what people will buy," says Dowd.

If you have any doubt, just look around your own house.

*Send your comments to: evarts@csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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