EM's Guide to eBay

Musicians and audio engineers have a rich history of buying and selling used instruments and equipment. Historically, such transactions have taken place

Musicians and audio engineers have a rich history of buying and selling used instruments and equipment. Historically, such transactions have taken place between individuals who knew each other or who scoured classified ads in local newspapers and other publications. Before the Internet came along and connected everyone, the pool of potential buyers was mostly limited to the seller's geographical area. Selling your gear was often more trouble than it was worth, and opportunities to receive a fair price were usually limited by local demand.

Like the Internet itself, eBay (www.ebay.com) has drastically changed the way that individuals conduct business. Since its advent, sellers have had a worldwide audience of potential buyers at their fingertips. Musicians in particular have much to gain from learning the ins and outs of eBay's brand of personal e-commerce. Listing an auction on eBay puts your merchandise in front of millions of other musicians who are willing to compete for the chance to buy your used guitar, hard-disk recorder, keyboard stand, or music book.

Get Registered

Before you can buy or sell, you'll need to register as an eBay user. Clicking on eBay's Register link opens the registration page, in which you type your personal data and accept or decline the terms of the user agreement. You'll then be asked to supply a user name and password. Because eBay has literally millions of users, selecting a unique user name can be more difficult than it sounds. Be careful that you don't select something frivolous just to see if it's already been taken; you will be stuck with it for at least 30 days.

After you complete registration by responding to an email sent by eBay, you can bid on any auction you like. To create your own auctions, though, you'll need to create a seller's account and either provide your credit-card data or complete a process called ID Verify. ID Verify requires that you furnish your social security number and driver's license number, as well as pay a $5 fee.

To simplify buying and selling, you should also consider opening a PayPal account (see the sidebar, “PayPals Forever”). PayPal is an online financial service owned by eBay. In exchange for a portion of each transaction, PayPal lets you instantly pay and get paid for completed auctions. Buying and selling without PayPal can be slow and troublesome, and the convenience it affords usually makes it well worth joining.

Bargain Hunting

Whether you're shopping for a used synthesizer, trying to find an out-of-print service manual, or looking for the best price on the latest software, eBay is one of the first places you should turn. Browsing and searching are easy, and if you haven't tried it yet, bidding and buying are easier than you might imagine.

Shopping on eBay begins with going to almost any page and clicking on the Buy button, located at the top of the page. You'll be presented with a list of categories to browse, one of which is Musical Instruments. Each category is divided into dozens of subcategories, and many of those are categorized even further. Musical Instruments, for instance, is divided into Guitars, Electronic, Pro Audio, and many others (see Fig. 1). You'll find condenser mics listed under Musical Instruments > Pro Audio > Microphones > Wired Microphones > Recording, Condenser.

On most pages, a search field lets you enter the name of whatever you're hoping to find. When searching, be as specific or as general as you like: if you want to browse all Moog synths, type “moog” (searching is not case-sensitive). If you're trying to find a Minimoog, type “minimoog” and “mini moog” (try it both ways, because searching will return only the results that include all your search terms). If you want to search for all Moogs except the Minimoog, type “moog -minimoog -mini.” Placing a minus symbol at the beginning of a search term excludes that word from your search results.

eBay can sort your search results according to parameters such as price (lowest or highest first), time (when an auction began or ends), or distance (from your location). Such information tells you whether an item suits your desires and how quickly you will need to act. Sometimes viewing search results using different parameters will help you spot something that you might have missed otherwise, especially when the list is several pages long.

Once a list of results is displayed, you can narrow down your search even more by examining the list of Matching Categories on the left side of the screen. A search for “moog” may produce categories such as Musical Instruments (Electronic, Piano/Keyboard, and Guitar), Music (Records and CDs), and eBay Motors (Parts & Accessories). If you're not interested in Moog auto parts or albums, the Musical Instruments category is your best bet. Still, there's no guarantee that you won't have to wade through Moog baseball caps, refrigerator magnets, and framed magazine ads.

If you're trying to find something specific, such as an Ampeg SVT-AV bass amplifier, you should search for “ampeg amp” and “svt bass” in All Categories, and not just in the Musical Instruments > Guitar > Amplifiers category. If the seller left out any keywords or placed the amp in the Equipment or Pro Audio category rather than where you'd expect to find it, you might find a deal that has eluded other bidders. In fact, amplifiers are often found in the DJ Gear & Lighting category simply because it has an Amplifier subcategory.

When you find something that you might want to buy, read its description carefully. Does it state the item's condition? Is it in good working order? Does the seller offer any sort of guarantee? Are you sure it's exactly the one you want to buy? Is the shipping cost reasonable? Does the seller have a good feedback rating? If you have any questions, do not hesitate to email the seller and ask. If the seller doesn't respond, don't make assumptions and bid anyway. You might end up with something you don't want and may not be able to return.

Bid High, Buy Low

Auctions are held in a variety of formats, such as multiple-item auctions (aka Dutch auctions), reserve-price auctions, and fixed-price (Buy It Now) auctions. The most common, however, is an auction in which the highest bidder wins. Although your best strategy is to bid the highest price you are willing to pay, you could very well pay less than the amount that you bid.

When you place a bid, you're pledging to pay as much as the amount you've bid; in other words, it's your maximum bid. eBay uses a technique called proxy bidding, in which it will automatically raise your bid only enough to beat competing bids, but no higher than your maximum bid. eBay always displays the auction's current bid, which is only whatever it takes to beat the previous maximum bid (or the starting bid if there are no previous bids). Maximum bids are held in secret and are revealed only when someone exceeds that bid.

Let's say an item's current bid is $50 and you bid $100. If the previous highest bidder's maximum bid were $75, your bid would be entered as $76. (The increment above the current bid depends on the bid amount; see eBay's Help Topic on Bid Increments for details.) If someone came along and bid $80, the current bid would advance to $81, and you would still be the highest bidder. If, however, the previous bidder also had bid a maximum of $100, the current bid will advance to $100 and he or she will be listed as the current high bidder, because you were not the first to bid that amount. The advantage of proxy bidding is that you will pay no more than whatever it takes to beat the next highest bidder.

When you place a bid, you are entering into a contract to pay as much as your maximum bid, plus shipping costs, if you win. If you change your mind and back out after winning an item, you risk receiving negative feedback and you jeopardize your eBay membership. eBay charges sellers a portion of the final selling price, as well as listing fees, as soon as an auction is complete. If a buyer were allowed to back out of a deal, either the seller or eBay would incur a loss, and another auction would be necessary.

Note that the posted time that an auction ends is Pacific Time, so unless you're on the West Coast, you'll need to calculate your local time if you want to be present at its conclusion. When the auction is complete, if yours is the highest bid, congratulations, you've won! Now all you need to do is pay the seller and await the item's delivery.

Variations on a Theme

In a reserve-price auction, the highest bid doesn't win unless it exceeds a threshold set by the seller. A reserve price is the minimum it would take to win the auction. A low current price might entice you to bid, but you won't know whether your bid exceeds the threshold until after you place it.

Buy It Now is a means of purchasing an item at a fixed price. When you select Buy It Now, the item is yours and the auction ends immediately. If someone bids lower than the Buy It Now price, however, the Buy It Now option will disappear and the auction will run its entire length. Using Buy It Now is very much like ordering something from a non-eBay online store.

Immediate Pay listings require that you pay right away using PayPal. That ensures that the seller will be paid and the auction doesn't end because of a nonpaying bidder.

Perils and Pitfalls

Although the easiest strategy is to decide on a maximum bid and stick with it, you might want an item badly enough to increase your bid whenever someone outbids you. Beware of getting into a bidding war; I've seen bidders pay much more than the going price just to beat a competitor.

Bidding can be at its fastest and most furious in the seconds before an auction ends. A strategy you should watch out for, and one you may occasionally need to employ if you want to win, is called sniping. Snipers will wait until the last possible moment to place bids, so that unless your maximum bid is higher, they will win before you have a chance to place a higher bid. The best way to protect yourself from snipers is to keep hitting your browser's Refresh button as the auction draws to a close. There's nothing more frustrating than someone else winning an item that you really wanted by paying just a dollar more than your high bid during the final five seconds of an auction.

A related strategy is to wait until the last hour or so to place your first bid. If you bid too early, competitors will have a chance to consider how badly they want an item and bid higher. Such a strategy has its risks, though. If an auction has no bids, the seller can raise the starting price, raise the Buy It Now price, or end the auction anytime up until 12 hours before it is scheduled to end.

More serious problems can occur after the item is delivered. What if it doesn't live up to your expectations? Unless the seller has been fraudulent and the item is indisputably different from what was described, your avenues of recourse are limited. You could try reasoning with the seller or leave bad feedback for the seller (more about that later), but there's not much point in filing a complaint with eBay except in cases of out-and-out fraud. Even then, unless any laws were broken and you want to hire an attorney, eBay can't do much other than threaten to cancel the seller's membership.

A Seller's Market

Somewhere in the world is someone who wants your old stompboxes, sound-effects records, and audio-equipment catalogs. I should know; I've sold all of them on eBay for more than I would have thought possible. I sold a music book for $75, a synth catalog for $60, and two LPs for more than $100 — all items that I had held onto since the 1970s. A few months later, I sold a pair of tattered, hand-embroidered jeans I used to wear onstage for $160. When eBay enthusiasts say there are treasures in your attic, they could be right on target.

If you want to find a buyer for a synth module that you no longer use or for a computer that you've just replaced, eBay offers the largest marketplace. You can find other auction sites and online ad sites, some of which don't charge a penny to use, but none have eBay's mass appeal. It might be more convenient to run a classified ad in a local newspaper, especially if you're selling a large item such as a sound-reinforcement system or a Hammond organ, but listing with eBay will expose your listing to the greatest number of people. And compared to local advertising, eBay is often a good bargain.

In exchange for the services it provides, eBay charges a number of fees. Initially, you pay an insertion fee whenever you list an item for auction. The insertion fee varies depending on your starting or reserve price and currently ranges from 25 cents (for items under $1) to $4.80 (for items $500 or more). You can pay additional fees for optional features — some of which are inexpensive and recommended — such as a gallery photo or Buy It Now. Unless e-commerce is a commercial enterprise, though, you'll probably want to avoid incurring large listing fees.

eBay prohibits you from selling certain items, such as copied software, illegal counterfeits, or promo recordings. You can sell used software only if the manufacturer allows you to transfer the license. If you list a prohibited item, you will receive a warning, and at eBay's discretion, you could be suspended. If you list a questionable item — such as a sample library — and you are not an authorized dealer, you may invoke a notice from eBay's Verified Rights Owner (VeRO) program, at which time your listing will be deleted. If you try to sell it again, you run the risk of being suspended forever.

Selling Like a Pro

Before you post an auction, you have several decisions to make. What will your listing say? What category is most appropriate? What's the minimum price you'd accept? How much is enough to end the auction? When is the best time to sell? What will you charge for shipping? Are you willing to ship overseas?

A good place to begin is by examining listings for similar items. Be sure to search for completed listings as well as active ones. Read the descriptions and notice keywords in the titles, how the items are classified, their ending times, and their starting and ending prices (or current price, if the auction is ongoing).

Creating a listing begins when you click on the Sell button on any page. You'll be asked to specify a category. Clicking on a main category usually leads to a choice of subcategories (see Fig. 2). You can also choose a second category, but be aware that it will double the cost of your listing.

Titles are limited to 55 characters, including spaces. Because searches are most often based on classification and title, you'll want to pack as much information into the title as possible. Be sure to mention the brand name and any other descriptive keywords. If 55 characters aren't enough, you can add a 55-character subtitle for 50¢ extra, but it won't appear in most search results.

For the item description, be as complete and accurate as possible. Tell prospective buyers about the item's condition, desirable features, the original or retail price — whatever seems most appropriate. Don't forget to mention any flaws as well. Unlike a classified ad, for which you may be charged according to the number of words, the cost of an eBay listing has nothing to do with its length. Still, don't provide so much information that it's difficult for buyers to find key information buried in a mountain of text. Use bullets to highlight important points.

It helps to use an offline HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) editor to compose your ad or to insert HTML code within your listing. eBay's HTML Tips page can tell you how to separate paragraphs, specify bold or italic text, create bulleted lists, and so on. Unless you want your description to be one long, monotonous paragraph, using basic HTML (such as inserting

to indicate a paragraph break) is essential.

After you enter a title and description, you'll be asked for a starting price and, if applicable, a reserve price and a Buy It Now price. Take special note of the insertion fee increments when deciding on a starting price. It costs twice as much to list an item for $50 as it does to list it for $49.99.

Because a high starting price might discourage potential bidders, a reserve-price auction can stimulate bidding by attracting the attention of potential buyers. eBay refunds the reserve-price auction fee unless the item does not sell, in which case it will cost you $1, $2, or 1 percent of the reserve price.

Buy It Now is useful if you just want to sell something at a fixed price, but you'll need a minimum feedback rating of 10 to use that option. Buy It Now fees range from 5¢ to 25¢. If you combine a reserve auction with Buy It Now, the Buy It Now option will remain available until someone bids the reserve price.

An eBay auction can have a duration of one, three, seven, or ten days. Seven days is typical, and a ten-day listing costs 40¢ extra. You can schedule a precise start time for 10¢ or begin an auction at the moment you submit it. I've noticed that it helps to end your auction just as the clock strikes the minute. It's a lot easier to remember that an auction ends at 07:15:00 rather than at 07:14:41.

If working musicians are your most likely buyers, consider that they are at home surfing the Web on Sunday nights more often than any other time, so that's a good time to sell pro audio gear. I've also noticed that sales are brisk when buyers have money in their pockets, such as around the time they receive tax refunds.

eBay offers several options for including photos in your listing. It's important to remember the old adage that one picture is worth a thousand words; you should therefore supply the best possible image. The insertion fee includes the cost of one picture as large as 400 × 300 pixels. Extra photos are 15¢ each, or you can buy a Picture Pack to display 6 for $1 or 12 for $1.50. Picture Packs include a gallery photo, which displays a small version of your first picture alongside search results (see Fig. 3). Because they draw attention to your listing, gallery photos are well worth the 35¢ that they normally cost. Other options are supersize photos and hosting your photos on a Web site other than eBay.

Your listing should specify payment and shipping details. Potential buyers are more likely to bid if they know whether you can accept credit cards (you can if you have a PayPal account) and how much shipping will cost. Your audience will be much larger and may bring higher bids if you're willing to sell worldwide and ship overseas.

Before you submit your listing, you'll have a chance to preview it and review all the details and fees (see Fig. 4). Once an auction is underway, eBay discourages sellers from ending it early without good reason.

An Auction's Aftermath

What if you list an item and it doesn't sell? Unless you want to give up and keep it, you could reassess your strategy and list it again. If you select Relist within 90 days and the item sells, you won't have to pay the insertion fee a second time unless you raise the starting price. You will, however, have to pay for any options, such as a gallery photo.When relisting an item, you might want to consider rewriting the title and description or lowering its starting price. Note that you won't receive a credit if you simply list an identical auction; you need to click on the Relist link.

If you do succeed in finding a buyer, you'll have to deal with shipping what you've sold. As soon as the auction is complete, email an invoice stating the total charges, which may differ according to the buyer's location and whether he or she wants you to insure the shipment. If the buyer wins additional items that you can ship at the same time, it's a good policy to offer a discount to reflect the money you'll save on shipping.

Select whatever carrier you or your buyer prefers. UPS, FedEx, and the U.S. Postal Service all handle domestic and international shipments up to a certain size and weight. Their respective Web sites can help you to determine your exact costs and to schedule pickup and delivery. For larger or heavier items, you'll need to hire a freight service to deliver your package. eBay provides some excellent resources in its Shipping Center section, including a rate calculator and label printing.

You'll certainly want to be paid as quickly as possible. Your auction should specify payment options, such as PayPal, personal checks, cashier's checks, money orders, wire transfers, COD (cash on delivery), or credit cards. Because most individuals aren't set up to accept credit cards, PayPal is probably the best option for quick payment. PayPal will take a share of the total selling price, including shipping charges, but its fees are reasonable when compared with the cost of a traditional merchant account. The disadvantage of checks and money orders is that they take longer and they might bounce (a buyer can stop payment on either). Wire transfers are reliable, but they're expensive for the buyer, and you have to either go somewhere to pick up your payment or wait for a check to arrive. COD is the least attractive solution of all; not only do you have to wait for a check, but the buyer has the option of refusing delivery.

Feedback Control

When an auction is complete, the buyer and seller have the opportunity to leave positive or negative comments about the transaction. I can't stress the importance of maintaining a good feedback score, especially if you are a seller. A high feedback score is a valuable asset, and having 100 percent positive feedback is like having money in the bank. It is good form to always leave feedback at the completion of a successful transaction.

Sometimes, however, you'll need to leave neutral or negative feedback. Negative feedback is appropriate when a buyer backs out or pays with a rubber check, or when a seller takes a month to ship the item or fails to disclose that an item is nonfunctional. Unfortunately, leaving negative feedback is risky. Although it's against eBay policy, nothing prevents someone from leaving negative feedback for you in retaliation for negative feedback left by you. You'll have a chance to leave a comment about the feedback you receive, but any negative feedback permanently affects your score.

Another very important point to consider is that as a buyer, you should examine a seller's feedback before you bid, especially if you want to avoid an unpleasant experience. If he or she has left a long line of dissatisfied customers, nothing prevents you from becoming one of them if you choose to bid anyway. I have won auctions for items I never received, and later wished I had heeded the negative comments.

eBay for Everybody

eBay is so vast that I've only scratched the surface here. Fortunately, its Help page is a pathway to learning everything that you could ever want to know about buying and selling. Clicking on Help Topics will display basic information about using eBay, and you can do a search if you have a certain topic in mind. For a fee, you can even take online courses at eBay University (see Fig. 5). If you want more personalized instruction, the Education Specialist Program lets you search for classes or instructors in your geographic area.

eBay provides plenty of free resources for you to explore almost every aspect of buying and selling. Animated Audio Tours such as “My eBay Tour” and “How to Sell Tour” guide you through the steps needed for successful transactions.

Although the eBay experience isn't perfect, it's a lot more efficient and fun than classified ads, and it beats most other methods of buying and selling musical instruments and audio gear online. Joining the ranks of eBay users is a smart move. Once you get started, you'll wonder what took you so long.

EM associate editor Geary Yelton has been an active eBay member since the late 20th century.


Joining PayPal (www.paypal.com) can enhance your eBay experience; it lets you immediately send payments to and receive payments from anyone with an account. There's no charge for paying with PayPal, but PayPal will take a portion of any payments that you receive. In exchange for that portion, you gain the ability to accept payment by credit card and to make payments directly from your bank account. You also get a maximum of $1,000 in free buyer protection coverage.

PayPal offers three types of accounts. A Personal account is suitable if you are strictly a buyer and have no need to accept credit-card payments. A Premier account is suitable for most sellers; in addition to providing the means to accept credit cards, it simplifies checkout for your buyers and makes it easier to manage your postauction transactions. A Business account is similar to a Premier account and is best if you're operating under a business name rather than as an individual.

All it takes to open an account is to provide your name, address, and other basic information. To make payments using your Personal account, you'll first need to provide credit-card information. To enjoy the benefits of a Premier or Business account, you must provide information about your checking or savings account so that PayPal can withdraw and deposit money, but only when you authorize it. The convenience of a PayPal account makes it well worth the cost.