At its worst, eBay is a place where obvious fakes of T206 Wagners are bought and sold for over $1000 and nearly every deal that looks too good to be true probably is. But at its best, eBay is a place you can find just about any card you’re looking for, usually at a range of conditions and prices, and–quite often–at what feels like a pretty good deal. Having relied largely on eBay to build up my own vintage collection over the past four years, I thought I’d share five tips that have made a difference.

1. Look for “lots”

The best deals I’ve ever gotten are when someone isn’t looking to scan and list every card separately and simply packs all their stuff into a single listing aka “lot.” In many cases, these lots tend to end up selling for very little more than the value of the best card in the lot.  For example, a seller might list “1956 Topps starter set (121/340) includes Mantle, Kaline, Berra.” Good chance this lot goes for at most $20 more than the price of the Mantle, in which case you end up with a ton of great cards for almost nothing. (Of course, this assumes you can win a 1956 Mantle bidding war, but still!)

I took advantage of lots in working to build my 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set. For the condition I was after, singles typically ran around $5-8 apiece. However, I could usually find a lot of 10-15 cards where the per card price ended up around $3. The approach naturally landed me some duplicate cards, but I found I was always able to sell them as singles for at least what I paid, usually a little more.

Player collectors can particularly benefit from this approach. Search on “Nolan Ryan lot,” “Ernie Banks lot,” etc., and you will often find opportunities to get a dozen or so great cards for the price of 3-4. In the case you want (and can afford) the full dozen, fantastic! And if the dozen takes you a bit over your budget, good chance you can sell a few of the extras to bring your budget back in check or possibly find a couple other collectors to split the purchase with.

2. Be the early bird on “Buy It Now” bargains

Unlike auction items, which linger on eBay or a while, “Buy It Now” (or BIN) items can disappear fast, particularly if they are significantly underpriced. A trick then is to get there first by filtering searches on “Buy It Now” and sorting by “Time: Newly Listed.” Granted, you still may miss out unless you’re compulsive enough to live on eBay and refresh every few seconds, but you at least up your chances of spotting the deals before the next guy does.

I recently scored a terrific deal on a graded Mickey Mantle card (no, not 1952 Topps!) this way. When I saw this card at the top of my search results, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I can’t really know for sure, but my guess is that if the card had been buried deeper in my search results it might have disappeared before I even got there.

Recognizing again that speed counts with these BIN listings, it’s important to go in already knowing the going rate for the cards you’re looking for. A situation you wouldn’t want is for a 1969 Topps Mickey Mantle VG-EX to show up at $40 and then disappear as you conduct some research to determine if this is a good price. (And yes, that WAS a great deal. The card normally goes for $75 and up in that condition.)

WARNING: Do not rely on eBay’s email notifications or smartphone alerts to tell you when the item you want has been listed. I find these alerts can lag the actual listing by several hours, which is nearly almost longer than the very good deals will even stay up.

3. Be on the lookout for overlooked auctions

Assuming a seller’s listing is accurate (more on this below) and the item listed is something lots of collectors want, it’s rare for the final auction price of an item to be severely discounted. However, I have spent enough time on the Bay to see this happen from time to time. Of course this isn’t something you can pick up on until the auction is literally in its final minutes, particularly since many buyers avoid bidding until the very end.

To spot these overlooked auctions, filter your searches on “Auction” and sort by “Time: Ending Soonest.” I ran such a search on Hank Aaron a few days back and saw several vintage Aaron cards sitting around a dollar with just minutes remaining. I (barely) had time to put in very minimal bets on all of them and ended up winning about half.

4. Take advantage of auction end times

While eBay encourages buyers to enter their maximum possible bid right at the onset, the fact is that most buyers enter something of an ante or lowball bid, mainly to keep an item on their radar. The plan is usually to check back near the end and then raise the bid if that’s what it takes to get the card. My guess is most of you have been part of an auction where it looks like a card is about to go for $15 and then–BAM!!–it somehow rockets to $48 in the final 2-3 seconds.

The auctions where last-second bidding happens the least are ones that end at oddball times, whether that means 3 AM, the middle of Christmas dinner, the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, etc. Unless we’re talking Holy Grail cardboard, most bidders will not monitor these auctions at closing and increase their bids at the last second. Of course, the downside of playing these auctions is that YOU have to get up at 3 AM, head to the restroom (wink, wink) in the middle of Christmas dinner, or DVR the Super Bowl. But if you really want that card badly…!

5. Take advantage of bad pics

As buyers scroll through eBay listings, some cards pop and others are almost hard to look at. It’s the latter category where a lack of competition may lead you to some deals. Naturally, you do NOT want to buy a card when you can’t see it well enough to judge condition. However, there are a couple ways to get a better look–

  • Oddly, sometimes the main picture is horrid but other images are sharp.
  • Often the seller will take a better picture on request.

WARNING: Never rely on your phone for the card’s appearance. Good or bad pic, your phone will make it VERY difficult to see flaws that become evident on a larger display. The bigger the screen the better if you are serious about a card and need to know what it looks like.

6. Take advantage of typos

This is not an avenue I’ve taken personally, at least so far, but it stands to reason that auctions will attract less notice when they don’t appear in search results. For this reason, your best deal on a Gehrig might come from a search on “Gerhig.” Likewise, consider expanding your searches to include such common typos as Eddie Matthews, Carl Yastremski, and Brice Harper.

One nice thing about eBay is that its searches are pretty flexible. As such, rather than save a search on “T206 Christy Mathewson” you are able to save “combo” searches like ” T206 (Christy, Cristy, Christi) (Mathewson, Matthewson, Mathewsen)”

7. Develop an eye for raw cards

Having disappeared from the collecting world for 20 years I was immediately struck upon my return by the ubiquity of third party grading (e.g., PSA, SGC, Beckett). While there are exceptions, there are a few reasons why bargains tend to be scarcer once cards are slabbed and graded.

  • The grading process itself may cost a good $20, which sellers generally would like to recoup.
  • There is a greater tendency for graded cards to have well established price points and sales histories that inform sellers’ BIN list prices and buyers’ auction bids.
  • Graded cards are more likely to be sold by investment-minded collectors who are specifically looking to make a profit off their sale.

Raw cards, meanwhile, are more likely to be part of “getting rid of my old shit” types of sales and frequently (but definitely not always) scare off investment-minded buyers who naturally worry that some microscopic speck not visible in the scan will lower the card from an 8 to a 7 (or some such thing) and turn a good deal into a disaster.

Of course no good deal goes unpunished on eBay. Particularly with hot cards, fakes and reprints are a big problem on eBay, and they are much easier to sell raw than graded. I will save the topic of spotting fakes for another day, but suffice it to say that you do NOT want to go in blind on any significant raw card purchases.

8. Negotiate shipping (sometimes)

Sometimes the one thing that stands between you and the card you want is what seems like an unusually high shipping cost. Perhaps the $1.25 Doc Gooden you’re after comes with $3.75 in shipping fees or the 1958 Hank Aaron comes with an added $7.95. It doesn’t hurt to check in with the seller on what their shipping plans are. If they were planning on a bubble mailer for the Gooden, maybe you’re both comfortable going PWE. And if they were planning an expedited service for the Aaron, maybe you’re both fine with a standard USPS package (bubble mailer) rate.

It can’t hurt to ask, though it’s also important to remember that lower shipping rates will also come at the expense of insurance, tracking, or other niceties that you may decide you ultimately need. From my perspective, shipping should always be a small fraction of the purchase price, and I’m okay rolling the dice a bit to maintain that.

9. Chase the damaged slabs

I’ve read a few collectors’ tales where a great pickup was made once the buyer recognized that apparent damage to the card was just a scratch or smudge on the slab itself. As these kinds of things scare off other collectors who assume card damage, it’s a good way to win an auction low or perhaps get a low offer accepted on a BIN OBO. It’s also possible the seller, aware of the slab damage, is happy to let the card go cheap rather than have to pay for re-slabbing.

Naturally, if the first thing you do when you get a damaged slab is pay for a new slab, some of your savings ends up in the hands of the TPG company. But if you’re like me and break all cards out of their slabs immediately upon arrival, the entire savings is yours to keep.

10. Care a little less about condition

This doesn’t really count as an eBay strategy since it applies more broadly to any kind of collecting. I also know this tip isn’t for everyone. What I will say is that the collectors I know who seem to have the most fun are the ones who don’t mind the creases here and there and no longer worry about the microscopic differences between a PSA 6 and a PSA 10.

Here are two “stacks” of BIN listings on eBay (as of November 7, 2018). The one on the left costs a few hundred dollars MORE than the one on the right. Look closely and you can see how the Mays on the right has a corner that’s not perfectly sharp. That means a ton to a lot of collectors out there, and God bless ’em! But for the rest of us, it’s pretty incredible what we can afford when we care a little less about condition.


11. Bonus tips

In case ten wasn’t enough…

  • OBO (Or Best Offer) sellers often go in with high hopes but become more pragmatic the longer their listing gathers dust. I generally feel like it’s a waste of time to offer anything below 75% of asking price for a new listing. However, if it looks like a listing has been out there a long time, I may even go as low as 50%. The worst that can happen is you get turned down, but usually you can meet somewhere in the middle with a series of counters.
  • Don’t be afraid to contact sellers with an offer even if their listing isn’t OBO. I have had success with this, particularly when a listing is in its final days and doesn’t have many other watchers.
  • Related to the above, I had a situation where a seller listed a “starter set” at a great price, but of course shipping was around $20. I was successful in offering roughly 80% of his asking price for just the 3-4 cards I needed, which he was then able to ship for $3.
  • Avoid Overpaying – The opposite of scoring a great deal is paying way more than you need to for a card. Here are three rookie mistakes that lead to overpayment, aside from accidentally buying fakes, which someday needs its own post.
    • Buying in a hurry – This applies mainly to cards or other collectibles that don’t come up very often. A good example might be Dwight Gooden’s 1983 TCMA pre-rookie card with the Lynchburg Mets. As I type this, none are listed on eBay. Now imagine that tomorrow one appears with an ask price of $60. There can be a strong impulse to buy since who knows how long you’ll have to wait otherwise. However, a scan of the Sold listings shows that you absolutely will see this card again at least every couple months and that the price is usually lower. Patience will save you money here.
    • Avoid mobile phone purchases when you can – Perhaps your phone kicks ass over mine, but I have to say there are cards I’ve looked at where they look great on my phone but I am able to see creases when I view them from my laptop. What looks like a great deal at $15 might actually be a pretty mediocre deal once you know what the card really looks like.
    • It’s worth an extra 30 seconds to determine value – I really blew it just the other day when I didn’t follow my own rule. A guy I was about to buy a couple baseball cards from had just listed some vintage Beatles cards at what I assumed was an incredible price. Rather than risk losing them to someone else, I snatched them up right away only to learn later that this 1964 set was much more plentiful and cheap than I ever would have imagined. Now if you’re the type who never wants to risk losing a card in your hesitation, the best thing you can do is already know the values of the cards you want even before your search results appear.