How to sell Lionel trains

Since I’ve covered other makes of trains, someone asked me how to sell Lionel trains. So I thought I would give similar advice on selling Lionel trains. Lionel is an iconic, legendary part of Americana, so there will always be some market for its products.

That said, don’t expect to get rich selling off your Lionel trains. But if you keep your expectations realistic, you’ll find an eager buyer, or ideally, at least two interested buyers so you’ll realize a good price at auction.

Although television will try to convince you otherwise, not all old trains are rare or exceptionally valuable. In the 1950s, every boy wanted an electric train, kind of like they want a video game machine today. Lionel was the longest running brand in the United States at the time, and they sold millions of them. Not every kid who wanted a Lionel train in the ’50s had one. But today, everyone who was a kid in the ’50s who still wants one has 10.

I collect O gauge Marx and American Flyer, and Lionel to a lesser extent. So I’ve looked at thousands upon thousands of Ebay listings so I can tell you what works in Ebay train listings and what doesn’t, what to expect to get, and where to look for information to enhance your listings and hopefully wring out another dollar or two from your efforts.

Eras and sizes

You’re going to need to know about eras in order to sell Lionel trains on Ebay. Prewar trains are from 1941 or earlier. Postwar trains are from 1946-1969. Modern era trains are from 1970 to the present day.

Rarity and condition has more to do with value than age does. Most modern-era stuff isn’t especially valuable, because Lionel can fire up more production if secondary market prices increase above retail value. It’s in Lionel’s best interest to make stuff if there’s demand for it.

Lionel sold trains in several different sizes. O and O27 are the most common, which run on the iconic Lionel 3-rail track. These cars are usually 8-10 inches long and a couple of inches wide. Standard Gauge trains are older, dating to before the Depression. They are all metal and typically much larger than O gauge. Lionel has also made HO scale trains from time to time during its existence, though it never gained a lot of market share in HO. Finally, in the late prewar era, Lionel also experimented with OO, which is a size slightly larger than HO scale.

Expected value

When you sell common Lionel items yourself, you can expect to get $5-$10 per car, $35-$50 per engine, and $5-$20 per accessory, depending on the item. Once you get outside the common low-end stuff, prices go up from there. Uncommon and rare Lionel can be rather valuable, but it takes some research to figure out if you have something common or uncommon.

It’s helpful to search Ebay sold listings (not currently active listings) to get an idea what the trains are actually selling for. Some people have $5 cars listed for $50 but that doesn’t mean people are buying them at that price. Pretty much any time I look on Ebay, I can find someone with nice stuff who’s asking far, far more for it than they’ll ever get.

Selling old trains isn’t too different from trying to sell a used car. It doesn’t take too much research for me to figure out what my car is worth, but I’ll have to do a little. And if I ask for more than book value, not many people will be interested in it.

Research

If you have a lot of trains to sell, it’s a good idea to spend $20-$25 on a price guide. This will give you a good idea of what you have, what you can expect it to be worth, and sometimes a bit of background information. Plus when you’re done, you can easily resell it for most of what you paid for it. If you don’t want to buy a price guide, check your local library. Some libraries still carry books on Lionel.

Selling Lionel trains on Ebay

Listings that have a bit of information about a car tend to do better than a listing that says, “Old Lionel train. Rare! Not sure if it works. Sold as-is. Perfect for your collection.” Then again, you don’t want to spend half an hour researching a $5 car either, so look for balance.

Keep in mind when you’re writing your description and especially your title, any word or phrase that isn’t something that someone is likely to punch into the Ebay search box isn’t adding much value. Be sure to get the word Lionel, the roadname, the car number, the type of car, the scale (O, O27, HO, or Standard Gauge), and the era (prewar, postwar, or modern) into the title. If there’s room, mention other details you find in the guide, like the year. Any details that you can’t fit into the title, be sure to put into the description. You can do that almost as easily as you can type “Rare Lionel caboose LQQK!!!!” and it will get far more traffic, which will translate into bids.

As an example, I found a listing titled LIONEL TRAIN CARS. That was it. The description read 2 lionel tca club cars, 1970 and 1972, original boxes. I would have put that in the title, and found some way to elaborate a bit in the description. Those cars have limited value but that listing isn’t helping.

Make sure your listings end in the evenings, and prices tend to be higher in the fall and winter than in the spring and summer. Be sure to mention you’re willing to combine shipping, and know when to sell singly or in lots. Nice-condition cars and engines will sell well on their own; beat-up or nonworking items will sell better as a lot.

Selling in lots

Track will sell if it’s in nice condition, but only as a lot–nobody wants to pay $5 shipping for a single piece of track. 

Incomplete, broken or unworking items will sell, as long as you list them as such. A series of clear pictures showing exactly what you have and a title like “Lionel trains lot for parts/restoration” should do the job. Some people buy these types of lots to fix up and resell, while others find it enjoyable to fix up old trains and buy up lots to keep their parts pipeline full.

Selling the paperwork

Speaking of lots, any papers that accompany the trains have sales potential too. It’s best to bundle instruction sheets with what they came with. If that’s unclear, you can sell the instruction sheets and any catalogs you found as a bundled lot. Collectors are interested in old catalogs and paper. So don’t be surprised if your lot of paper sells for more than some of the cars do.

If you’re lucky enough that a receipt accompanies the paperwork somewhere, be sure to include that, either bundled with the paper or with the item it came with. If there’s a price tag from a recognizable store on a box or on an item, leave the price tag there.

Boxes

It’s not uncommon to find a Lionel items in or near their original boxes, and that box adds value, even if the box is in poor condition. The only time to throw away a Lionel box is if it’s moldy.

If you have the trains and the box(es) they came in, you have a decision to make, whether to sell it all together or sell the pieces individually. Some collectors will refuse to bid on your breakup listings out of principle.

Photography

Take clear photos that show all sides of the item so bidders know you aren’t hiding anything. Ultimately it’s the photos that are going to sell your stuff, for two reasons. Many buyers identify what they’re looking for by sight, not necessarily by searching. Even those who search are going to look at the photos to decide whether the piece is good enough to be worth a bid. If you have clear photos, you have the advantage over someone who snapped a picture in a hurry in poor light and didn’t even bother to focus and just uploaded it to see what would happen.

Condition

I can’t tell you how many items I’ve seen listed as “mint” that weren’t. Mint means the item is just like it left the factory, unused, and absolutely perfect. Some new-in-box items aren’t quite mint. It’s not graded on a curve either. Mint is mint, whether it was made this morning or 100 years ago.

I wouldn’t even bother mentioning condition, frankly. Good photographs say all you need to say about that. The risk when you bring up condition is that your buyer won’t agree, then will make a claim against you. It’s harder to do that when your item has a clear photograph.

In some cases, you can clean them up a bit. If you’re confident you can clean them without damaging them, clean trains tend to get more money than stuff that looks like it’s fresh from a decades-long exile in a tool shed.

Pricing strategy

Let’s talk pricing. If there are tons of listings for a given item, you’re going to need to price it to move. Consider just listing it buy-it-now at the lower end of the range if you have a lot of competition. Pay attention to pricing psychology. If the item frequently sells for $5, price at $4.99 or even $4.88. The price registers in many people’s minds as $4. But as my grade-school-aged son says, “it’s a trick to get almost a whole extra dollar.” The key is almost.

If you want to try to get more thanks to auction fever, start the bidding low (no higher than 99 cents) and don’t put a reserve on it. If you get multiple bids, most of them are going to come in the last five minutes, but to get the best price you want to get a few early bids. The low price will get you there. Someone who doesn’t desperately want the item will see it, be reluctant to let the item go for 99 cents, and bid $1.25 to see what happens. Then someone will bid half what it’s worth. Someone else will bid 2/3. And more often than not, the item will end at something close to the going rate.

That covers a lot of ground that’s mostly specific to Ebay. For more on Ebay, see my earlier post, Getting started with Ebay.

Selling to a dealer

When selling to a dealer, expect much lower prices. My local dealer typically pays about 1/3 the book value of a train. The 67% margin covers his overhead and any cleaning or repairs he might have to make. If the item is something he knows one of his regulars is looking for, he may be willing to pay more since he’ll be able to turn the item over quickly.

Not all hobby shops deal in used trains, so it’s not a bad idea to make a phone call first. Tell the dealer what you have and ask if he or she would be willing to take a look at it. It’s also not a bad idea to ask when would be a good time to bring them in. Some hours are busier than others. You’ll get a better offer if the dealer has time to actually look at what’s in the box.

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