Heirlooms for sale © Image Source/Jupiterimages

The Basics

Emptying the attic to pay the bills

Desperate for cash, strapped sellers are using online auctions and flea markets to unload household goods, including possessions of great sentimental value.

By The Associated Press

For-sale listings on the online hub Craigslist have been coming with plaintive notices, such as one from a teenager in Georgia who said her mother had lost her job and pleaded, "Please buy anything you can to help out."

And a seller in Milwaukee wrote in one post of needing to pay bills -- and put a diamond engagement ring up for bids to do it.

Struggling with mounting debt and rising prices, and faced with the toughest economic times since the early 1990s, Americans are selling their prized possessions online and at flea markets with rising frequency.

To meet higher gas, food and prescription bills, they are selling off heirlooms like Grandma's dishes, as well as other belongings. Some of the household purging leaves sellers agonized.

"This is not about downsizing. It's about needing gas money," said Nancy Baughman, the founder of eBizAuctions, an online auction service she runs out of her garage in Raleigh, N.C. One formerly affluent customer is now unemployed and unloaded Hermes leather jackets and Versace jeans and silk shirts.

For-sale listings surge

At Craigslist, which has become a kind of online flea market for the world, the number of for-sale listings has soared 70% since July. In March, the number of listings more than doubled to almost 15 million from the year-ago period.

Craigslist CEO Jeff Buckmaster acknowledged the increasing popularity of selling all sort of items on the Web, but he said the rate of growth is "moving above the usual trend line." He said he was amazed at the desperate tone in some ads.

In Daleville, Ala., Ellona Bateman-Lee has turned to eBay and flea markets to empty her three-bedroom mobile home of DVDs, VCRs, stereos and televisions.

She said she needs the cash to help pay for soaring food and utility bills and mounting health care expenses since her husband, Bob, suffered an electric shock on the job as a dump truck driver in 2006 and is now disabled.

Among her most painful sales: her grandmother's teakettle. She sold it for $6 on eBay.

"My grandmother raised me, so it hurt," Bateman-Lee said. "We've had bouts here and there, but we always got by. This time it's different."

Economists say it is difficult to compare the selling trend with other tough times because the Internet, in wide use only since the mid-1990s, has made it much easier to unload goods than, say, at pawnshops.

Other cash sources drying up

But clearly, strapped Americans are selling their belongings at bargain prices, with a flood of listings for secondhand cars, clothing and furniture hitting the market in recent months, particularly since January.

Earlier this decade, people tapped their inflated home equity and credit cards to fuel buying binges. Now, slumping home values and a credit crisis have sapped sources of cash.

Meanwhile, meager wage growth hasn't kept up with soaring fuel and food prices. Gas prices have already hit $4 per gallon in some places, and that could become more widespread this summer. The weakening job market is another worry.


Christine Hadley, a 53-year-old registered nurse from Reading, Pa., says she used to be "a clotheshorse," splurging on pricey Dooney & Bourke handbags. But her live-in boyfriend left last year, and she has had trouble finding a job.

Piles of unpaid bills forced her to sell more than 80 items, including the handbags, which went for more than $1,000 on a site called AuctionPal.com. Now, except for some artwork and threadbare furniture, Hadley's house is looking sparse.

"I need the money for essentials -- to pay my bills and to eat," she said.

Continued: Economic stress on the consumer

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