Master Expectation Management

A few carefully chosen words in your auction descriptions will help avoid unhappy buyers, returns, and negative feedback.

If you lend someone $20 and never see that person again, it was probably worth it.

Most sellers would agree that an eBay transaction can be considered successful if the bidder pays promptly, leaves positive feedback, and then disappears. Naturally, this happens when the bidder is happy. Unhappy bidders, on the other hand, have complaints, want refunds, leave nasty feedback, and, all told, make themselves a general pain in the neck.

When a bidder is displeased, it’s usually because of a failure by the seller that occurred long before the customer even placed a bid. It’s the seller’s job to describe the item so that the eventual buyer will be pleased with it, even if it means pointing out the item’s flaws.

Think about it: every time you’re happy or unhappy with a transaction, it’s because the experience either met or failed to meet your expectations. The higher the expectations, the harder it is to meet them. The key is to strike a balance between making your product look good and setting reasonable expectations. Consider the following when writing your auction description:

How new is it?

If you would like to categorize an item as “like new,” say it’s in “mint condition” instead. The phrase “like new” means “indistinguishable from brand new.” No matter how good it looks to you, the person who’s just laid down $1, 500 of her hard-earned money will expect more than you’ll probably be able to deliver.

Is it used?

If the item has been used, say so; don’t expect your bidders to realize this simply by scrutinizing your blurry photos or noticing that you set a low starting bid.

How used is it?

Mention all flaws, regardless of how seemingly insignificant: whether or not the flaws are important is beside the point. Rather, it’s the blunt honesty that will win the trust of your bidders, and ultimately get you more money for your items (and happier bidders to boot).

Where has it been?

If you’re selling something on behalf of someone else, say so. Otherwise, your bidders will expect you to have full knowledge of its history and will hold you accountable for any flaws you don’t specifically mention up front. Anything you know about the item’s history (such as previous owners, repairs, or accidents) should be mentioned in the description, along with the current condition of the item. Or, if the item has had a relatively cushy life—surviving no accidents and requiring no repairs—then say so.

Is it broken?

Selling broken equipment [Hack #51] can actually be profitable, if you do it right. Make sure your bidders clearly understand what’s wrong with the item, as a few bucks in profit from a misrepresented item is never worth negative feedback.

If it’s dirty, clean it

If you don’t want to take the time to clean it, say that it’s dirty in the description. Or, better yet, say something like “With a good cleaning, this item will be as good as new!”


If you’re selling clothing, stuffed animals, dolls, camping gear, or anything else that can trap odors, be sure to mention whether the items were kept in a smoke-free environment. Your nonsmoking customers will thank you either way.

Measuring tapes are cheap and plentiful

Be sure to include the dimensions of your item, especially if you’re not that familiar with it. This is not so much for the bidder’s convenience, but rather to help ease (or confirm) your bidders’ fears that you might have miscategorized your item. For instance, if you’re selling your grandfather’s model trains and you’re not sure of the scale (HO, N, z, etc.), then you run a pretty good chance of getting it wrong. If you include the dimensions, your bidders can be sure of what they’re buying, long before they receive it and have to send it back.


Don’t forget to mention the inclusion (or exclusion) of the original box, manuals, accessories, cables, warranty card, paperwork, price tags, or anything else your bidders might expect to get with your item. This is important enough that many sellers take the space to include this information with common abbreviations [Hack #17] in listing titles.

Focus, please?

Take a good photo [Hack #70] to simultaneously make your item look good and inspire trust in those who are considering paying you for it.

Don’t say “the photo says it all.”

The photo never says it all.

Be clear

Take the time to explain exactly what’s included in your auction and what types of payments you accept [Hack #54] , which is especially useful in keeping out deadbeat bidders [Hack #68] . And, when appropriate, include answers to your customers’ questions [Hack #67] right in the description.

Be nice

Finally, your tone sets an expectation with your bidders as to what you’ll be like to deal with. Be inviting and friendly, and answer inquiries from interested bidders—and write in complete sentences.

Although it may sound trite, honesty is indeed the best policy. By selling on eBay, you are joining a community. By dealing fairly and honestly, you will build a good reputation, attract more bidders, and contribute positively to that community. This will, in turn, improve your reputation and attract more bidders. Plus, you’ll make lots of cash.

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