When I first got into LEGO as an AFOL I was looking at all of the Star Wars sets that I had missed and how much they cost. It became necessary to figure out a way to get the sets cheaper or make more money. I knew that some people must be making money buying bulk lots and taking out the stuff they wanted and selling the rest. That seemed like 2 birds with one stone. I looked at the bulk lots on Ebay, realizing that most of what I would get from these guys were common pieces. So I started looking at bigger lots, somewhat intimidated by their cost. I figured, however, if an Ebayer was getting $10 for a pound maybe I could make some money just throwing stuff in a box, easy money.
I made a purchase of about 50 lbs for about $350 because I saw some Star Wars sets and minifigures in there. Oh boy, easy money and some treasures of my own. Boy, was I wrong. The money is anything but easy. I quickly discovered that out of my 50 lbs of mixed LEGO, at least 5 lbs were easily recognizable as not building bricks at all. Tinker toys, K'Nex, Hot Wheels, plastic army men, broken action figures, Lincoln logs, playing cards, thumb tacks, thorny burrs and even broken glass was mixed into the ABS blocks. On top of all that junk, the real problems started. All of the Mega Blocks, BTR, and assorted knock off blocks knocked another 5+ lbs out of the lot. That's at least 20% of my precious blocks that was basically trash. As you filter through, you discover broken bricks, severely teeth marked ones and yellowed pieces. profits are getting slimmer by the minute.
Ok, so I regrouped and focused on the sets that were obviously present. I pulled out the stuff I immediately recognized most of a TIE Interceptor, a little car, Jedi Interceptor with Hyperdrive ring, half an ARC Fighter, etc. All of these I scattered around me like ancient peoples paying homage to their creator. How do I go from lots of partial sets to lots of complete sets that I can flip to make back the money that I sunk into this thing? Well first I needed to figure out what was missing. So, I looked at instruction books to see what steps I needed to take to complete them and what pieces were missing from there. Utter bust. That's an awful way to do it. So I took apart the sets I had figured out and checked the inventory against Bricklink. I discovered what was missing, and that sometimes kids substitute pieces in the middle of a build.
Now that I knew what was missing, time to turn back to 20 lbs of assorted bulk. digging through mixed bricks looking for the piece or pieces I need was time consuming and futile. Time to sort them out to make it easier. My wife and I sorted that 20 lbs of pieces by color. We had 10+ bags of pieces separated loosely by color (old and new colors mixing futilely.) That made it easier to look for pieces, but still sometimes wasting a lot of time trying to pick out a small piece in a big bag. After exhausting my patience, I turned to Bricklink to acquire the pieces I needed, dumping more money into this hole.
Eventually I sold a bunch of sets I made from this and a few other bulk lots. Between the Bricklink orders I placed to complete them and the fees and shipping, I think I made some money. My book keeping was pretty terrible. But it all taught me some things. Some of these things I learned could help some people just starting out trying to find treasure in Bulk lots.
STEP 1: Valuation
So, you're looking at a bulk lot that you found on Craigslist, Ebay, a garage sale, another auction or whatever. How should you evaluate it?
- Weight: The volume of pieces will tell you roughly how much is there. 2 lbs = not a lot. 25 lb = a lot. Since you're not buying the sets one by one, you have to immediately realize that you are going to be getting dead weight in addition to the treasures that you seek.
- Visible sets: Any visible set that you can place is good. That will give you an immediate idea of what you can make out of the lot. No visible sets or parts of sets means that there may or may not be gold in there.
- Minifigures: If minifigures are present that's good. If licensed minifigures are present, that's even better. a loose rule I use is to look for flesh colored minifigure heads and hands. Sure there's some dummies in that group, and some good figures that have yellow heads and hands, but it's a good starting point.
- Instructions and boxes: Both of these are a good gauge to show you what sets may be present, but could be red herrings. Sometimes the instructions stick around long after the main components of a set are lost.
- Non LEGO stuff: There's always some detritus. The flotsam and jetsam of stuff that parents scoop up into the boxes. The most common stuff is non LEGO bricks. They're not always easy to pick out at first glance, but they're usually there. What you are looking for is how much of the lot is obviously not LEGO. Do you see doll parts, nerf darts, Pokémon cards, buttons, etc.? usually this is a good sign to me. It means no one has searched it. but it is a pain to filter through.
- Filth: Sometimes you can see how dirty and played with the bricks are. Most bulk will be dusty or dirty. Some will even have paint or marker on them.
So with these factors, let's talk about how they factor into the valuation. an average lot is usually in the $4-$6 per lb range. Average lots show some partial sets, some minifigures, maybe a few instructions, relatively clean, with not a lot of obvious non LEGO stuff. Depending on the quality and quantity of the better stuff, you might increase your valuation, but remember you're not paying top dollar for what you see, because there's still a lot of work to come. Plus, you're going to get some amount of stuff you don't want. I have been known to go as low as $2-$3 a pound for stuff that had no obvious sets, mediocre looking or no obvious minifigures and excess junk. Then again, I have gone as high as $10 a lb for lots of minifigures and several mostly complete sets of some value. Some people stick to a hard $5 lb. Some lots of only minifigures I have seen sold for close to $100 lb. Figure out your comfort level and stick to it. Be prepared to have wasted your money on a big group of Mega Blocks.
STEP 2: Sorting and figuring out what you have
Once you get the lot, now you have to do something with it. Boxes full of bulk sitting in the garage is just hoarding. You're doing this to make your money work for you. So, I start by trying to pull out all the non LEGO, but also anything that gives me a good idea of what is there. Pull out minifigures, instructions, partial sets and set them aside. I bag the partial sets, with the minifigures and instructions wherever possible.
I would never again sort by color. Finding a red 1x1 modified tile with clip in a big bag of red parts is much harder than looking through a bag of 1x1 modified tile with clips of assorted colors. Instead I start by throwing all the flats in one box. Slopes go in a second box. Bricks are a third box, etc. It's the most general sorting at first. As I go, I look for unique identifiers of sets like printed pieces or unusual shapes. Once the initial sorting is accomplished, I sort again by element.
STEP 3: Completing sets
The best way to make back the bulk of your purchase price is to complete the sets that you received. Some people will complete everything that they can, others disdain anything below a certain dollar amount. It's up to you how far down the rabbit hole that you are going to head. Once you get your sets, you need to figure out what is missing. Even if the set looks complete, it is best to verify. Some people will make substitutions in the middle of a set. Your customers may not appreciate substitutions, especially if there are megablocks in the middle of a build. So, it's time to take them apart to verify the inventory. If the sets are partial, you definitely should take them apart to figure out how much is missing. Look through your new bulk to see if you can find the rest. Focus on the expensive sets first.
Check through your minifigures, instructions, and interesting pieces to see what sets may have been broken down entirely and see if they are worth reconstituting. You could do another survey of your bulk to see if the seemingly random bulk is hiding some treasure. I look for the part numbers on the interesting pieces. Finding the part number can be difficult, since it's usually inside of the LEGO piece and hard to spot, except with the right light. If the piece appears in multiple sets, I check for context with other pieces in the lot. Again, the interesting pieces generally have a unique shape, sticker or printing.
If you can't complete them this way, or even with other bulk you might have, then you have to decide if sinking some more money into them is worthwhile. Does spending $10, $20, or $50 more make sense? Only you know for sure, but you've already dug a hole into your resources and time. It's either keep digging, or see if you can punt it off somewhere. I tend to try to get as many sets working at a time as I can. Hopefully this will help me to get the most missing pieces for the least orders.
STEP 4: Dealing with the true bulk
You're going to have leftovers after you pull out the stuff that is easiest to sell. You have several options.
- You could write it off. Put it back in a box and donate it or stick it in the garage, hoping to forget about it. This is generally the least appealing option to me. I've put time and money into this, so I want to recover something more than the tax write off or another box in the garage.
- Sell it as bulk. You could try to recover something from it by selling it all as a big lot, or even breaking it up into more manageable 1, 2, 5 or 10 lb lots. There's a lot of competition that way, but it's not super hard to do.
- Save the pieces to help you complete other sets in your next bulk lot. This is appealing because you already have it on hand. There's no guarantee that it will do the job, but at least you have a chance to cut down on further expenses.
- Sell the pieces individually through Bricklink or Ebay or some other venue. This is the most time consuming way to do it. It's also the way to get the most total value from the pieces, eventually. A lot of pieces may not sell quickly if at all, but you have a higher return on every piece that does sell.
So, after all of that. You have to figure out whether it was worth it. If you made some money, or got some stuff that you wanted for less than the going rate, it will give you that rosy glow. It's fun to initially dig through all of that stuff searching for buried treasures. When you find something, it really does feel like it's all worthwhile. In the long hours of sorting, searching for pieces, and waiting for Bricklink orders it may be less fun. Waiting for the stuff to sell to recoup your costs is even less fun than that. I like to do it, but at the end of the day, the monetary returns vs. my time may not be the best. It may be the worst paying job that I have ever had.
You really do need to have a plan for evaluating what you are buying and for dealing with it once you do. If you've never done it before, it may be overwhelming. It will take a little while to get more proficient. It's definitely not a quick buck, but money is there to be had. If you are disorganized, if you lose patience, if you don't have the time,you're just throwing money into a hole.
May the bricks be ever in your favor.
pictures are used to demonstrate example bulk lots from real auctions.