How to Sell Model Trains

A father and son operating toy trains

Peter Cade Collection/Getty Images

"How do I sell my old train?" It is one of the most common questions at any train show. There are lots of options for selling your trains, and a few things you can do to help increase your potential sale value.

Know What Your Trains Are Worth

Before you go anywhere to sell your trains, it is a good idea to have some idea of what you are selling, and what it is worth. Even a little research will go a long way, especially if you are selling online through a forum where your description is key.

If you have absolutely no idea what you have, start by looking at the bottom of the model. Often the manufacturer will have their name cast into the car body. Compare it to other models to determine its scale. With these bits of information, you can usually start a web search.

There are lots of books on old trains that go into great detail about the sometimes subtle changes that can greatly alter the value of an old model. There is one important caveat with model trains that can not be overstated. While there are indeed some rare models which go for tens of thousands of dollars to the right buyer, these are the exception and not the rule. Model trains are made to be enjoyed—not to put in your retirement portfolio. Most model trains will not appreciate in value and it is probably best not to assume that yours will fetch more than a small amount.

Where to Go

There are lots of options for selling old trains. Start with your local hobby shop. Not all model train stores sell used trains, but many do. The local shop offers convenience and a potentially quick sale. And if they don't take your trains they can probably offer useful information.

Keep in mind however that with this ease comes a cost. Since they plan to resell your models, you will need to be willing to sell to them at a price that affords them profit. If they offer 50% percent of market value, you're doing very well. Remember, the time and space your old trains will occupy in their store has plenty of real costs. You may be able to work a slightly better deal if you are willing to take store credit instead of cash in the exchange.

If you really want to get the most for your trains, then your best bet is to go directly to the final buyer. The hard part of this is finding them. As you spend time searching and posting, you'll begin to understand why the hobby shop's cut may be worth it. The internet offers several options. There are the general online auction sites where you can sell everything from old trains to dirty laundry. There are also sites which specialize in only trains. There are also many online forums where modelers gather to exchange ideas and yes, trains.

Tips for Selling Online

If you do sell online, there are a few things you must do. These will help both you as a seller and protect your buyers:

  1. Write an accurate description. Make sure your potential buyers know what you really have.
  2. Include photos. A picture is worth a thousand words and good clear photos are a must. And be ready to share more images with interested buyers. Photos must represent the actual models being sold - not catalog art, images of "similar" trains or old pictures of these models that no longer accurately represent their condition.
  3. Be honest. If there are paint scratches or a missing coupler, say so. If your trains have been out of the box and run, they are not in mint condition. They may be "like new" but they are not "new."
  4. For older trains, the Train Collectors Association has a grading scale for the condition. Using this scale will help you and the buyer assess the condition and relative value.

If these options aren't turning up any sales consider cutting your losses and selling or even donating the trains to the local thrift store or charity. If nobody online or in the hobby shops has jumped at your trains, you can sell them cheaply with confidence that you aren't holding that one-in-a-million collector's treasure.

Get the Most for Your Sale

In addition to making sure you do a little background research and provide the best descriptions and photographs possible, there are a few other steps you can take to improve your chances at a sale or even a few more dollars.

Condition is everything in the used train market. Even the rarest and treasured collectible becomes far less desirable if it is in poor condition.

You don't have to go to great lengths to improve the look and value of your trains. Cleaning your models will go a long way. You don't need to replace missing or broken parts or repaint (in fact it may be better if you don't) but a little dusting will make the models shine.

Test the models as well. "It ran the last time we used it" is hardly reassuring to a buyer. You can also negotiate a better price knowing that it runs. If it runs but performs poorly, you may want to take the time to clean and lubricate it for better operation.

It may take some time and work to sell your old trains. Of course, if it doesn't seem worth the effort, there is probably a local club or charity store that will be happy to take them off your hands.