So, I inherited some trains...

Published: 2020-08-10 - By: gdm
Last updated on: 2020-08-12
visibility: Public

Model train collection valuation for a non-hobbyist

Many conversations start up with the phrase "So, I inherited some trains...." It is usually a friend or acquaintance that is aware of TroveStar and that the website is mostly about model trains. The conversation quickly turns to "so what are they worth?"

I offered to write an article on this topic for the NSE magazine but in light of the dimmer that Covid-19 has put on the hobby, the editor rightfully thought the topic might come across as too negative. He is probably right, but I decided to write this anyways.

Here is the short answer. They are probably not worth selling. In fact they are probably carry a negative value as you will waste some time determining that they are worthless and that time could have been spent doing something fun. And time lost is value lost.

So what should I do with them?

If you know of a local model train club, they might have someone willing to buy the lot or perhaps all the members will chip in some money to buy the entire collection. Contact them and see if they can help.

There are also some dealers (can be tricky to find) that will offer you a couple dollars per item if they think there might be some hidden treasures in the lot.

Lastly, you might sell the box of trains as a lot. The more time you take identifying and describing and photographing the lot, the more value you can realize, but this is directly proportional to the time you sink into it. But, consider the value per hour that you spend cataloging. If you can add $50 value to the lot by spending four hours photographing and typing in descriptions, then you just earned $12.50/hour.

But on eBay....

So you might ask me "But model train boxcars are selling on eBay for $50 each and I have 100 so aren't they worth $5,000?" Here is my answer.

The model trains on eBay are being sold by professionals who bought up lots, cherry picked the good items, and dumpstered the vast bulk of what they purchased. The pros know how to describe the items, photograph them, package them, and ship them efficiently. You likely don't know how to do any of these things. And if you cannot do them ALL efficiently, you will do better of spending your time pulling a part time shift at McDonald's. You will earn more money in the same amount of time.

Allow me to go into more detail.

First, you need to know which items will sell and which ones should go into the dumpster. To do this, you will need to know if the items are in original condition, or if they have been modified. Are they in the correct box? You don't care, but your buyers will give birth to kittens if you ship an item in the wrong packaging. If the previous owner actually played with their items, there is a good chance that whomever packaged up the estate made some mistakes putting them in their boxes. I see this all the time on eBay. You also need to know all about the scale and manufacturer and date of manufacture to make a judgement call on which ones to keep. Sometimes a hot item in a scuffed box with some clear signs of minor use will still sell well, while other times a brand new train in its original box will be worthless because nobody wanted that model.

Then assuming you have cherry picked the best items, now you have to describe them in such a way that an educated buyer will know what they are purchasing. You cannot simply take a picture of the box. eBay buyers use text searches and if your listing doesn't have the right keywords, nobody will find it. Now once they locate it, you better describe it accurately because buyers don't want to gamble. They want to know that this item is as described and is exactly what they were hunting for. This knowledge frequently requires a graduate level seminar in the particular scale you are dealing with. Don't know what a scale is? Throw in the towel now.

Do you know what a lightbox is? Do you own one? Is it set up in a convenient location? Do you have a set of high-lumen lamps to focus on your item? Guess what. The one thing you don't need is a professional camera. Your phone will work fine assuming the answer to the first four questions was yes. It takes time to photograph items well. A pro can do it quickly and knows how to set up the items so they look their best.

Do you have a supply of packing material? Do you have boxes? Do you know how to put it all together in a box that will survive the tender mercies of the USPS?

Taking items to UPS or the Post Office takes time. Even if you get $50 for an item, how much time did it take to research, describe, pack, and then run to the post office (yes you need to count both directions)? No you cannot wait three days until you have some other letters to go out. After a buyer sends you money, they want their item now. No they are not patient.

So, even the pros need to take a lot of time to do all these things. And they have to pay for the items they are selling. So it turns out that the 'pros' are likely earning less money than a McDonald's employee once you factor in all the hours it takes to sell an item and factor into it the profit. Yes, many pros live in their parents' basements among boxes and boxes of trains (or beanie babies, or Magic Cards or whatever).

So if a pro earns less than minimum wages, then why do they do it? Usually because they either a) love it so much they don't mind living in their parents' basement or b) are incapable of holding down a normal job or c) both.

If a pro earns less than minimum selling trains and they can do it quickly and efficiently, imagine what will happen when you go about doing it? So if it sounds like a happy trip down memory lane to learn to relive the wonderful time you once spent with your grandfather before he passed away, by all means take the plunge. This is a fantastic hobby. But if you are doing it for money reasons, then don't. Instead find a young person to give that box of trains to. Or donate it to a local thrift shop. The value of your tax deduction will be more worth more than any cash you will earn off eBay.


  • Re-selling individual items is time consuming a not worth unless you are knowledgeable about the collection and selling on eBay (or similar venues).
  • You can use TroveStar to get an estimated value for many items, and then you can sell certain individual items. Sell the rest in lots.
  • If you don't want to bother with reselling yourself, contact a model train club that could be interested in buying the lot. Sometimes dealers might have an interest if the collection has some valuable items in it.
  • Don't throw it all away, it is certainly worth some money to the right party.