Gold: 7 Things to Know Before You Sell

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Selling gold never has been easier--or riskier. With prices of the precious metal hitting records almost daily ($1,774 the ounce, as of today), and with fear and uncertainty continuing to roil the world's financial markets, gold buyers are eager to pay top dollar for any jewelry, coins or bars you care to part with.

Never have there been so many choices on where and how to sell. In Texas, you can pick up a nice steak for dinner and unload your tiara at the same time: Gold and Silver Buyers, the state's biggest buyer of precious metals, has its stores conveniently located inside or alongside supermarkets.

Since May, eBay has been offering a new feature on its site--a Bullion Center. Spokesperson Johnna Hoff says it was created "to be a one-stop destination" consolidating trade in all types of bullion--gold and silver coins and bars, primarily. The terms and conditions that apply to the sale of a gold bar are no more onerous those that apply to somebody who sells a toaster, a football jersey, or anything else on eBay: Small, casual sellers (non-professionals) pay eBay 9 percent of the price for which their bullion sells, when and if it does. There's no charge for listing. Small sellers, says Hoff, accounted for about one-third of bullion sold last week on eBay.

Whether you sell your gold online, at a local jeweler or through a pawn shop, it's possible, if you're not careful, to wind up with less than its full value. To avoid getting taken, keep these 7 points in mind:

Shop Around. No matter how or where you ultimately chose to sell, start locally. Take your gold to a reputable local jeweler or pawn shop and ask them to estimate its value. That way, you'll have at least have a base price in hand before you solicit online bids or other offers. You don't need to worry that you're abusing the good nature of your local businesses, says Dave Crume, past president of the National Pawnbrokers Association and vice president of Wichita, Kansas, pawnbroker A-OK Enterprises. They're in business to give estimates, and they'll give them for free. "Go to three or four stores," he advises, "and compare." To locate your nearest pawnbroker, try the National Pawnbrokers Association website.

Beware 'Rogue' Buyers. Crume cautions sellers about doing business with transient gold dealers whom he calls "rogue" buyers (also known as "hotel" or "pop-up" buyers). They blow into town, run ads promising high prices, and set up shop, say, in a hotel ballroom. After vacuuming up a city's worth of jewelry and coins, they disappear, sometimes leaving their victims un- or underpaid. In one test, a gold chain legitimately appraised at $250 was offered to a variety of hotel buyers. None offered more than $130. Before you sell gold--whether to a hotel buyer or to anybody else--check with the Better Business Bureau to see if there are complaints against the buyer.

Don't Mix Karats. Among the new places to sell your gold are Tupperware-like "gold parties" like those organized by Premier Gold Parties, where a group of friends or neighbors meet to socialize and sell their gold in a home setting. "While gold parties may be a convenient way to make some cash," warns Tucson's Better Business Bureau, "they may not provide you the best deal." Why not? Too many hands in the pot: the company that organized the party gets its cut, and so does the host. At some parties, all jewelry is weighed together, regardless of its karat value, and sellers are paid according to the lowest karat value. Don't accept those terms. Separate your jewelry in advance, by karat, and make sure you are paid more for higher-karat items.

Keep an Eye on the Scale. While the accuracy of scales used by jewelers and pawnshops is verified periodically by the department of weights and measures, the same may not be true for scales used by hotel or house party buyers. The Better Business Bureau advises sellers to pay close attention to how their gold is being weighed: Jewelers value gold not by the ordinary ounce (28 grams) but by the Troy (31.1 grams). While some buyers pay according to the gram, others use a system called pennyweight: A pennyweight is equivalent to 1.555 grams. A seller needs to make sure he's not being weighed by pennyweight and paid by the gram, since that would allow the buyer to get more gold for less money.

Read the Fine Print. Sell Gold HQ, a website that reviews and compares online gold buyers, advises sellers to compare terms and conditions carefully. "Even when consumers use a legitimate site that buys gold online," says the company in a statement, "it is easy to make a costly mistake by not reading the fine print. For example, some websites offer free shipping to send in gold, but very high shipping rates if the consumer declines the offer and asks for he gold to be returned." Check the buyer's policy, too, on reimbursement if they lose your gold. Many offer only limited liability.

Check Credentials. Ask a potential buyer to show you his credentials: If he's legitimate, he'll be licensed by the state to buy gold. He will also be required by law to ask you, the seller, to produce a driver's license, passport or some other form of government-issued identification. That requirement exists to frustrate money laundering and the sale of stolen property. If your buyer does not ask to see your ID, take your business elsewhere.

Is It Scrap--or History? Before you sell a gold item to be melted down for scrap, make sure it's not worth more in its present form. Brian Witherell, operations manager of Sacramento, Calif., antiques dealer Witherell's, gives this example: A seller brought him an antique item—a small gold watch fob made in the shape of a railroad spike. "It was a little thing," Witherell recalls, and would not have brought much as scrap. Upon inspection, the fob turned out to have been fashioned out of gold left over from making the famous full-sized golden spike used in 1869 to commemorate completion of the transcontinental railroad. At auction, it sold for $20,000.