eBay Advice

Side Deals

A side deal is a transaction between a seller and a buyer that occurs outside of the established policies and protocols of a particular marketplace.  On eBay, for example, a buyer may ask the seller to end an auction early.  This can happen whether bids have been placed or not.  Essentially, the buyer is trying to convince the seller to accept a price that is higher than the starting or current bid and that may be higher than the final bid.  The item may or may not change hands outside of eBay’s established system for buying and selling.

Fixed-price items sold outside of eBay can be side dealt as well.  Let’s say a seller advertises an Atari 400 in an online forum’s marketplace thread.  The seller asks $20 for it.  Buyer X immediately replies with an offer to buy, and the seller agrees, posting that the item has been sold.  A few minutes later, Buyer Y sends the seller a message:  “I know that you just sold this item, but I’m willing to pay you $40 for it.”  The seller then agrees to sell it to Buyer Y, going back on his agreement with Buyer X.  Whether the seller tells the first buyer the truth or not is beside the point here.  He or she has made a side deal for a fixed-price item.

Like it or not, side dealing is part of the culture of buying and selling old videogames (and anything desirable, really).  Whether you are the seller, a potential buyer offering a side deal, or the buyer victimized by a side deal, this article will help you to recognize what is happening and to get what’s coming to you (maybe).


When you’re the seller, you may be asked by a buyer to end an auction early or add a “Buy It Now” option.  This means that your item may be overvalued or undervalued.  Let’s take these one at a time.

A buyer may want to buy your item at less than what you have it listed for, whether that price is the Buy It Now price or the minimum bid.  This may mean that your item is overvalued, particularly if the auction has been live for several days or if the item has been relisted.  If your item were not overvalued, the buyer probably would go ahead and bid on it or use Buy It Now.  The buyer may have been watching the item for awhile and wants to buy it, just not for what you are asking for it.

This has happened to me more than once.  The experience can be pleasant, or it can be rather annoying.  If the buyer is polite, I’m happy to hear an offer, particularly if the item hasn’t sold the first time around.  But some buyers come at you with a sense of entitlement, tacitly suggesting that you’re naive to be asking what you are for the item.  These are people that you don’t want to deal with as a seller.

You have a couple of good options to complete this kind of side deal.  The first is to end the auction and relist the item with a Buy It Now at the price the buyer is willing to pay.  The two of you have to agree on a relisting time so that a stranger doesn’t swoop in and snatch the item.  The pressure is all on the buyer here because you will still get your money either way.  The other option is to bypass eBay and use PayPal to invoice the buyer.  The buyer still gets PayPal Buyer Protection, and you do not have to pay eBay 9% of the selling price (you still have to pay PayPal 2.9% + $0.30).  Because you don’t have to pay eBay 9%, your “discount” price might net you close to what you were asking for in the first place.

When your item is worth more than what you are asking, buyers will want you to end the auction immediately.  This probably means that you did not include a Buy It Now option.  If the buyer does not offer a lower price that what you’re asking, there’s a good chance that your item is undervalued.  Buyers may ask you to add a Buy It Now option, leaving it up to you to set the price, or they may simply offer you an amount higher than the opening bid.  They may tell you that they need the item immediately or that their offer will be higher than the final bid in an auction.  In this situation, don’t be pressured.  The buyer may be an avid collector who needs this item to add to a collection, or he or she may want to flip it at a later time.  At this point, you should do a little more research to determine the rarity of your item–check online retailers, price guides, forum posts, etc.  You may even want to cancel the auction so that you can relist the item at a higher starting bid.

If buyers have already bid on an item that you want to side deal or relist at a higher price, you must decide whether cancelling one or more bids is an ethical move on your part.  As the seller, you may believe that you have the right to do whatever you want with your item, during or even after the auction (see below).  Or, you may believe that you are ethically bound to honor a bid that was placed in good faith.  Some sellers do not know that eBay allows you to cancel one or more bids.  Sometimes it is necessary for you to do so because a bidder has decided to back out of the auction, or maybe the item was damaged or broken during the life of the auction.  Other times, sellers realize that their item is more valuable than they had initially estimated and will cancel bids in order to relist or side deal.  eBay’s instructions for cancelling bids can be found here.

On to much murkier ethical ground.  You can still back out of a transaction after it has concluded–even if the buyer has already paid you.  As a seller, I have never done this, although I have had it done to me several times (see below).  You can refund a buyer’s payment by going through PayPal.  At this point, you probably want to cancel the transaction so that you do not have to pay Final Value fees.  In order to do this, both buyer and seller have to agree to cancel the transaction.  This may be difficult if the buyer does not believe your reason for backing out of the deal.  In any event, you must open a case by going through eBay’s Resolution Center.  Instructions can be found here.


When you’re the buyer and want to side deal, you either really want the item for your collection, or you believe that you can flip it for a good profit.  Your motivation is sometimes both–you want the item for your collection, but you’re reassured that you can always sell it for more than you paid.

When you really want an item for your collection, there’s no reason not to propose a side deal.  After all, the seller can always refuse.  However, it is always worth asking–I’ve won several items this way.  I usually ask the seller if he or she is willing to add a Buy It Now option to the listing.  Time is sensitive here, because as soon as another person places a bid, the option to add BIN will disappear.  Or someone else may jump on the BIN before you do!  Keep an eye on your messages so that you can respond promptly if you have to.  I’ve had sellers respond four ways to my request to add a Buy It Now option (not counting ignoring my query altogether):

  • “No thanks.  I want this to be a true auction.”
  • “I don’t know how to do that.”
  • “Sure.  How does $X sound to you?”
  • “Maybe.  How much are you willing to offer?”

If sellers respond in one of the first two ways, I will thank them and plan to win the auction the old fashioned way.

The third situation is great because the seller has established a price.  It’s always possible to bargain at this point, but I will usually accept the number or not.  Sometimes the buyer floats a number that is lower than what you were willing to pay.

The fourth situation can mean anything.  You may have just tipped off the seller that the item is undervalued, and he or she may want to know how much you’re willing to pay.  On the other hand, sellers may be motivated to sell and simply want to know if what you’re proposing is worth their time.  As with the third situation, ethics becomes an issue for some here because you usually have more information about the value of the item than the seller does.

All of the advice above applies when you are side dealing with the intent to flip the item.  Again, you know best whether you can live with yourself after you do this.  A few times, I have accepted side deals only to see the item I sold listed on eBay the next week for double what the buyer paid.  I’m fine with this practice because I know that this outcome is always a possibility.


I’ll start with the bad news: if you’ve been side dealt, there’s probably nothing you can do to get the item for what you thought you were going to pay.

Once when I was browsing some auctions on eBay, I came across a mixed lot of loose Atari 8-bit cartridges.  There were about thirty cartridges in all, including many uncommon titles and three very rare Romox games.  The Buy It Now was only $100 for the entire lot (with free shipping to boot).  Needless to say, I hit the BIN immediately.  Later that day, the seller sent me a message that went something like this: “Some of these carts aren’t working, so I can’t in good conscience accept your payment.  I have refunded your money.  I will relist some of these after I have tested them all.”  The seller had opened a case, which is necessary for cancelling a transaction.  I refused to cancel the transaction, saying that I would take all of the cartridges, working or not.  The seller did not agree, so I knew that something was fishy.  Long story short, eBay was very little help.  eBay could tag the seller as a “non-selling seller,” but this means very little unless there is a pattern of this kind of behavior.  Beyond that, I could voice my dissatisfaction only with negative feedback.  The seller did have to pay Final Value fees, as I did not agree to cancel the transaction.   Buying and selling a lot on eBay, you come to accept experiences like this one and move on.

This experience was the most annoying but certainly was not the only one.  Another seller told me after the auction that she had listed her boyfriend’s items by mistake.  However, the most common experience is having a listing that you have bid on suddenly end with no explanation.  Perhaps you placed a minimum bid as a placeholder.  The next day, you see the dreaded “The seller has ended this listing.”  When you are side dealt, you may never know whether another buyer was involved or not.  That is, the seller can pull off a de facto side deal by ending the auction to relist the item at a higher price, to sell it on Craigslist, or just to hold onto it for a little longer.  With the situation described above, I didn’t know whether another buyer had offered more than my Buy It Now price.  This turned out not to be the case when, a few weeks later, I saw all of the carts offered for sale on eBay again, from the same seller.  Once you become a savvy buyer of old videogames, you will witness more and more of this funny business just because the items you are interested in will be undervalued or highly desirable ones.

Even though you can depend only on the seller’s integrity to avoid being the victim of a side deal, there are some things you can do to minimize the chances of it happening.  First, if you are a member of an online forum such as those at Atari Age or Digital Press, resist the temptation to brag about a rare item that you scored on eBay until the item is in your hands, or at least in the mail.  Many unscrupulous members of these forums will think nothing of contacting the seller in order to make a side deal.  Second, I try to minimize the contact that I have with the seller, before and after the end of the auction.  Obviously, you may need to ask some questions if the listing is badly described, but you may want avoid leading questions like, “The word under Swordquest wouldn’t be Waterworld, would it?”  That said, most sellers wouldn’t give a second thought to such a query, or they might still honor the deal after having got the bad end of it.  Given that you have very little recourse after a side deal, you want to do what you can to minimize the risk of it happening.

What are your side deal stories?


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