The cllct Guide: How to properly price your sports and trading cards

Knowledge is power, and that's true when you're looking to buy or sell cards

Cover Image for The cllct Guide: How to properly price your sports and trading cards
When assessing the value of a card, knowing the recent trends is essential. (Credit: Getty Images)

It doesn’t matter if you’re buying, selling or just curious, knowing the value of your sports and non-sports cards is one of the most important parts of collecting.

From free online resources to paid tools with charts and advanced data, there are many ways for collectors to quickly find what the majority of their cards and collectibles are worth.

Whether you’re completely new to the hobby or returning after a break, it’s critical to learn the basics for valuing your collection.

Here are some tips and tricks from the cllct team to get you started.

Why you should know the value

Before you dive in, it’s important to understand why you should know the value of your cards.

For buyers, understanding the current market can help find the right deals at the right time — most savvy collectors will try to stretch their budget to the maximum whenever possible. If you don’t already have a budget, consider creating one soon.

Whether buying or selling, collectors should know which way the market is trending for the items they hold. (Credit: eBay)
Whether buying or selling, collectors should know which way the market is trending for the items they hold. (Credit: eBay)

Sellers should know the current market for a variety of reasons. Making deals with buyers is, of course, always easier when your cards are priced near their current market value.

But for sellers, understanding the market is just as helpful for avoiding losses as it is securing profits. If a hobbyist purchases a card with the intent to sell it later, it’s important to know whether that card has started to decline in price.

Many of the most successful card dealers recommend selling cards during the earliest stages of price decline and then reinvesting the money left over into another opportunity. There might be a desire to wait for a price rebound, but a 10% loss can quickly turn into a 30% one.

For those neither actively buying or selling cards, it’s still a good idea to understand what your collection is worth so you can protect it properly. The value of cards in one’s collection can fall across a wide spectrum, and that should determine how much you invest in protection and storage.

Truthfully, most cards are properly protected with a penny sleeve and top loader. The penny sleeve is even enough for most low-dollar cards.

Every collector is different, though many prefer to store cards worth a few dollars or more in top loaders, while also using rigid one-touch, magnetic holders for a combination of protection and display-ability.

Cards worth hundreds or thousands of dollars might be best stored in a padded carrying case, a safe or even a lockbox. The choice is up to you, though you’ll need to know the price point to begin with.

Identifying your cards

The trick to finding the correct valuation for any collectible is identifying it in the first place. Luckily for card collectors, there’s a ton of information included on the majority of cards to make things easier.

The front of the card will give you basic information such as the player, team and logos for specific sets or manufacturers. (Credit: eBay)
The front of the card will give you basic information such as the player, team and logos for specific sets or manufacturers. (Credit: eBay)

The front of most cards typically features attributes such as the player name, team name and logos for specific sets or manufacturers. The reverse is where much of the key information is found, though.

Checking the back of most trading cards will likely yield things like the card or ID number within the overall set and key elements like the manufacturer, set name and year of production in fine print toward the bottom.

The important elements for identifying a card, such as the Ronald Acuna Jr. 2018 Topps Chrome Update, can all be found on the back, for example.

Non-sports cards might not have some of the same elements as a traditional sports card, though many of the same concepts still apply. There might not be team names or logos, but most non-sports cards will likely feature names of characters and information about the set, manufacturer and production year on the reverse.

Collectors should also pay close attention to any additional colors, designs or patterns that might have been added to the card, as parallels or refractors can greatly impact the price of almost any card.

Pay close attention to serial-numbering as well: This not only tells collectors the placement within a total run of short-printed cards, but these serial numbers can help identify rare and desirable variations.

Red refractors from Topps, for example, might often have just five copies, and Panini’s Gold parallel might only have 10. These aren’t guaranteed, but can often be used as a guide to identify different variations.

The back of the card also contains key identifiable information, such as the card number, set details and year of production. (Credit: eBay)
The back of the card also contains key identifiable information, such as the card number, set details and year of production. (Credit: eBay)

Spotting refractors or parallels might be difficult for new or returning collectors, so inspect photos during your search carefully to ensure you’ve identified your card correctly.

Searching for recent sales

Once you’ve pulled together a variety of attributes, you can start your search. It’s highly recommended including key facts such as the player name, manufacturer, set name, card number and release year.

Together, those items add up to a very specific search that should deliver results very close to what you’re looking for.

While magazines such as the Beckett Price Guides dominated the hobby for decades, most collectors today use online tools to gather more accurate and recent pricing data.

The easiest and most accessible way to find valuations is by using search tools within the marketplaces themselves.

To find recent prices on eBay or similar marketplaces, simply search for the card using the accumulated traits you’ve found. Your initial search will likely show current items for sale, so you’ll want to navigate to the search query’s filters and mark “Sold Items” or “Completed Items” to see previous auctions that have ended.

From here, you can use the recent completed auction data to determine what your card might currently be worth. Pay close attention to the photos associated with each listing to ensure you’ve searched for the correct card and that the listing is for the same item.

If possible, take into consideration a series of sales to spot any potential trends. The direction a price is trending should play a major part in your valuation.

Take caution, however, as card prices — not unlike the stock market — can change rapidly on a day-to-day basis.

Consider doing regular searches to audit your collection, especially if you own cards of active players who can have prices impacted by current events and the regular news cycle.

For additional clarity, consider using a website such as 130 Point to do free searches across a variety of marketplaces. A major advantage to using a third-party resource is it can show exact prices paid for items sold via Best Offer.

Third-party tools can also help differentiate between items that were successfully sold, and items that went unpaid. In some cases, buyers back out before payment, and those auctions remain visible as completed.

Unpaid auctions can also, though not always, be part of elaborate schemes to drive up the price of a card. A series of unpaid auctions could create the illusion that a card is going up in price.

Using paid tools and advanced analytics

Beyond free resources, there are a number of paid data tools that attempt to provide deeper analysis into the market.

Consider trying pricing tools such as CardLadder or Market Movers if you’d like more data than a series of recent sales presented by other resources.

A major benefit to some paid tools is the ability to compare cards or observe trend lines over specific periods of time.

For buyers, it’s extremely helpful to observe trend lines that might show regular seasonal dips and ideal times to buy. Common sense tells us that prices for specific players or sports often decline in the offseason, but the data can help prove it.

Trend lines are also helpful when observing the all-time highs or lows of a price spectrum. Understanding the lowest or highest a card has ever sold for can empower buyers or sellers to make budget-friendly decisions.

Some paid tools also offer market indexes, which attempt to show the overall health of the market entirely or for specific sports and eras.

If you’re considering purchasing access to a pricing tool, seriously evaluate the specific features offered and the types of and number of cards tracked. The user interface and experience are important aspects, too — is the tool enjoyable and helpful to use?

The tracking of pricing data is difficult, so you should also always confirm sales prices with the marketplace directly if using a third-party tool to make a purchasing decision. Data tools track prices by analyzing listings made by humans, and humans make mistakes.

Check the work before you make a decision, you’ll be happy you did.

Asking for help

If you’ve tried free resources and paid resources and can’t find what you’re looking for, consider asking for help.

Take care not to spam the hobby community with simple questions, but also feel confident that veteran collectors will help if you’ve already put in research of your own. Social media is filled with hobby-related communities and, chances are, someone has asked a similar question to yours already.

For those completely unfamiliar with cards and collectibles, consider reaching out to a local card or collectibles store for assistance.

If you believe your items are truly high-end, but you don’t know where to start, contacting an auction house could be a good option, too, though they’ll likely request to consign your items in exchange for their services.

Consider doing your own research first when possible, but reach out to external resources if you’re truly out of good options.

The hobby is filled with many wonderful people, and the majority of them will likely be happy to help those who need it.

Ben Burrows is a reporter and editor for clct.