The PSA Set RegistryTM has provided a window into some truly spectacular trading card sets. With over 7000 sets enrolled to date, the PSA registry has undoubtedly been one of the most successful innovations that our hobby has seen in recent years. The journey of building a PSA graded set can include some of the most challenging and rewarding moments of your life, especially if you haven't won the lottery and are forced to build your set on a budget. For the average person building PSA graded sets, there are some strategies that can help you build a high quality set without going bankrupt in the process. There are several key steps that should be a part of your overall game plan.
Probably the most important consideration is to know your set inside and out. For all practical purposes, you're marrying your chosen set. As with any good marriage, you should know things about your set before going to the altar. Learning things like the exact dimensions of the cards, the traits of your set's cardstock, which 10 commons are the lowest/highest population in the set, what were the common printing or cutting issues surrounding the set, and information about expected individual card and set costs are important things to know. PSA provides a great deal of access to set information through the online population report and the Set Registry message board. The effort spent "getting to know" your set will dramatically increase your probability of long-term success.
The next crucial step is to set realistic goals for your set. Beginning with the end in mind is critical. Setting an overall grade standard is a good first step. But there's more to building a high quality set than gobbling up every card that falls within PSA's standards for a given grade. Let's face it, with over 7000 registered sets, the odds of you having the #1 rated set (on a budget) is pretty slim. Fortunately, there are a number of ways that you can make your set stand out over and above the PSA grade.
One way to make your set extraordinary is to only include high-end cards (for the grade) as you build. Quite frankly, a perfectly centered PSA 7 set can have every bit of naked eye appeal as their PSA 8 & PSA 9 counterparts even though it may not technically make the higher grade. Adding your personal standards to PSA's published standards will increase the challenge involved in building your set and maximize the long-term value when you're finished. You will often hear the phrase "Buy the card, not the holder." It's a far better strategy to buy the card AND the holder for long term results. Plan your strategy and be disciplined about adhering to it.
Once you have decided on the end goal, it's a great idea to build a roadmap. Many successful set builders map out the cards along with an expected cost. It's relatively easy to put together an effective roadmap with each card; the SMR for the card, and your actual cost including shipping. Some set builders also include a field that denotes which dealer the card was acquired from. One way to get an idea of expected costs is to use eBay's completed auctions and/or Superior's auction results to gauge the market. It's important to be realistic in setting your financial targets. A high grade common with a population of less than 10 and none grading higher is going to set you back more than one with a much higher population. Demanding great deals on the high population cards will help bankroll your efforts for the low population cards
After you've learned about your set, set up a minimum grade and financial goals for your set, begin networking with others who share the passion for the set you've chosen. One excellent way to network is by using the e-mail feature of the Set Registry. Many collectors include a link to their e-mail next to their registered set. (Those that don't can make their e-mail private.) Most set collectors are more than happy to discuss their set and issues that pertain to building a high caliber set. More importantly, many of these set registrants have duplicates that could help you get started. If they don't have duplicates, they can often point you in the direction of a reputable person that does. If you prefer not to go the e-mail route, a second alternative is to post on PSA's Vintage Sportscard Trading Message Board. Many times, it's a great venue for finding bargains for your new set.
If you're truly going to build a high grade set on a budget, it's important to think like a dealer. Once you've committed to building a graded set, you've also committed to becoming a "dealer" of the cards in your set at some point by default. So how do the dealers keep their cost/card down? Buy in bulk. Truth be told, the best graded card values can often be found in large graded lots that are auctioned from time to time in auctions like Superior, MastroNet, or Mile High Card Company. In many cases, one can cherry pick the lot for the nicest cards and still sell the remainder at a profit on eBay or some other avenue. Additionally, once you've networked with other collectors and dealers, you will probably have many individuals that are eager to "share" lots with you.
Most successful "budget" set builders end up submitting a good percentage of the cards that become a part of their set. Thus, another critical aspect in thinking like a dealer is to fully understand the grading standards. Unlike many grading companies, PSA's standards are published. A small investment in a 10X loupe and a firm grasp on the standards can pay huge dividends in helping you determine whether your raw card is up to the grade standard that you're looking for. Additionally, as you build your network of partners, having another veteran collector evaluate the cards that you feel are worthy of your set is a great idea. A second set of eyes usually increases your submission results and can save you the frustration of missing a small flaw.
PSA also provides a number of things to support set building. Two of the most important of these are the Set Registry specials and the crossover service. Registered set builders with a little patience can often be rewarded with discounted rates when PSA runs a "Set Registry Special." The specials are usually kept current on the web site. If you just can't wait, it's often cost efficient to combine submissions with other collectors or submit through PSA authorized dealers. Once you start getting close to completion, it's often a decent option to take advantage of PSA's crossover service. With this service, one can submit cards in a competitor's holder and request a minimum grade. The card only gets broken out of the competitive holder if it meets your required grade. This minimizes your downside for cards that don't cross over because those cards are returned to you still in the original holders.
An annual trip to the National Sports Collectors Convention is a virtual must. It's the single best source of making new contacts, learning about the hobby, and finding new raw and graded additions for your set. Additionally, it's a great opportunity to speak with PSA representatives to better understand their process and get tips on improving your submission results. If you've never had the opportunity to make the event, it's a good idea to start making your plans to attend the 2004 show in Cleveland. Quite honestly, there's no experience that quite compares. Most importantly, it's an investment that will pay long-term dividends as you build your set.