WHEN THE January bills come in is a traditional time to look around the house and see what you can sell.

Maybe you could sell the walnut side table, the 19th-century painting, the Hepplewhite chest of drawers, some Limoges plates, the stereo set, or all of those, or even the entire contents of a house. The cat won't bring much, but in big estate sales, even the mops have been known to bring a price.

You can sell just about anything but sometimes it's hard to take the first step. Decisions that can seem complicated and overwhelming must be made.

Let's be specific for the purpose of describing how the process works, and suppose that you want to sell a Victorian walnut side table with a turtle-shaped top. Do you sell the table to a dealer outright? Through a dealer on consignment? Through a classified ad? At a garage sale? Or at auction?

There is something to be said for all these ways, but very often an auction is the best bet. You will have some idea right away through a free verbal appraisal what your table is worth. You will reach a group of prospective buyers. The table will be sold quickly. And, finally, the deal will be closed and you can be sure of getting your money within a reasonable period of time.

For all of these advantages you may have to take a risk on the price the table will actually fetch when the gavel falls on the last bid. Every now and then something "goes for nothing," which is one reason buyers flock to auctions ready to pounce.

However, some auction houses allow a reserve price to be put on a valuable item and some will allow the seller to buy back his own consignment for a lowSee SELLING, Page 2, Col. X SELLING, From Page 1 commission. A reserve price is the minimum price you will accept; the auctioneer agrees not to sell for less, withdraws the lot from the sale if the reserve isn't met and charges a commission or fee for doing so. Let's say the auctioneer has agreed that your price of $250 will be the reserve. However, if the bidding doesn't reach $250, he will withdraw your table and charge you (usually) 10 percent, or $25, for handling.

Once you have decided that an auction sale is the best way for you to go, you will have to choose an auction house. Houses vary, sometimes greatly, in their emphasis and in what they will accept for sale. At the end of this article you will find a description of some of the possibilities in the Washington area.

If your table is too heavy for you to take in for an appraisal, phone the auctioneer and describe it to him. Often he will know right away the market value range. Or he may ask you to send a photo. In the case of a very valuable antique or a complete household, he may arrange to pay a visit to see your items before making an appraisal.

When you are satisfied that the table is going to bring enough money to make it worthwhile, you will have to arrange for transport to the auction house. Most have their own trucks or an agent of long standing, and you would be well advised to use them. They know how to handle antiques, paintings and porcelain without damage and the cost is likely to be reasonable (even free in some cases; ask about it).

Then the auctioneer will decide which kind of auction is best for a Victorian table. Some auction houses hold two kinds of sales: catalogue and non-catalogue. Catalogue sales are likely to include the finest paintings and antiques in excellent condition. (The auctioneer may recommend an illustration in the catalogue at your cost; very often it's worth it because the sale price can go up 20-30 percent). Non-catalogue auctions may include collectibles, all kinds of household goods, electrical appliances, used furniture and some antiques. The auctioneer may feel your table will bring a higher price at a non-catalogue sale where more buyers are looking for Victoriana. Or he could decide the table is such a fine and interesting example that it belongs in a catalogue. Victorian articles lie right on the dividing line.

The list below (in alphabetical order) may help you to decide where you can best sell your table, painting, chest of drawers, china or stereo set.

ARCADE AUCTIONS, 733 15th St. NW, is a good outlet for cameras, stereos, TVs, electrical tools, sewing machines, musical instruments (all must be in working condition, with no exception), and jewelry. Arcade charges 15 percent commission to dealers, 20 percent to private sellers.

A reserve is very seldom permitted but since a large proportion of the buyers are dealers, a pretty fair price is usually reached. At any rate, Irving Kamins, the auctioneer, can give you a close estimate of what a lot will bring. Your consignment will be sold within two or three weeks and you will be able to pick up your money within a week after the sale. Everything on the premises is covered by ample insurance -- at no charge to the consigner. Phone Kamins (393-3480) for an appointment to consign.

LAWS AUCTION & ANTIQUES, 7209 Centerville Rd., Manassas, Va., holds three quite different kinds of sales.Weekly auctions where TVs, appliances, and general household goods are sold are held every Friday. Twelve times a year there is a two-day estate sale, mainly comprised of collectibles and Victoriana. In addition, four times a year Laws holds a catalogue auction of older antiques and paintings.

Laws rarely agrees to a reserve price but is very willing to discuss your consignment, give verbal appraisals ("no misleading"), and help in every way. Twenty percent is the usual commission taken, but on a very valuable consignment it may be 10 or 15 percent. (There is no buyer's fee.) Everything on the premises is insured, with no charge to the consigner. Transport can be arranged either through an agent of long standing ("no complaints on prices or handling") or using Laws' own trucks for large estates. A consignment is auctioned within a few weeks and a seller receives a check in the mail about one to two weeks after regular sales.After larger catalogue sales, it may take two to four weeks to get a check. Telephone (Metro 631-0590 or 703-361-3148) to discuss details.

MISS B'S ANTIQUES, 737 8th St. SE, has been a well-known Capitol Hill antiques shop for many years, but is fairly new on the auction scene. Auctioneer Emmett White and his colleagues, Don Vann and Carolyn Jones, hold an auction of quality household goods, antiques and collectibles just about every two weeks on Thursday evenings. The sales have the pleasant, friendly air of a country auction and are drawing good-sized crowds from the neighborhood and beyond.

No reserve prices are allowed because a consigner can be present at the sale and buy his own lot back for a 10 percent commission, which seems a fair way to deal with buyer and seller alike. The regular commission is 20 percent (there is no buyer's premium). Miss B's charges a reasonable fee to pick up a consignment and arrangements for insurance are available. Consignments are put up for auction quickly, usually within a week or two, and the seller receives his check plus a complete accounting about two weeks after the sale. You can drop in to discuss your consignment and receive a free verbal appraisal, or phone 546-0635 to make an appointment. Business hours are Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.

C.G. SLOAN & CO., 715 13th St. NW (a second building at 919 E St. NW is scheduled to open in February for catalogue sales), a large, nationally known auction house, holds a catalogue sale every six weeks. Included are fine antiques, paintings and rugs, generally in good to excellent condition.

About once a month Sloan holds general household sales that may include appliances (must be in good working condition), furniture (clean and useable), paintings, prints, glassware, china, antique linen and lace, antique clothing, textiles, some nice antiques and collectibles.

Sloan's cataloguing staff will make an immediate decision about which type of sale is best for your consignment. Reserves are permitted on catalogue items; if the reserve is not met, the seller is charged 10 percent of the agreed-on reserve price or a minimum of $25. No reserves are allowed on items sold at the regular auctions. The commission to the consigner is 15 percent on sales of $1,000 or less and 10 percent on sales that exceed $1,000. (There is a buyer's premium of 10 percent.) You are automatically charged $1 for every $100 worth of insurance unless you specify otherwise. Your consignment can be picked up by Sloan's own trucking department. Every attempt is made to get your consignment into the first auction coming up ("we have a good track record for quick sales") and you will receive a check and statement about 35 working days after the auction. If you telephone 628-1468, the receptionist will put you in touch with the appropriate staff member and you can arrange to receive a free verbal estimate.

ADAM A. WESCHLER & SON, 905 E St. NW, has been in the auction business in Washington since 1890. Catalogue sales (fine rugs, antiques and paintings) occur four times a year. Regular auctions are held just about every Tuesday all year 'round, and include TVs and other appliances "as is" ("it's up to the buyer to test them"), household goods, books, jewelry, silver, paintings, prints, some antiques, etc.

Weschler will determine which kind of auction best suits your consignment. Bill Weschler Sr. says, "For instance, Victorian things might bring more at a Tuesday sale but toys and folk art probably belong in a catalogue auction." Reserves are allowed on catalogue consignments; the charge is 5 percent or a minimum of $35. The seller's commission is 15 percent for items fetching up to $500, 10 percent for sales of more than $500. (There is a buyer's premium of 10 percent).

Insurance costs $2 per $1,000 per month, or consigners can transfer their own insurance to Weschler. Trucking to the auction is available through a firm working out of Weschler. Sometimes Weschler will arrange for cartage, prepay and deduct the cost from the proceeds of the sale. A consignment will probably go right into the next Tuesday sale, and every effort will be made to take care of catalogue items quickly. Checks for items sold on Tuesdays are ready within a week; checks for catalogue sales take about 30 days. To arrange for a free verbal appraisal phone 628-1281.