Treasure Finding Tips From A Garage Sale Junkie

I seem to have inherited the garage sale gene from my grandparents. Every time I went to their house as a kid, they would show off their latest garage sale finds -- puzzles, wall art, books, and whatever knicknacks struck their fancy. I never went to many garage sales as a kid, but now that I'm adult forever in search of ways to make life more affordable, I've begun to fulfill my genetic destiny as a garage sale junkie. Here are some tips and tricks I've picked up in my adventures that will help you get the best deals.

1. Timing Matters. Most garage sales occur on the weekend and will start between 7:00 am and 9:00 am. There are usually more held on Saturdays than on Sundays. Early birds will show up at sales as much as an hour and a half early (yes, at 5:30) so if you want to have the best selection or are after a specially advertised item, know what you're up against and plan accordingly (but don't be rude to the people having the sale). If you're envisioning with a sense of dread elbowing your way up driveways full of raving lunatics, don't worry -- even the most fervent garage salers can only be in one place at a time, so you're not likely to face a crowd. Also, people rarely spend more than five minutes at a sale, which further minimizes congestion.

For sales that are being held on both Saturday and Sunday, go on Saturday -- there's not likely to be anything good left on Sunday, and the people holding the sale might be sick of it after the first day and not even have the sale on the second day. The first day rule is more flexible when it comes to estate sales -- there's so much stuff to get rid of that they're unlikely to close shop early, and estate sales are often more expensive, so you'll have to wait until the last day if you're after garage sale prices.

2. Shop late and bargain to save money. The better deals at the end principle applies to garage sales, too. When people are faced with the prospect of hauling their stuff back inside and feeling like they wasted several hours not selling their stuff, they're much more likely to let you name your price for an item. Even if it's not the end of a sale, always remember that prices are never hard and fast at a garage sale, and that while the seller may not always agree to a lower price, it never hurts to ask. If something is being offered for $5 and you want it for $3, offer $1. If they're offended and say no, you always have the option of buying it for $5, but you might get it for $3 or even $1. Buying multiple items can increase your bargaining power. I've also found that many sellers do not price items, seem indifferent to how much money they make, and will essentially let you name your price even early in the sale -- so aim low.

3. Plan your route. It's best to be methodical in your approach to visiting sales so you don't waste precious time and gas driving back and forth. Pick one promising-sounding sale to visit first, and plan the rest of your stops to flow conveniently from there. You can do a fair amount of planning by looking up sales online in advance, but many people will not advertise their garage sales with anything more than signs posted around the neighborhood and on major streets the morning of the sale, so expect that any route you have planned out will have a lot of small detours. It's best to visit only one general area each week -- driving ten miles out of your way for one sale that may or may not be any good once you get there isn't a good use of your time or gas money.

4. Don't waste time overplanning. Though it's good to be methodical, don't make the mistake of overplanning. One weekend, I spent several hours planning the ultimate garage sale route. I searched Craigslist and a couple of smaller local publications and made a spreadsheet listing every garage sale's address, start time, and featured items (like I said, I've never been cool). Then I mapped them all using Google Maps. The entire process took me many more hours than I care to mention, and didn't really increase my success at finding bargains because there were simply no good sales that day. I've found that a better method is the one I described earlier: search the ads for a couple of sales that sound really great, go to those sales, then cruise nearby major streets looking for signs for other sales. At least in my neighborhood, certain major streets seem to get all the garage sale signs, making sign cruising a very effective use of time. Looking for block sales or neighborhood sales is a particularly good way to maximize your garage sale efficiency.

5. Choose your neighborhoods wisely. What part of town should you shop in? You might immediately think that it's best to do your shopping in upscale neighborhoods to find the nicest stuff. However, I've found that rich people own a lot of the same junk as everyone else and that they tend to overprice that junk -- you should never be asked to pay $30 for an old cell phone at a garage sale. Middle class neighborhoods seem to have the best ratio of good stuff to good prices.

6. Don't waste your money. As with all bargain-hunting, you'll want to set a budget in advance to make sure you don't defeat the whole purpose of garage saleing, which is to save money. My budget is usually $30 per week (which I don't always spend). Avoid buying things just because they are a great deal if you don't have a clear plan for how you'll use them. For example, unless you regularly refinish furniture, you're unlikely to suddenly take up the hobby and that antique chair will just collect dust. Don't let a neighbor's clutter become your clutter. For sales with unpriced items, make sure to ask about prices before you start getting attached to things, because some people think their yards are the physical embodiment of Amazon Marketplace. If someone tells you they want $5 for a Britney Spears CD, ask them if they accept PayPal. Don't get suckered by too-good-to-be-true deals, either. I once went to a "garage sale" that turned out to really be a black market held in someone's backyard. If you see some Mont Blanc pens for $15, there's a good chance they're fake.

7. Choose your sales wisely. Moving sales are the best places to get deals and good stuff, because people are limited by how much they can move and don't have much time to unload their stuff. Estate sales are best for higher end items, but you'll pay higher prices as well. Ordinary garage sales are a crapshoot. To some extent, you can try to pick out the best ones by reading the ads on Craigslist and seeing what's being offered, but most of the time you really won't know until you're there. Some sales you can just cruise by and decide it's not even worth getting out of the car for, but sometimes there will be good stuff in boxes on the ground that you can't see without pulling over. If you're looking for a specific item, like a baby stroller, you can try emailing and calling all the people who have actually posted ads in advance and seeing if anyone is selling that item. If so, they might be willing to set it aside for you until a certain time (say, 8:30 for a garage sale that starts at 8:00). Speaking of strollers, garage sales can be a particular boon to those with babies and small children -- constantly growing children can equal a constant drain on your wallet, but you can stop the cash outflow by letting other people's kids be a steady supply of new-to-you items for your kids.

8. Double your ammo. If you have a friend, relative, or significant other who is willing to wake up early on the weekend, bring them along. It's best to bring someone who won't be competing with you for the same purchases and who has a strength that you lack. If you aren't good at bargaining prices down, bring someone who is. If you don't know how to spot fake designer merchandise, bring someone who does. If your vision isn't exactly 20/20 even with corrective lenses, bring someone who is farsighted -- you'll be amazed at how many more garage sale signs they spot.

9. Keep your expectations in check. No matter how well you plan a garage sale trip, there will be some days when it seems like everyone wants eBay prices for their merchandise and you can't get a deal to save your life. You'll also have days when it seems like there is nothing for sale but mounds of wrinkled clothing, cathode ray tube monitors, and those ubiquitous 1990's AT&T cordless phones. If you go into garage sales with this understanding, you're a lot less likely to be disappointed or feel like you've wasted your Saturday morning. Never feel obligated to buy something at a garage sale -- it's perfectly acceptable to leave empty-handed, whether you've been browsing for three minutes or thirty. By the same token, don't feel obligated to spend a certain amount of time at a sale. Sometimes it only takes ten seconds, quite literally, to realize that a particular sale has nothing to offer you. If the sellers try to get you to stick around by asking if you're looking for anything in particular, you can be honest if you want, or if you want them to leave you alone, tell them you're looking for an original G1 Optimus Prime action figure.

My admirably frugal grandparents knew that garage sales are one of the best ways to get a bargain on pretty much anything if you aren't terribly short on time. Even Goodwill, Salvation Army, and flea markets don't sell their goods for as cheaply as people who are cleaning out their closets or moving do. Garage sales can be very hit or miss, but even if you don't find the specific item you're looking for on any given day, you'll probably find something else you can use at a price that's negligible.

For additional garage sale shopping tips, check out this recent article on Get Rich Slowly. If you're the one having the garage sale, you'll want to read these handy tips from Shannon, if you haven't already.

Photo by cleverswine

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