How to Shop Smart at Garage Sales

I have a trove of garage sale memories from my childhood. Mom and I always woke at the crack of dawn-thirty, loaded up with ham and cheese kolaches, and headed out to the garage sale circuit, bleary-eyed and eager. The night before we highlighted our favorite spots and mapped out a route for assured victory.  


The most interesting aspect of the yard sale has always been the wide variety of stuff. It would be just as fascinating to craft a personal narrative based solely on stuff relegated to a garage sale as The Things they Carried.  

Sentimentality aside, shoppers are cut throat at these places. They come in posses, groups of six or more, and will ruthlessly snatch items from your clutches. Serious buyers know that the goods go quickly, within the first 45 minutes, so gird your wallet and obey the following:

1. Plan your attack.
Check the Thrifty Nickel-type papers, newspaper, and community sheets for local sales. I haven't had much luck with online database sites, but it can't hurt to try Yard Sale Database. Craigslist is quickly becoming a solid site for reliable garage sale postings--you'll usually get a better description than the classifieds. Hit neighborhoods that have multiple sales in one area to save on gas and browse a wider variety of options.

2. Get up early.
You want the best, chinch on rest. If you have your heart set on an antique sideboard at one spot, call the night before for more details and get there fifteen minutes before it begins.  Most of the attractive sale items are picked up within the first two hours.

3. Hit the nice spots in town.  

It's no secret that folks who have a bit more dough generally buy nicer things. Make it a point to scope out the wealthy parts of town to buy a once-used patio set for dirt cheap.

4. Dress for success.
A little rain can scare away the bulk of shoppers leaving you huge bargains. Wear covered toe shoes and bring a rain jacket--you'll reap big savings from sales that have relocated to the garage or indoors.

5. Bring a bag.

Pick up your recyclable grocery bag before heading out the door. If you're juggling children, Barbie houses, and glassware, you'll need a tote to help you out. Make sure you let the seller know it is clearly a shopping bag and not a purse.

6.  Thoroughly inspect your potential purchase.

While children's clothes are a sure-fire bargain, look at the current condition rather than the size. Sniff for smoke smell, a personal pet peeve. Take a look at battery compartments to ensure nothing is corroded inside, inspect dishware for cracks, and always open DVDs to make sure you're buying more than a case. If you bought a box of small toy parts, think Legos or Erector Set, make sure no other sharp surprises are hidden inside before letting Junior play with it.  

7. Cash flow.

Take only small bills. There will always be an unprepared seller who didn't think far enough ahead to get change. It will also give you bargaining power.

8. Bargain with brains.

Don't make a haphazard offer. If a dresser is marked at $80, proposing $40 will only make you look like an idiot. Be reasonable and never insult someone's stuff. They probably bought it new and it once occupied precious space in the seller's home.

9. Buying large items.
This awesome tip comes from The Yard Sale Queen. When you buy a loveseat or cupboard, take a small part of the piece with you, like a pillow or drawer. This prevents someone else from offering more money for it and carting it away. And also get a signed receipt of payment.

10. Swoop by later.
If a seller is unwilling to budge on a price, swing by at the end of the day to see if it's still available, or leave your contact information. After a long hot day no one wants to drag everything back in.  

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1 Comment

Great advice! The "shop early" part reminded me of the last garage sale I had. We were setting up tables and putting stuff out when a woman pulled up. We told her she could look in the garage where it was light but it was still too dark to see the outside things. "Not to worry" she said and whipped out her flashlight to hunt for bargains!
Posted by Kathleen