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Garage sale tips and tricks for buyers

I am a garage sale pro. Over the course of a decade, I attended thousands of garage sales, saved thousands of dollars buying things for my own use, and made tens of thousands of dollars reselling my loot (yes, I had a business license and declared it on my taxes). Here are my favorite garage sale tips and tricks for buyers.

Being polite – the king of garage sale tips and tricks

Politeness gets you a long, long way. If you’re nice to people, you’ll get the benefit of the doubt when you need it, and in the long run you’ll score better deals.

What goes around comes around, especially on this circuit.

garage sale tips and tricks

Having exact change saves valuable time, and can help you score better deals through negotiating. Small bills and coins rule.

Carry small bills.

Having exact change gets you out of sales faster, because the seller doesn’t have to make change for you. If you’re buying for resale, every minute counts, especially early on Saturday morning. This helps the seller too, because then he or she will have small bills to make change for other customers.

Go to the bank the day before and get money in small bills. Fives and singles rule. Small bills save you time and make it easier to negotiate. More on that later, but if you remember only one thing out of these words, remember to keep and use small bills. Coins help too, for those super-small purchases.

Be nice.

Many garage sale fanatics can be really rude. Things will go much better for you if you are polite and treat your fellow shoppers and the host with respect. In the short run, rude behavior may net you the occasional better deal, but it will catch up with you.

For example, I have had hosts offer to sell me something that another shopper was being rude about. In one extreme case, a seller pointed at me and said to another shopper, “I’ll give my stuff to that guy over there before I sell it to you.”

The other shoppers’ opinion of you will also make a difference. If they like you, they’ll tell you things. If they don’t like you, they’ll talk about you, and if they get a chance to make your life more difficult, some of them will take the opportunity.

Park legally.

If there are signs telling you not to park on one side of the street, obey them. Don’t block mailboxes if you see mail delivery trucks around. And don’t block the driveway. Other shoppers may need the driveway for loading and unloading. Trust me, the rest of us notice the people who do that, and when that guy needed a favor, we weren’t inclined to give it.

Be discrete.

Some people know when you’re buying for resale, but don’t advertise it. If you hover over every item in the sale looking up its going rate on your phone, the host will notice. Don’t be surprised if they ask what you’re doing. Some won’t mind, and some will be offended. If that happens, remain calm, be polite, pay the asking price for whatever you’ve selected, and move on.

People make a profit off me every day in my day job. If they didn’t, I probably wouldn’t have that job. But some people feel exploited or manipulated if they think you’re making money off them. Don’t argue with them. Just pay and move on. Usually the people who gave me grief didn’t have much that’s worth buying anyway.

Have empathy.

Remember that many of the other patrons are trying to make a living reselling what they find. Some have other jobs and some don’t. Also remember that some people are having sales to de-clutter, but some are doing it because they really need the money.

So don’t be too greedy. If someone else beats you to a deal, be gracious. And don’t squeeze every dime out of someone who’s having a sale because the house is in foreclosure. Also remember every minute you spend haggling is a minute you’re not checking out another sale. On Saturday mornings, time is more precious than money.

Saving time

You don’t want to run out of time or run out of money before you’ve visited every sale. The little things you do make a big difference.

Park strategically.

Traffic right in front of the house can get heavy, so you can save some time and frustration if you park facing away from the house. And if the house is near a corner, park on the cross street instead of the street the house is on. Walking a few extra steps can help you avoid mini traffic jams.

Plan ahead.

Know what order you’re going to visit the sales. Make yourself a list. Note what you’re looking for at each sale, and if you can, it helps to even note where you should park. Don’t expect yourself to remember everything the day of the sale.

Arrive early.

If a sale has something good, don’t expect it to be there for long. There are people who will barge in on a sale at 5 am if there’s something there they want badly enough. You’ll get the best stuff if you do that, but be careful. Some people will tell you to leave and come back at 8 am. Don’t act entitled. Apologize and come back later. Some people will let you look. Be polite, pay the asking price if the price works for you, and remember to smile and say thank you.

I’m too shy to be willing to bang on someone’s door at 5 am. I would arrive early if someone had something I wanted and park close. If I saw them out setting up, I would approach them and ask if I could look around early and mention what I was interested in. As long as I was pleasant, most people were OK with me looking around early. If the person wasn’t ready, I would apologize and say I’d be waiting in my car.

Reading ads

The best way to find the best sales is to look at ads. Don’t rely just on luck.

Finding ads.

Craigslist is king, but it’s not the only place to find sales. In my area, the local freebie paper still runs classified ads and puts them online. Those sales tend to be really good. Check Craigslist to be sure, but look for other local ad sources too. If you’re nice to other patrons, they’ll tip you off to where they find out about sales. You probably won’t even have to ask.

Pay attention to the ads.

If the ad states it’s three college-aged women selling clothes and purses, don’t expect to find vintage motorcycle parts there. And if the ad says it’s a divorce sale, she threw the bum out so now come buy his stuff, don’t expect a lot of clothes and purses. Look at the other stuff that guy had to decide whether he sounds like the type who’d have vintage motorcycle parts.

There will be things at the sale that they don’t mention at the ad, but it’s going to be things that make sense. You can’t go everywhere, so eliminating certain sales with nothing for you saves you time, if nothing else.

Picking sales.

Find promising sales first–sales that have what you look for. But if there are other sales nearby, swing by those on your way out, since you never know if they might have something worthwhile.

Phone numbers.

Every once in a while, an ad will include a phone number. During those times when I was relying on garage sale resales to pay my bills, I would call the numbers and ask if I could take a look at whatever it was they had that I was interested in. A surprising number of people said yes. If they let you in early, be gracious and don’t hassle them, and if they say no, thank them for taking your call and say you’ll see them Saturday.

This doesn’t happen often, but if it does, it frees up time on Saturday and gives you first crack at the good stuff.

Finding stuff

There’s nothing worse than getting up early, going out and spending six hours driving around and not coming home with anything good. Here are some garage sale tips and tricks for finding what you ought to be looking for.

What to look for.

Look for what you need, for one thing. As you go through your week, make a list of things you need, and take it to your garage sales before you go shopping at retail. If you need a toaster, know what a toaster costs new, so you’ll know a good deal when you see one.

If you’re buying for resale, buy what you know. I don’t know anything about women’s clothes, so it doesn’t make any sense for me to try to resell them. I know enough about electric trains and computer gear (new and old) and video games to make money reselling those, as long as I can find enough of them. Those were logical places for me to start.

Really, sell what you know.

I’ll reiterate this. If you look around long enough, you can find people telling you there’s easy money in selling something specific. The problem is they’re telling everyone else the same thing. Next year, everyone else will know about it too.

The easy money never lasts more than a couple of years, because people talk. (More on that in a bit.) If you get a hot tip and you’re in a position to take advantage of it, feel free to use it. But don’t count on those things lasting forever.

Jot down notes.

Think long term. If you find something good, try to figure out if there’s a reason why. For example, one time I found a great collection of VHS movies. As I was leaving, I realized why. There was a nice independent video store within walking distance of the house. Guess what? I found other great collections of VHS movies in the area over the years too.

At the very least, it’s helpful to note the kind of stuff you find in a particular area. You may never know exactly why, but once you find the pattern, you don’t necessarily need to know where the stuff came from. You just need to know that’s where to find it.

Look for stuff close to where it was sold.

If I’m looking for vintage computers or electric trains, knowing where the hobby shops and old computer stores used to be helps. I find more stuff close to where it used to be sold. If your library has old phone books, that can help you figure out where to look for things.

Older neighborhoods are better.

Unless you’re looking for kids’ clothes and fairly new toys, stay out of new subdivisions. If someone moved into a new house, they sold their best stuff at a garage sale before they moved there. You’ll find plenty of new stuff in older neighborhoods too. Every once in a while I found something good in a new-ish house, but it was really rare.

Talk to the other patrons.

While you’re waiting in line to check out, chat up the people in line next to you, especially if you recognize them. Ask what they look for, or if they like the area you’re in. If you look for something different from what they do, and you’ve seen their kind of stuff somewhere else, mention that other sale.

The other patrons will tell you things that would take you years to learn on your own.

Be careful what you say.

People like to show off what they know and they like to brag about the fantastic deals they get. But don’t say anything to anyone that you don’t want your closest competitor to know. There’s no reason for me to tell random people about a hobby shop that closed in 1990 that makes it easy to find electric trains in a particular neighborhood. Generously share information about sales happening that day, but don’t share your own trade secrets.

Getting better deals

Garage sale prices usually tend to be really low, but here’s what to do if the price isn’t quite low enough for you.

How to negotiate.

Most people expect to have to haggle a bit, and most people won’t offer a discount if you don’t ask for one. But be reasonable. Don’t expect someone to take your offer of 10 cents on the dollar and be happy about it. The later in the day it is, the more willing people tend to be to deal. The more you’re buying, the more open they’re likely to be to a quantity discount. Tally up what you have, and have an even dollar amount in mind.

Now here’s a trick. Don’t just ask if they’d take a certain amount. Get your money out, in smaller bills if possible. A five and five ones looks like more money than a $10 bill does, and those small bills would come in handy for making change, too. Have the money in your hand and gesture like you’re ready to hand it over while asking if he or she would take 10 dollars. It’s harder to say no to cash right in front of you.

Don’t project wealth.

If you pull up in a luxury car and waltz in wearing nice clothes, you’re not going to get the best deals. You don’t want to look homeless, but if you look like you don’t have much money, people are going to be more willing to give you a deal.

Driving an old Honda and wearing worn-out clothes definitely got me better prices when I needed them. Look like you have a job, but make less than the person having the sale.

That wraps up my garage sale tips for buyers. It took me many years to learn them, so I hope you find them helpful. Estate sales are a bit different, but similar. I recommend them too.

I wish you the best in your bargain hunting.

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