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Advice on scraping by

Here’s a good, timely Google search query: scraping by advice.

I looked, and I’ve never written anything that matched that query well. I know a lot of people are hurting right now. I’ve been in some tight spots and I’ve gotten out of some, so let’s talk about what I would do, on a really practical level, if I ran into another tight spot next week.

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Confessions and rememberances of an Amigaholic

My name is Dave. I am an Amigaholic.

I thought I was recovered. But I don’t think you ever recover. Not really.

You see, this week I was trolling Craigslist for garage sales. I look for trains, toys for my boys, and other things that strike my fancy. I spotted a sale that advertised an Amiga computer. I shouldn’t have put it on my list, but I did. I didn’t want to buy it, but I had to see it. I had to. Like I said, you don’t recover.

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Help someone plug a computer into a TV, become a criminal

Digital video is confusing. You get some clear advantages, since signal degradation becomes a thing of the past, but if you’re not someone who works in video for a living, it’s difficult to keep it all straight. And standards are a problem. You can’t just assume that two devices will work together because they’re both “digital.”

One of the problems is physical incompatibility. Some devices have Displayport ports. Some of them have HDMI ports. The solution is easy: get a cable with an HDMI connector on one end and a Displayport connector on the other. Problem solved.

And now the guy who sold it to you is a criminal. (You aren’t necessarily. Possession isn’t illegal, just sale or manufacture. So don’t sell it at your garage sale in 2019.)
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Thrift-store PCs

In the comments of a recent post I did, reader Glaurung Quena brought up a good topic: secondhand PCs, acquired cheaply, strictly as rebuild fodder.

I like the idea, of course, because I’ve been doing it for years. In the 1990s I built a lot of 486s and Pentiums into former IBM PC/ATs, basically until all the board makers relocated the memory slots into a position that wasn’t clear on the original PC/AT due to a beam that supported its drive bays. And of course the adoption of ATX and MicroATX killed that, at least for a while.

But now ATX has been around as long as the old AT architecture had been when ATX came along, and efforts to replace ATX haven’t been successful. So that trick makes more sense again. Buy a secondhand machine cheaply, intending to re-use the case, and regard anything else inside that happens to be reusable strictly as a bonus.Read More »Thrift-store PCs

Save money on cables by not buying at retail

I’m ashamed to say I own one Monster cable. Hopefully if I tell you I bought it at a garage sale for $2, I’ll regain your respect. But there’s an easier way to save money on cables than buying at garage sales.

Unless you need it immediately, there’s no reason whatsoever to buy Monster and other overpriced cables at big-box consumer electronics stores. Profit margins are really thin on most electronics, even the big-ticket items, and they use the cables to make up for that. That’s the reason nobody includes cables in the box.

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Garage sale strategy: Go where the hordes aren’t

Today is one of the biggest garage sale days of the year.

An old, established, and relatively well-to-do neighborhood nearby has a tradition of doing a massive 4-block yard sale every September. People put it on their calendars. You never know what you’ll find there.

I went somewhere else.I’ve gone every year the last four years, but I noticed a pattern. Every year I get less and less, and it seems like fewer homes participate. This year promised 50 homes participating, but finding the 10 really good ones in the 50 is tough. The only way is to go to all of them. Figure five minutes per sale, and I was going to spend a minimum of five hours there. Some years I’ve spent longer.

So instead, I picked 10 sales somewhere else and spent about two hours out and about.

I got some good hardware for around the house for literally pocket change. I got some other predictable odds and ends.

But the prize was an under-cabinet LCD TV with radio and DVD player for 20 lousy bucks. The cheapest I’ve ever seen them new is $70. But one with reviews that suggest anyone would actually want to own it costs more like $200, which is about what this one cost new.

I plugged it in at the sale to verify it worked, then brought it home and hooked it up. It works nicely and takes up a lot less room than the 13" CRT we’ve kept in the kitchen for the last few years.

On any other day, I doubt I would have scored that. I arrived at the sale 10 minutes or so after it opened, and was the only one there. You have to be the first or second person there to get anything like that, especially at that price.

Since everyone else was at the big neighborhood sale, I got my chance.

Improving DSL speed

I found some DSL speed tips. They work. If you have DSL, you should read them and do the same.I went from speeds all over the map to a fairly consistent 600 kbps just running a new CAT5 line for DSL. Replacing the cheap, flat, old-fashioned phone cord running from my modem to the phone jack and the other cheapie in my patch panel with UTP phone cords boosted me another 30-50 kbps. That extra boost varies, but it’s something, and I’m glad to be consistently above 600 kbps now.

Finding UTP phone cords is a challenge. Supposedly Lowe’s has them but I can’t verify that. I had one that I wasn’t using for some insane reason. I found another one at a garage sale, obviously from a DSL installation kit. I don’t remember what I paid for it, only that it was a lot less than it’s worth to me. Digging through boxes of random cables at garage sales can pay dividends.

The easiest way to get them is probably to make your own from scrap lengths of CAT5/5e/6 cable. Just crimp RJ11 modular plugs onto the ends instead of RJ45. Radio Shack sells a package of 10 plugs for $6. Overpriced, but convenient. There’s always a Radio Shack nearby.

Belkin sells a special shielded twisted pair modem cable as an “Internet cable,” for around $20. I’m sure it’s a very good cable, but it’s not worth 20 bucks.

When looking at a store, as a general rule, flat cables are always bad, but a round cable stands a chance of being good.

If you have a fairly new house, chances are your phone wiring is pretty good, in which case the most important thing is getting a good phone cord. If you have a house built in the ’60s like me, with phone wire run after the fact by a weekend handyman who either didn’t know or didn’t care how to avoid interference on the wires, that’s another story. If there’s 30 feet of bad wire between the telco and the modem, the quality of that last 6 feet of wire doesn’t make much difference.

While you’re at it, you might as well replace all your phone cords with these higher-quality models. Your voice calls will be clearer, and it eliminates the possibility of those cables introducing interference into the line. That interference shouldn’t reach the modem, but “shouldn’t” is no guarantee.

Tips for running a garage sale

On a forum I frequent, the discussion turned to garage sales, and some people shared some horror stories. As someone who visits a lot of garage sales, I’ve seen the ways people deal with some of the pitfalls. In the interest of encouraging garage sales, I’ll share my tips for running a garage sale.

tips for running a garage sale

Quick: can you spot the common (but very serious) error in this photo of a table at a garage sale? Keep reading and you’ll find the answer. This may be the most valuable of my tips for running a garage sale.

One problem is people showing up at 5 or 6 in the morning wanting to get in early. The best way to prevent this is to be vague about your address. Be specific enough that they can find it, but vague enough that they can’t find it early. What do I mean? Don’t say “2329 Jefferson” in your ad and streetcorner signs. Say “single-family sale, 23xx Jefferson.” Then, when you’re ready to open your sale, put a sign in your front yard and open your garage door. Last of all, have a helper go out and put some signs on nearby major intersections.

The early birds can still show up if they want, but they’ll have no choice but to sit in the car and wait for you, since they won’t even know for sure which house is having the sale. Only the people really, really serious about buying something will, and those are the people you want.

Lowballers are the other problem. I’ll admit, I’ve asked for discounts before when buying large quantities of stuff, but I don’t demand them. I see some people demanding discounts on everything, no matter how low the initial price is. Yes, I know that’s annoying. I’ve actually had people running sales ask me if I’m interested in the same thing they’re getting lowballed on, in hopes of selling it to me instead. Garage sale prices are already pennies on the dollar, but some people insist on squeezing out every last penny.

The best tactic is to lower your prices late in the sale, say, after 10 am. Advertise that prices will be 25% or 50% off at 10 am, and maybe knock something else off at 11 am. When a lowballer tries to play games with you, just say, “no discounts until 10 am.” They can come back then, assuming the item is still there. If they really want it, then they’ll pay your asking price.

Do be realistic about your prices, though. I once went to a sale, picked out 10 items (unmarked) and asked how much. I was expecting $10, maybe $20 at most, based on what I paid at other sales. She asked $60.

What did I do? I went through the pile again. It turned out half of it was stuff I could turn a small profit on at $6 each. Half of it was stuff I couldn’t sell for $6 myself. So I put those back. I reluctantly paid $30 for the other five. I honestly doubt anyone else expressed interest in what I put back. If it ever did sell, I’m sure she didn’t get $30 for it.

If you don’t know how to price something, visit a few sales yourself to get an idea what stuff goes for. Or at least visit your nearest thrift store and see what they charge for the kind of stuff you’ll be selling.

Leaving items unmarked and soliciting an offer encourages lowballers to offer 10 cents for things that ought to be priced a dollar. Or it leads to awkward exchanges like mine, where someone puts most of it back.

Do keep in mind a significant number of people who come to your sale are looking for things to re-sell. They may have a booth at a flea market or antique mall, they may sell on eBay, or something else. You’ll have some bargain hunters and curious neighbors, but most likely the majority will be resellers. Their profit margin isn’t your main concern. But the general rule of reselling is that 3x markup is the minimum that works. If an item sells on eBay for $10, the most you’re going to get from a reseller is about $3. The reason is because eBay is going to take $1.50 in commissions. The government is going to take another $1.50 or so in taxes. So the seller spends $3 to make $3-$4. But of course the seller would rather spend $1, sell for $10, and make $5-$6.

I’ve seen old Marx train cars priced at $50 at garage sales because the seller claimed he saw one just like it go for $100 on eBay. In the cases I’m thinking of, it’s always been a very common car worth no more than $20, so I know the seller was either lying or mistaken. If you think you have something really special, my advice is to attempt to sell it on eBay instead. You’re not going to get eBay prices at a garage sale. Essentially, as a garage sale operator, you’re a wholesaler.

If you don’t want to hassle with eBay, take a name and number from anyone who shows interest.

One tactic I see sometimes (and my family used) is to advertise a sale as a moving sale instead of a yard or garage sale, in order to get better prices. Advertising a moving sale can allow you to get better prices for your highest-end stuff, like furniture or nice electronics or perhaps name-brand clothes in nice condition. But things like used toys and VHS tapes sell for about the same price no matter what you call the sale.

Some people post phone numbers in the ad. Unless the ad runs the same day as the sale, this is a mistake. It’s just asking people to call you and want to see your stuff early. I admit I’ve done it myself. There have been a couple of times that I couldn’t find a sale, the ad had a number, and I called for directions and ended up buying a lot of stuff. But if you don’t want people calling you all hours of the day in advance, it’s probably not worth it. Putting a nearby landmark in your ad is just as effective and saves you the phone calls.

Finally, I’ve seen people take out ads a week or two in advance of the sale. I don’t see the point. Most circuit regulars don’t plan beyond the upcoming Saturday. So placing an ad early just forces you to do a lot of explaining to disappointed people that the sale is next week. The best day to advertise is the Friday before. The day of the sale is often too late, as many people have already made their plans. An ad in Saturday’s newspaper can draw in people who change their plans on Saturday morning, or people who plan spontaneously. But if you’re paying for the ad, Friday is best. If you advertise on Craigslist, run your ad early in the week and refresh it closer to Friday.

Did you catch the mistake in the photo at the top? Arguably there are two, but one of them is worse than the other. Organizing the stuff into logical groups would help it to sell better. The toy cars, the tools, and the electronics ought to all be together, rather than making it look like someone dumped a box of random stuff onto the table.

But the bigger problem is no price tags. The box of miniature light bulbs in the upper right would easily sell for $10 online. Mark it at $3, and it will sell. Unmarked, don’t be surprised if someone offers 10 cents.

And those are my tips for running a garage sale. I hope they help you have a less frustrating, more successful sale.

Letting go

I took a monitor to Best Buy today. They offer free recycling of most consumer electronics, with a $10 charge for things like monitors and TVs. In exchange, they give you a $10 gift card. So in essence, they’ll take a monitor or TV for free if you buy something.It seems like a lot of computer enthusiasts have a large collection of computer dinosaurs. Friends and relatives give us their cast-off parts in exchange for doing upgrades for them, and we put those parts to use for a while, and give some away, but ultimately an awful lot of them just pile up in storage–too good to throw away, but not good enough that we want to use it on a daily basis anymore.

In this case, it was a 15-inch monitor that had lost its red gun. Unlike a lot of stuff in the pile, I never intended to use it again except in case of emergency. I just didn’t throw it in the trash because you’re not supposed to do that.

I have more stuff, but since you’re technically limited to turning in two items per day, it’ll take a few trips. Somewhere I have a box of old motherboards taking up space. Those will have to go. Ten years ago, I could argue that a Pentium-75 was still useful to me. Not today. If I find myself in desperate need of a low-end motherboard, I can rest assured I can find something capable of running Windows XP at a garage sale for less than 20 bucks, even on a slow week like this week. So there’s no point in keeping Windows 95-era stuff around anymore.

But it’s hard to let go. I know what all this stuff cost originally. I remember paying $199 for 16 megs of RAM and thinking I robbed the place. In those days, it was extremely difficult to build a decent computer for less than $1,000. That was without a monitor. So in the mid 1990s, the pile of junk in my basement was probably worth $8,000.

And in those days, I was making $6-$8 an hour, so it took me more than a month to make a thousand dollars.

Now I’m happy that I can give it all away as long as I buy a couple of gift cards.

I’ll turn around and use those gift cards to buy a prepaid cellular phone. I need a new one, and those phones fit my usage pattern well. And that phone will have as much computing power, if not more, than any one of those old computers.

Lionel at Target

On Sunday, I went to Target largely because I had a coupon, but I also wanted to get a gift for my son.

I had heard Target was selling Lionel trains again like in 2006, and I’d seen a picture of the endcap, which included a Lionel teddy bear in addition to the trains. I wanted one.

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