How To Shop A Garage Sale

I'm a veteran of garage sales. Greg and I were shopping them even before we were married. So I can tell you with complete confidence that I know what I'm doing...which is not usually the case with most things. LOL!

It's no understatement to say that we've furnished several houses from garage sales, estate sales, and clearances. It's a rare thing for me to buy anything at full price. That's even more important now that we have no disposable income.

There are two hard and fast rules about shopping yard sales, garage sales, or estate sales.
  1. You never know what you'll find.
  2. If it's extraordinary, buy it because you'll never find it again.

The most important thing to remember is to keep an open mind. Maybe you weren't looking for a patio set, but you've come across a vintage set in real teak with owners so desperate to sell they're giving it away for $20.

This actually happened to us and we were sorely tempted, but wouldn't you know it, we were smack dab in the middle of moving. We couldn't take it even if wanted to--and we wanted it badly. I still think about that teak table and chairs. It was gorgeous and would've fit beautifully here.

There will be times when the thing you want most, the thing you've hunted for ages walks past you as you drive up to the sale. This happened to me too. For years I've looked for an antique library step ladder. Those old fashioned ones with the carved relief. The kind you'd find in Downton Abbey. And there it was, exactly what I'd been looking someone else's arms. I almost cried.

But that's the luck of the draw. Sometimes you hit the jackpot, and sometimes you walk away empty.

In the early days, I bought a lot of furniture to fill our empty house. Nowadays, we concentrate on dvds, books, garden supplies, and consumables like nails, wood stain, wood or metal.

Occasionally a piece of decor strikes my fancy. I don't need any more paintings or sculptures, but if I see something outstanding for very little money, I buy it. I'll take down whatever is hanging and store it in the attic for some other time or some other spot.

That's where the open mind comes in. When you see something that speaks to you, there's probably a good reason, so go with your gut.

So what can you do to up your chances of a good buy? I'm glad you asked!
  • Shop early. At almost every garage sale, there are some things that are under-priced. It might even be something you need.
  • Shop late. Big items like furniture and appliances that didn't sell could be had for very little money if the seller is ready to call it a day. That's what happened with the patio set.
  • Bring cash. And make sure they're small bills. There's nothing more annoying to a seller than someone trying to buy a $20 item with a $100 bill. Don't be that person.
  • Shop in better neighborhoods. You'll find higher end furniture and decor in pricier neighborhoods. Some of my favorite paintings came from there.
  • Never pull out a wad of bills and expect people to give you a deal. If you want to spend $5 on an item, pull out only $5 and ask if they'd be willing to sell for that.
  • Go with a friend or spouse, but never with kids. You can't keep track of your kids (especially if they're little) and shop too. Older kids can be helpful if you give them a mission to look for something in particular.
  • If you're unsure about an item, don't let it leave your hand. Once you've put it down, you might lose it to the next person that walks by.
  • Don't be shy about haggling. It's a cultural thing in many ways, but I was lucky to have been exposed to haggling as a child. As long as you're polite, and be willing to walk away if it doesn't meet your price, you have nothing to lose. The best phrases to begin negotiation are: "What's the least you'll take for this?" or "Will you take x amount for this?"
  • Start with a slightly lower number than you'd be willing to pay, but never insult the seller with a low-ball offer. With a decent (in the ballpark number) the seller might counter with a higher number, which is when you counter with your bottom line number. Or you might get it for the original offer. You never know.
  • Keep a tape measure, bungee cords, and a moving blanket (to wrap more delicate items) in your car.
  • Keep a notebook of things you need and sizes/color. I actually keep a list of dvds we own so I don't buy the same one twice.

The things you see most often at garage sales are clothes, toys, baby stuff, books, appliances (small and large), and kitchen gadgets. Bigger sales might have furniture and exercise equipment. Estate sales will typically have better quality art, furniture and jewelry since it most likely belonged to an elderly person who has downsized or passed away.

About Prices

Prices can vary from region, city, or even down to neighborhood. In my neck of the woods I follow a simple percentage. The majority of things, even if new should not be more than 20% of the actual new price. For example if a coffeemaker was $100 I wouldn't pay more than $20.

A word to the wise though, coffeemakers are notorious for not working properly, most likely because it has scale build up and in need of a serious vinegar wash. Always remember that you could very well be inheriting someone else's problems so don't buy anything electronic or mechanical unless you feel like gambling.

If it has to be fixed, it better be selling for next to nothing.

As a rule, most small appliances should run no more than $10, but again, this is my area. Your mileage may vary.

Estate sales are different animals. They're businesses and will charge exorbitant prices on opening day. Wait for the second or third day when things are half off. If there's something you have your eye on, leave your phone number with the dealer. You might snag it once they lower their prices.

Garage sales aren't for everyone, but we love them. Not only do we find bargains, but we enjoy seeing other neighborhoods. I especially like getting ideas for landscaping.

It's starting to get a bit hot for garage sales but that doesn't deter many people. It's harder on people holding the sale than it is for those bargain hunting. Around here, most sales run Thursdays, Fridays, and/or Saturdays. Other areas might prefer different days and even different hours.

It's a great way to learn your way around an area or discover a new one. I've already picked a couple of different neighborhoods I'd like to move to whenever we decide to downsize.

Do you bargain hunt? What's on your radar when you shop?

PS  I should mention that I wrote an ebook on garage sales. How to hold one and how to shop them. Check it out if you're planning a sale soon.


I totally agree about having an open mind and going with your gut. Whenever we go to any kind of sale - garage, estate, craft fairs, etc - I pay attention to see if something is speaking to me. We tend to look more for decorative items, like funky shaped/colorful vases/bowls.
Maria Zannini said…
Madeline: You never know. Our most unique (and loved) things have come from garage sales.
jacabur1 said…
Oh glorious fun of garage sale shopping. I remember it well when we were first married and either Karl and myself would hit them to see what we could find or my Mom and I would hit the sales run by navy wives when they moved. The naval base is a memory as it closed many moons ago but those were some of the best garage sales we have ever been too. Found some nice stuff, mostly smaller items but still cheaper than buying new Maria.
Maria Zannini said…
Jackie: I've never had the opportunity, but I've had friends tell me that living near a base or a college town are loads of opportunity for bargain hunters. Most people can't or won't take things with them so it's easier to sell them.
Stacy McKitrick said…
We got lucky driving by a garage sale one day. There was a coffee table for sale at $20. $20!! It was perfect. For us. The owner thought it needed to be refinished. We abuse our furniture, and this looked broken in just fine (I think one of the kids still has it).

But I don't go to garage sales so much anymore. Used to go to auctions a lot. Still own the dining room set we got at one of those and I believe our kids still have the dressers and headboards from bedroom sets we got (on the cheap). We don't get couches and upholstered chairs, though. Did once and it ended up stinking! I'll stick to new for those.

Nowadays, people post on the neighborhood Facebook group whenever they're trying to unload furniture or other items. That might be the NEW garage sale!
Maria Zannini said…
Stacy: I love auctions but we haven't been to one in a while. I'm with you on upholstered furniture. I don't want to take the chance of bringing home any creepy critters.

re: FB groups
I've had a hard time with those. The things I'm interested in usually get snapped up before I see them.
LD Masterson said…
We're kind of past our garage sale days but I encouraged the newlyweds to go that route furnishing their new house. I'm going to send them the link to this post. (They're newbies, they need your sage wisdom.)
Michael Keyton said…
Interesting, but not really a feature over here. The closest we have are car boot sales on rented ground. We also have a local online site called Monmouth FreeCycle Group where people post giveaways of unwanted stuff to good to throw away but crying out for recycling.
Maria Zannini said…
Linda: I'll send you the book so you can forward it to them. :)
Maria Zannini said…
Mike: It's feels strange that the UK doesn't practice garage sales, especially since everyone seems to live so close to one another. We have Freecycle here too, but I've yet to ever score something. And I'm wary about people coming to my house for something I'm giving away. I'll leave it outside the fence. 99% of the time it's gone within hours.