Believe it or not, there is a right way and a wrong way to shop garage sales.
When you use the right strategies, you can walk away from a morning of garage or yard sales with a fantastic haul, including brand-new items you bought for only a couple of dollars.
I’ve scored clothing with tags on it, appliances still in their boxes and tons of stuff in great shape, usually saving 80-90% off the retail prices. Instead of paying $18 for an umbrella at the store, I’ll pay $2 at a yard sale.
But if you don’t shop strategically, you could wind up wasting your time -- or worse, spending too much on an item that’s not worth buying.
Whether you’re in the market for something specific or just looking to see what treasures pop up, here’s how to shop smart at yard and garage sales.
Before even looking for yard and garage sales in your area, make a list of things you’re looking for.
You know those items you “need,” but hate to pay full price for because you don’t need them urgently? Or those items you know you’ll want in a few months when it’s the right season, but not quite yet? Those are your potential yard-sale scores.
A few common examples include:
Put a piece of paper or sticky note on the fridge or somewhere convenient, and every time you think about something you need, ask yourself if it’s something you would consider buying at a yard sale. If the answer’s yes, jot it down and you’ll have a nice list when it’s time to hit the sales.
Remember, the goal is to get what you need at a bargain price, not to bring home junk you don’t need. Having a list helps keep you focused.
Start with Craigslist, especially if you live in a bigger area. For example, I start by Googling “Craigslist Pittsburgh yard sales,” which generates a list of ads with dates, times, descriptions and locations.
Make sure you note the date of the post and the date of the yard sale. If you keep scrolling, you’ll eventually run into old posts -- and you don’t want to show up a week too late!
Cover all your bases by changing your search terms. In addition to “yard sales,” also search “yardsales” (one word), “garage sales,” “estate sales” and “rummage sales.”
Once you’ve checked out Craigslist, try these other options for more sales:
First, let’s answer this question: What is a good yard sale?
Think about three things: location, quantity and quality.
Look for yard sales held in nice neighborhoods. I love going to yard sales in more upscale neighborhoods because they often have nice, expensive, brand-name items.
The best part is these nicer items sell for the same prices as items at other yard sales. I’ve never been to a yard sale, even in a nice neighborhood, where things weren’t priced around a few dollars.
When you look at ads, use Google Maps to check the address and see what neighborhood each yard sale is in. Make a special note of those in nicer areas, and add them to your list.
A bigger sale is likely to produce better find, since you’ll have more options.
Look for ads that use language like “multi-family sale” or “neighborhood sale.” Keep an eye out for churches, schools or organizations hosting group sales, where each family has a table.
Also look for estate sales, which usually mean a family is selling off everything from a loved one’s home. Since their goal is likely to sell everything (as opposed to make a ton of money), they’re often open to price negotiation.
This is often a benefit of finding yard sales in good locations and with more items, but small sales can be great if they advertise a particular item you’re interested in, like a piece of furniture, a hard-to-find item or a particular focus, such as “baby stuff.”
If one of those items is on your list -- say, you’re expecting a baby -- a small sale could be worth your time.
To find these sales, search for keywords related to your focus (like “stroller,” “baby” or “onesie”). Once you’ve found a few, look for words describing quality (“like new,” “never used/worn”) and check out any photos to see if this sale is worth adding to your list.
Got your list of the yard sales you most want to hit? Great.
Plug the addresses into Google Maps to determine the most efficient route. Look at their relative locations to each other and to where you live. Planning your route this way means you’ll spend less time driving around and more time shopping the deals.
Note the times of the sales; ideally, if it fits with your route, you’ll start with the earliest ones first to get the best deals before other treasure hunters scoop them up.
Are you dying to hit a sale that’s a little further away? Use your judgment based on the ad to decide whether it’s worth the extra commute.
I usually try to find an area with several yard sales within a few miles, so I’m not spending a lot of time traveling. Make sure the descriptions of at least most of these sales are good -- if one or two don’t sound that impressive but are in the same area, you could stop by and try your luck.
If driving isn’t feasible, you could bike or take the bus -- just think through how you’ll get your loot home. If you’re in the market for furniture, it’s probably best to work out a good transportation system in case you find something you like.
How do you know if you’re getting a good deal on an item at a yard sale?
First, look at what shape it’s in -- fair? great? brand new?
Next think about a typical price for the item. If you’re not sure, Google it to see the price for a new one, as well as with the word “used” to see prices for more well-loved items.
Prices at yard sales are generally very low: $0.50 to $2 for most small items and clothing, $5 to $10 for larger items or appliances and $20 to $50 or more for furniture. Generally, the larger the piece, the more expensive it will be.
If the item is priced at a few dollars or less, I discourage haggling; the seller knew it was a bargain price when she marked it. If it’s priced a bit higher and you think you can get a better deal, negotiate. Most sellers will compromise, especially toward the end of a sale because they are more desperate to get rid of things.
Ultimately, how much you should pay comes down to the value you place on the item. Will you use it a lot? Is it in good shape? Have you seen it for a better price anywhere else, or are you likely to?
And finally, disregarding all the other factors, what would you be willing to spend on the item, if you didn’t know its asking price?
Your Turn: What’s your best yard-sale score? Share your stories in the comments!
Staci Fonner is, among other things, a writer who lives in Pittsburgh, PA.