How to save on garage sales

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Garage sales both rewarding and risky. Here's how to score a deal every time.

In 2013, there were an average of 165,000 garage sales in the United States every week, where we bought about 4,967,500 items, according to the analysts at Statistic Brain [1].

We’re drawn to garage sales because they’re tax-free, checkout-line-free and cheap. But you can score an even better deal. Here’s how…

1. Know what to buy

You’ll find everything from half-used bottles of perfume to older-model gaming systems to antique furniture at a garage sale. Before you rush in and start buying, make sure what you’re looking at is a good deal.

Chris Heiska, a professional garage sale bargain hunter and the founder of [2], has three golden rules to help you spot a good deal:

  • Buy what you need. A simple rule to follow: If you don’t need it now (or very soon), don’t buy it.
  • Only buy complete items. If you’re buying something with more than one piece — like a puzzle, set of frames, or toolset — always check to make sure all the pieces are there. Garage sales don’t offer a return policy.
  • Make sure it works. If you’re buying something like electronics or kitchen appliances, ask the seller to plug it in and let you test the device before you buy it.

2. Know what you shouldn’t buy

There are some things you should never buy at a garage sale — namely, anything that might put your family at risk. Despite people’s best intentions, recalled items do pop up at garage sales.

“In Maryland where I live, crib baby bumpers have been banned from stores due to potential suffocation,” Heiska says. “But they can still be found at garage sales.”

To make sure you’re not buying anything potentially dangerous, check the government website before you start shopping [3]. Keep in mind toys, cribs, and pet products are frequently recalled.

3. Plan ahead

When you’re garage sale shopping, you might have to make a few stops before you find a great deal, especially if you’re looking for something in particular. If you don’t map out a plan ahead of time, you’ll spend most of your morning driving around, wasting gas, and missing out on good deals.

“You have to know where the sales are,” Heiska says. And when it comes to finding them, she recommends skipping the garage sale apps, which can be unreliable. Go old school: Start with the classified section of your local newspaper. You can also find garage sale ads online through sites like Craigslist [4], Yard Sale Search [5], and Garage Sales Tracker [6].

4. Look for group sales

Garage sales hosted by a large group like a neighborhood association are an easy way to get all of your shopping done quickly and usually score great deals. Not only do you cut down on driving time (and gas), but many neighborhood sales benefit charity, so sellers are less likely to try to price-gouge.

Most neighborhood sales will be listed in the classified section, but keep an eye out for signs near neighborhood entrances when you’re commuting during the week.

5. Go at the right time

Garage sales typically start early Saturday morning and last until late Sunday afternoon — and when you go can make a difference in the deals you get. Heiska prefers to go early the first morning of a garage sale. If you’re one of the first through the door (or on the lawn, as the case may be), you’ll get the best selection. However, you can also get a great deal by waiting.

If you stop by a garage sale at the end of the last day when the host is faced with hauling what’s left to a charity shop (or back in the house), you have a better chance of getting a deal. Often, prices are slashed by 50 percent or more in those last few hours.

6. Know your prices

When you shop at garage sales you won’t have the luxury of scanning a bar code to compare prices, so make sure you know the average selling price before you head out. Not all garage sales are ripe with good deals.

Garage Sales Tracker has a sample pricing guide that includes most things you’d find at a garage sale [7], for example:

  • Brand name baby clothes: $3
  • Brand name adult jeans: $3
  • Hard cover books: $2
  • DVD players: $10
  • Microwave: $10
  • Sofa: $35
  • Full patio furniture set: $45
  • Set of golf clubs: $25

Prices will vary from seller to seller, but if you see items tagged much higher than this, move on to the next sale where you can get a better deal.

7. Be wary of scams

Most sellers are honest people who just want to make some extra cash. But that isn’t always the case. If you buy it now and don’t realize you got a bad deal until you get home, you’ll be out of luck. Watch out for:

  • Damage covered by price tags. Lift the price tag up a little to check.
  • Mismatched pieces. For example, make sure the lid on the creamer set you’re eying matches the other pieces.
  • Repaired items marked as new. Hold breakables up to the sunlight to check for repaired cracks.
  • Antiques that aren’t. Don’t assume something is old, an original, or a limited edition just because the seller says it is. Flip the item over and look for the original branding. Most antique clocks won’t have a “made in China” stamp on the back.

8. Don’t shy away from haggling

While you shouldn’t nickel and dime every seller for every item, if you want something but think you could get a better deal, ask. Most sellers would rather make a deal than lose a sale.

If you’re too shy to haggle directly (something I totally understand), Heiska suggests what she calls “lazy haggling.”

“It’s where I pick something up, ask the seller how much it is, and when they tell me the price, I pause and then set it back down on the table,” she says. “Many times the seller will automatically say a cheaper price without hesitation.”

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Meet the Author

Angela Colley

Angela Colley


Colley is a freelance writer based in New Orleans.


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