Garage Sale Manifesto

Kevin at Webgoonies inquired yesterday about my knack for finding good baby stuff at garage sales (many such items having been reviewed here). Well, that’s a long story. I got hooked into garage sailing [sic] a few years ago while visiting my parents. On a Friday night my parents asked if I’d like to go garage sailing the next day with them and their friends. Garage sailing = group activity?

We arrived at my parents’ friends’ house at 7:30 a.m. and briefly stepped inside. The friends were a married retired couple in their sixties. (The husband will heretofore be referred to as The Master.)

Their living room was decked out in a stunning medieval motif, right down to a full knight in armor standing in their entry room. All of it, The Master said, simply all of it, was purchased at garage sales. His wife wouldn’t be going with us that morning, so she gave him a list of things to look for, and then we embarked.

Rule #1: Start Early

It was about 7:40 a.m., perfect timing. Most sales start at 8 or 9
a.m. on Saturdays, and usually require at least half an hour for setup
as people haul out their boxes into their driveways. If you approach a
sale during setup you probably won’t be shoo’d away. Have no shame. Get
first dibs.

Rule #2: Outpace the competition

You are up against competitive garage sailors. You’ll recognize them
after a few Saturdays. Some resell antique furniture. Some resell
anything and everything on Ebay. Some want baby stuff. If they arrive
at a lucrative sale before you, they’ve raided the baby clothes and
snatched up all the good toys… and you’ll be none the wiser. That
juicy garage sale looks sour because you were a lumbering oaf who
arrived too late. Move fast.

We piled into The Master’s car. He knew the area best and would keep us
on the go. The car moved at a brisk pace through residential
neighborhoods, lurching to a stop in the middle of the road or at stop
signs to speed read cardboard postings.

The routine was always the same: drive right up to a sale, jump out,
walk fast to the tables and boxes, skim over everything, buy, and get
back in the car. We moved quickly because The Master was giving us
constant reminders. "See anything you need? Done yet? Let’s move!"

Rule #3: Stay on target

Remember what Gold Five advised Gold Leader just before Gold Leader
was obliterated in the assault on the Death Star… "Stay on target!"

This rule is related to the previous one. You are not at a garage
sale to look at every item in detail or to dive through boxes of tiny knickknacks. Every minute you spend on trivial matters is a minute that
might cost you a cool find at some other sale.

Rule #4: Barter

The list price is a starting point, not the final word. If they want
$20, ask if they’ll take $10. If items are not priced, never ask, "How
much do you want for this?" Instead, ask, "Will you take 50 cents?"
Most sellers will come down a little in price.

Rule #5: Choose the right neighborhoods

The Master told me poor people don’t have stuff you want and rich
people want too much money for their stuff. If someone was selling a
microwave for $25 or a NordicTrack for $50, The Master would berate
them once we got back inside the car, telling us the seller had
"delusions of grandeur." Target middle class neighborhoods for the best
variety of items and prices.

Rule #6 Take the road less traveled

In large populated areas, ignore sales publicized in newspaper
classifieds because a ton of early birds will get there before you. In
rural areas such as my own, classifieds are sometimes necessary when
you may only find 5 or 10 sales in the entire town. Ignore enticing verbiage in classified ads. Big sale? Huge sale?
Multi-family sale? Estate sale with baby items? Don’t believe it.

#7 Carry a map

Some sellers think you are a full-time pizza delivery driver who
knows every street in the city. No arrows on the signs. No cross
streets. Nothing to help you locate the sale. Carry a map in your car.
This is where a co-pilot saves you a lot of time. Let him or her look
up arcane streets and direct you. Distant destinations can be
hit-or-miss; do not attempt them unless you’re desperate because they
bleed time.

#8 Carry small change

The currency of yard sales is quarters and one dollar bills. You’ll
feel guilty talking down a seller from $20 to $10 for an item and then
trying to pay with a $20 bill.

#9 Learn about community sales

Annual church and school sales are often lousy. When families are
asked to donate items every year, they don’t have a critical mass of
good stuff, unlike, for example, families who are expunging possessions
after five years of accumilation.

Find out if there is military housing in your community and whether
it holds an annual sale. Our local housing complex has a group event
comprised of about 30 individual sales, almost all held by families. It
is a gold mine for toddler outdoor toys. (Military families frequently move, thus negating the annual-sales-are-lousy rule.)

#10 Disregard all of the above

This has all been really good hardcore advice, but here’s all you
really need to know… Go sailing consistently early every Saturday.
Sometimes you’ll score major loot, other times you’ll come back empty
handed. The net effect is good over the long haul.

Some of my best finds (in mint or near-new condition):

  • A port-a-crib – $5 – thinking it was new. When we got it home, I checked the Consumer Product Safety Commission
    web site and discovered the crib had been recalled – 10 years ago! The
    company that bought the company that bought the original manufacturer
    shipped us a new, better crib at no cost. I had to cut apart key pieces
    of the old crib fabric and mail it to them to prove I had destroyed the defective crib. That was fun.
  • My Banky – 50 cents – A back-up copy of Little Miss’ security blanket, never used. When we wash one, we swap it with the other.
  • Teddy Bear
    (see photo) – Free – A plain brown bear that Little Miss screamed and
    clawed for, insisting I put her down so that she could run over and hug
    it. Her little performance scored us Teddy for free. Thankfully, Teddy
    is machine washable.
  • Rock N Bounce Soft Zebra
    – $5 – This rocking zebra looks cool, and his nose squeaks, but Little
    Miss prefers a hokey handmade wooden horse we found a couple weeks
    earlier. (Hokey = bad paint job coupled with glued-on plastic googly
    arts ‘n’ crafts eyes.)
  • Five hand puppets – $1 total – The type of puppet where your
    fingers simulate legs, like on a spider, lady bug, etc.). These puppets
    are commonly sold in museum gift shops.
  • Little Tikes kitchen with a ton of fake food – $10.
  • Little Tikes Easy Store Jr. Play Table – $5.
  • Little Tikes Tender Heart Table and Chairs Set – $5.
  • Two identical tricycles –  50 cents each –  I ended up with two
    because I forgot I had purchased the first one a few weeks earlier.
    Little Miss wasn’t yet old enough to ride and the tricycle was stored
    in our garage.
  • Costumes – horse, clown, Pegasus and lion.
  • Stand-Up Ball Blast
    – 50 cents and $1 – I bought the second just to get another full
    set of plastic balls because Miss frequently loses them around the house. Then the
    first one Ball Blast broke, so I used the second for spare parts.
  • Quality clothes and shoes through all of Miss’ growing stages.

Update: I wrote this article a year after my daughter was born. Three years later, our system is more refined, right down to understanding cities and regions within a city that embrace conspicuous consumption (e.g., sell mint condition children’s products as opposed to well-used, well-worn products). We’re at the point of scaling back, now focusing primarily on children’s books. I don’t believe it’s possible to have too many books.


2 Responses to “Garage Sale Manifesto”

  1. Kevin says:

    Great writeup. I linked back to you off my page. The best find lately that I can recall would be the rocking horse I picked up for a $1 and then refinished it.

    October 14th, 2005 at 8:00 am

  2. ann adams says:

    You’re talking about my weekend entertainment, my clothing and furniture store and my toyshop. Great article. You’re right about the middle class neighborhoods. We went to one here a few years back, found some things (I can’t remember what) and the guy gave us two almost new bowling balls just because we had been chatting about bowling. Ray’s was perfect, holes and all. Mine just need a little widening on the thumb.

    We don’t do too badly in my (edging toward poor) neighborhood because the girls can walk to them with a dollar and come home with treasures. Anything they haven’t seen before is a treasure and Rochelle actually found some roller skates (the convertible kind where the wheels come off).

    October 17th, 2005 at 6:54 am