Garage Sale-ing Away

Buying furniture wasn't my main concern when I bought my first house. Instead, I was more worried about making mortgage payments, getting the mold spores off the bathroom ceiling, and learning how to operate a lawn mower. Soon, though, it was apparent that I would need more than a mattress on the floor and lamps on top of overturned liquor boxes to serve as furnishings for my house. After two months, I could no longer offer the excuse of "I just moved in." Trouble was, I didn't have the budget to buy anything halfway decent.Going to garage sales seemed like the poor woman's predicament. I had no intention of sifting through someone else's dusty, dark-brown-with-orange-stripes dishes or crappy crocheted linens, sneezing while I shopped. Little did I know that garage sale-ing would become a preferred method of finding furniture or that in the end, I would have to force myself to drive past a sign for a garage sale, instead of making the turn to investigate the goods.At first, it started out as an experiment. I'd agree to go along if my mother bought the lattes and did all the driving. She is a garage sale expert. On Saturdays, her empty Explorer would drive up at 6:30am, with mochas steaming up the windshield, a clipboard with the morning newspaper's advertisements rated on a scale of 1-5, and a Thomas Guide map book in the front seat.Whatever garage sale she had rated "no. 1" according to her system, we went to first. Sometimes we were an hour early, and even then we were usually about the 10th party to arrive. How did my mom (and the nine other people) know that we would hit the jackpot at this particular sale, and that we would be talking about it for weeks afterward? What was it that kept us going through the same ritual, Saturday after Saturday, until we had filled three truckloads of furniture? It's because only at a garage sale will you find the most unique, unusual, or practical items at that once-in-a-lifetime, I-can't-believe-I-got-this-for-five-bucks price. Once you've felt that rush, the exhilaration of arranging your new furniture and have it look as good as anything seen in House Beautiful, you won't want to shop anywhere else. Even if you had all of the money you wanted to do so. Your house will look more interesting, more eclectic, more you. After all, where do you think the finest antique and consignment stores do their buying? Remove the middleman and go straight to the source.True, it's also more work than picking something nice out of a showroom, but the rewards of a good garage sale hunt are well worth it. Here are a few tips to get you started:READ ALL ABOUT ITThe night before, get the local paper and check out the garage/yard sale section. Get out your highlighter pen and make note of the ones that sound the best, paying close attention to the key words and adjectives (see sidebar, "Speaking the Language"). In deciphering key words like "antiques," "tools," and of course, any specific items that you are looking for ("mahogany four-poster bed," "5hp lawn mower"), you can pretty much tell how good (or bad) the sale will be. Combine this description with an address, and you can almost picture the exact type of china set that will be for sale. Where do the wealthy people in your area live? If you go to their garage sales, invariably, your furnished house will look as good as theirs. KNOW THY NEIGHBORHOODUnless you really don't care about finding anything good, avoid unknown neighborhoods (you'll get lost) and aimlessly looking for signs posted to telephone poles. The few times that I ventured on my own without my list of prioritized sales or The Thomas Guide, I wasted a lot of gas and saw a lot of junk.EARLY BIRD GETS THE EARLY PERIOD FURNITUREThe quality of the items you will find at any garage sale is only as good as the time that you get there. Fifteen minutes after the sale has started, all of the good stuff will be gone. That's why when you see "no early birds" in the garage sale advertisement, you should be sure to get there early. Just sit in your car and wait. If a sale starts at 8am, get there at 7am. A line may form, or they may give out numbers, but they'll probably let you in at 7:45, and then you can rush to the next decent-looking sale and be there shortly after 8. Then it's time to hit one more before standing in line for the next good sale at 9. By 9:30, you're done for the day. Head home, unload your loot, and go back to bed. (Sometimes, if you stand outside an hour early and the sellers are still moving furniture outside, you can buy it off them right there.) There is one exception to this early bird rule: If you are the last person to arrive (i.e., when the sale is closing) you will be more likely to get half-priced items, and the sellers will be tired, and thus more willing to unload their furniture and bargain with you.FABULOUS FINDSHow can you tell the junk from the gems? Unless you are experienced in appraisals or local archeology, it's tough. This was my test: "Could I imagine finding this particular item at the fanciest antique store in town?" "Is this item practical?" "Will it look good in my home?" If your home is already basically furnished, you should only buy something when you can say "yes" to these questions. If you're like me, though, and just need some basic cheap furniture, ask yourself "Do I need this couch? Is it cheap? Does it smell OK?" Next- and this is the more difficult part--examine how the piece of furniture is constructed. Often, it may look really bad (water stains, scuffs, horrible varnish, for example) but with careful sanding, refinishing, or painting, you just might be able to turn it into a work of art.CASHING INI've never been to a garage sale that took Visa, and most won't like to take your check, either. Be sure to hit the cash machine and take out a couple of hundred bucks. You might not end up spending any of it--but if there's a fight over an armoire and you've got the cash and your opponent doesn't--who do you think the seller is going to pick?HOLD ONUnlike department stores, you can't just put an item at the cash register and expect the seller to hold it for you. Anything that doesn't have a "sold" sign on it (or isn't paid for, sitting in your car) is up for grabs, and "sold" stickers don't always stay on, especially when there's competition. If the item you are purchasing is large, and you need to make two trips to take it away, be sure to take a part of the item (cushions, drawers) and return for the rest.DRIVE BUYIf you don't have a truck or other large vehicle, get to know someone who does. Bookcases, couches, and dining room tables won't fare too well on top of your Honda.DUSTY RELICSHunting for treasures is not a pristine, relaxing job. It's a dirty business! Sellers often don't clean their household goods before putting that 50-cent label on them, so it's best to be prepared: Stash a box of Handi Wipes in your car, or wear gloves while you shop. It sounds extreme--but just imagine yourself driving to the next great sale, being driven nuts by the thick coat of orange grease that's stuck under your fingernails because you examined an old coal-burning stove a few sales back. And I've never been to a garage sale that had a restroom available for use.FURNISH, DON'T FLOURISHSome of us (and we know who we are, don't we!) just can't resist a "really good deal." Trouble is, we're not so good at the "good" part of the deal, and we end up accumulating a lot of stuff we really don't need. Then you'll have to do what I did: have a garage sale of your own to get rid of all of the discards that you bought at other garage sales! Sure, you might actually make a profit on your goods, and you're doing your part for the environment by recycling, but you should really stop sale-ing before you overstuff. Take my advice: Going to garage sales is always better than giving one. You'll have annoying people parked outside your door way too early, and the worst part: You're stuck at home all Saturday morning when you really could be out garage-sale shopping.SIDEBAR: SPEAKING THE LANGUAGEAntiques: If they're listed, there are probably a few (although they may not be exactly what you'd call antiques). Get there early. It's better if specific items are described-- be aware that some sellers will falsely advertise to get you to come to their sale.) Baby clothes: Avoid any sale that lists this particular item in its ad--unless, of course, you're shopping for baby clothes. Generally speaking, young families don't have a lot of good stuff to sell. Collectibles: A nice word for junk and knickknacks. Estate sale: Someone died, and a lifetime of accumulated goodies is up for sale. Garage sale: Technically, this means that the sale is held in someone's garage, but the generic term also applies to yard sales, moving sales, and estate sales.Moving sale: These are usually held by upwardly mobile people who are moving out of their condo so that they can start having kids or by retired folks who are moving to Arizona. Go if you are interested in newer items such as expensive electronics, CDs, leather couches, and wine glasses. Multifamily sale: The neighbors get together and block off the cul-de-sac so that you can promenade along the street, picking up gems. Or they may pool their resources in one family's enormous yard. Saves you from having to drive to the next mediocre sale.Power tools: Tools are hard to come by, so get to these sales early.The Sale Lady: Not usually a real person but an agency. The "Lady" is hired to go through fine antiques and price everything accordingly once some rich person has passed on. You will be asked to take a number at these sales, so get there early. You won't find anything cheap, but you won't find any junk, either. Yard sale: Held outside, because the owner's garage is too messy. If it's raining, things might just be half-price. -Allison Ellis

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