I think it was my friend Stephanie who turned the phrase “yard sale” into a verb. We’ve been browsing around people’s garages (with permission, of course) for about four or five summers now. We’ve found dresses, games, music and more books than we could count. Recently, we stumbled upon a set of mint condition Harvard World Classics from 1909, a 46-volume set that was ours for five bucks. Too good to be true? It’s not. With a few pointers, you can yard sale with the best of them.
Recruit a friend. Personally, I feel like enough of a dork spending my Saturdays sifting through other people’s used stuff, but I feel even dorkier doing it by myself. Driving between sales is great time to gab, listen to the radio and just laugh. Plus, the dumb things you do or find make great fodder for inside jokes.
Get up early. It sucks to get up at eight on a Saturday, but if you do, you’re bound to find the best stuff. An added bonus is that by showing up early, everything is still in pretty neat piles. You can grab the really nice sweater on top before the grannies in search of underwear and socks find it.
Bring quarters. It only stands to reason not to bring big bills when you’re trying to find steals. When it comes to yard sales, the smaller bills or coins you have, the better. A friend from high school used to fill up an empty film canister with coins. I use a plastic Easter egg, which has been essential when I’m trying to bargain down from a dollar.
Find the neon. Okay, it doesn’t take a genius to find a yard sale. Basically just drive and look for signs with bright colors and Magic Marker. Follow the arrows and note the addresses. Once you’ve been at it for a while, you’ll start to recognize the places where you find the best and the most sales.
Use the classifieds. In mid-summer, you can usually find lots of yard sales just by driving around and searching for the ever-so-tacky neon posterboard. The really committed yard sale sellers, however, buy an ad in the paper. Chances are that if they’re so dedicated to pay 30 bucks for just a few lines, they have some treasure that’s worth a look. Plus, community and church yard sales (the real gold mines) are almost always printed in the classifieds.
Just say no. My friends and I joke that you shouldn’t pay 40 bucks for anything at a yard sale, not even a Gutenberg Bible signed by Martin Luther, Shakespeare and Jesus. Remember that this is used stuff. So ditch the five-dollar gym shorts—if you think it costs too much, it probably does. It also helps to set a limit to the day. I usually don’t let myself spend more than 10 bucks unless I find some super stuff.
Bargain with the seller. People have yard sales for a reason: They want to get rid of their junk. Look at the price on the label, and ask if they’ll take half of it. Most people will. If they don’t, go up gradually. Never fear, though, if you don’t like to haggle. You’ll inevitably find cheaper, more unique things than you would at the store.
Improve yourself. While you’re not likely to find Beethoven or Bach CDs at someone’s yard sale, it seems that everyone has a few classic books. If you’re willing to read old copies, you can definitely build a good library for yourself from people’s forced college reading. Yard sales are also especially good places to find exercise equipment—just be sure before you buy. Ask to try out the exercise bike or treadmill to see if it works.
Be practical. Think ahead. I don’t have my own apartment yet, but I keep stocking up things for when I do. An iron, ironing board, mugs, a beanbag chair and romantic candleholders are a few of my recent buys. Believe it or not, I even buy books and games that I loved as a kid, hoping to give them to my own kids a few years down the road. Also, you can find some great clothes, both name brand items and funky finds, if you’re willing to sift through some piles. If it’s inexpensive and good quality and you think you may use it someday, it’s worth buying.
Be generous. Buy random presents for people. Get the Fleetwood Mac tape for your mom. Grab the Spongebob Squarepants toys for your nieces and nephews. I found a set of six Tori Amos posters recently and gave them to a friend who is a fan. The smile on her face was well worth the $1.50 I paid for the posters.
Have fun. Last but not least—get some board games or card games to play with friends, some cheesy old tapes or a ridiculous item of clothing. My friends and I may have turned “yard sale” into a verb, but we’re anything but serious about it. Grab the quarters and the keys and hit the road. You’ll be smiling for sure when someone asks you where you got that great sweater.[Christina Turner is a English major from Ona, W.Va. She thinks yard sales are a welcome diversion from studying and waitressing.]
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