The Knowledge! (advanced yard sale techniques) + Yard Sale Finds for 2011

Last year, I made a substantial amount of money at yard sales. Certainly not enough to quit my day job, but enough to provide seed money to various other projects that I have been involved in. Over the past several years yard sales seem to have gotten much better, the quality and selection have improved as well as the frequency. I think this is a direct result of the economic collapse. During the exuberant years when credit was easy and people thought they had to have the newest and the best, they bought stuff they had no real use for… All that incredible mix of treasures and needful junk is coming back on the market. I hate to say it but, yard sales have shown me that life really is, Like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. My wife feels I have some kind of magical power. I’ll tell her I need something and then I’ll go out and find it, often right away. We needed a screen door for back porch andI found 3 for $2 within a few hours, the digital blood pressure cuff was at the first sale of the day. For these gifts, I thank the Yard Sale Gods.

One day, I looked at my wife and I said, “if I had a little windfall, I’d put it towards buying an ambulance to convert into a mobile knife sharpening van.” Several days later I purchased a camera at a yard sale for $2 that I later sold on eBay for $1380 (which is a whole different story).… There it was, the windfall that started what I refer to as my ambulance fund, and which, by the way did finally lead me to buy the ambulance about a month ago.and which now sits proudly in my driveway.

I am a Master of Yard Sales, The Guru of Garage Sales, The Raja of Rummage. I have been doing it for years and without blushing I can say, I am one of the best. I may not make as much money as some people or devote as much time as others, but I can say straight up, that I have more fun, meet more people, and find more interesting junk than almost anyone around. So here it is… The basic treatise on treasure hunting. This is the SECRET STUFF! So go ahead, there’s plenty out there. 

Yard sailing is an art form. It is an adventure, a long and complicated dance with a huge variety of partners, stages, and props. It can be exhausting and frustrating, but more often it is a series of interesting people selling interesting items, usually at fantastic prices, and often with a lot to say about life, love, and way things work. Here is a little primer on how to find those ultimate treasures… What a friend referred to as the Koans of yard sailing.

The 1st thing in successful yard sailing is a system for mapping out your course. Not so long ago, this used to be done with the classified section of a local newspaper. You would take your paper, a highlighter, and a folding map and you would sit down and try to figure out the best route. With the coming of craigslist, the physical newspaper has become obsolete, and then with the coming of Google maps, the folding map has also become a thing of the past. I still use a highlighter.

The night before I go out yard sailing, I sit down with the garage sale section of craigslist, choose the area I will be hunting in, and begin to harvest addresses that look interesting. Over the years I have discovered that it is not so much what people say they have at their yard sales, but more about the general tone of the advertisement. It is rarely what they say they have that you will find, but what they forget to say they have.

For example, if someone says they have a box of straight edge razors, then by the time you get there that box will already be gone. People with intelligent well-written advertisements or people who seem fun and creative will usually have more interesting and valuable items, as well as being more fun to visit and talk with. The exception to this rule is baby items… People who advertise they have a lot of baby items for sale (unless that’s what you”re looking for) will usually not have much else.

Anyway… I use cut and paste to harvest the addresses from interesting looking ads and drop them into a text file, then I open Google maps and click on the Get Directions icon. You will then have 2 dialog boxes, A and B. Under that you have the option to Add Destination, go ahead and click on that 24 times. That will give you 26 alphabetical spaces, then just drag and drop 26 yard sale addresses into those spaces. When you are done hit return and Google will show you a map with all the addresses laid out in a mix.

Take a good long look at the map and then throw out and replace any addresses that seem too far out of the way. Decide where you want to start and then go to the list on your left and drag that address to the top of the list… That becomes A. Then look at the map and decide what the next best choice would be and drag that to the second place and that will be B, and so on until you have a logical map that has a minimum number of back tracks or empty spaces… Then, just print out the first page of the directions, the page with the map.

I then do a quick screen grab of the actual list for reference and I have a complete route for the next morning. I take that list and drop it into my GPS and I’m done for the night.

Next morning, get up early and prepare some snacks to take with you. It can be tiring. It’s fun to take friends along, the conversations can get wild and company makes things go faster, but there are RULES.

You are the driver and the planner. It’s your show. You’ve put a lot of time and effort into the planning of the day and your visitors need to respect that… That means if you find something you both want, they need to step back. It also means that you set the time table. If you’re done with a yard sale and want to hit the next one, they shouldn’t lolly gaggle. Finish the perusing and lets get going. On the other hand, if you’re having a fun time at a sale, it’s the driver’s choice to take a break for an interesting visit. It’s hard when you invite someone and then they become your biggest competitor, or your biggest anchor. On the other hand, as the driver and Yard Sale Ninja, you can be generous and let them have most things they want… There is plenty out there.

I took a friend once who grabbed something I was looking at right out of my hand while I was bargaining for it. I had planned on giving it to them anyway, but the breach of Yard Sale Etiquette banned them from future trips.

Next rule of yard sailing is arrive at your most interesting looking yard sale ON TIME. I know, some people go early and try to get the jump on things, but this is rude and rudeness spoils the fun and creates bad feelings. If you arrive a few minutes early, you can politely ask if you are too early. If you are nice about it, people will often invite you in. It’s great to be the first on the scene at a good sale, but don’t be aggressive about it! Some sales start at 9:00. some at 10:00 and some much earlier. I usually aim for the first 9:00 one… I am a fanatic, but don’t like to rush. If you hit a 9:00 one, then you can also hit a 10:00 one later… I usually skip the 7:00 and 8:00 ones. Another hint is when you find a moving sale, don’t restrict yourself. If you see plants on the exterior that you like, ask if they are for sale. Sometimes they will just give them to you. They probably didn’t even think about them.

Regarding signs… While going from sale D to sale E watch out for good signs along the way. Only go if they have a date on them. People leave their signs up for months after the sale is over. If there is no date, it could be an old sign or a pseudo business. People who have yard sales every week will put out one sign for weeks or months to save time and effort. Anything they had worth buying was gone ages ago. If the sign looks permanent or really beat up, same story. They think they are running a business and those are not yard sales. However, some of the best sales are the ones you stumble on. Particularly if the sign is creative or well done. Just like the ads, creative people have fun creative stuff.

One of the first rules of yard sailing is that, on your travels, if you see a portapotty by the road… Stop and Use it! It is very awkward to ask to use someone’s bathroom at a yard sale. They are busy and cannot watch you and they don’t want strangers in their house without them. Stopping the route and going to look for a gas station or restaurant can take valuable time from the route… Thank God for people renovating their houses! In Portland, people legally have to have a portapotty if they have more than 2 workers on their crew. If someone asks you why you are using their portapotty, tell them it’s a city statute that if there is not a lock on the portapotty, it is legally open to the public. I don’t think this is true, but they don’t know any different.

On bargaining… Number one rule is that at the end of a bargain, everyone should walk away happy. When they give you a price, never say it’s not worth it. That’s just insulting to the seller and will make them mad, but at the same time, never take the first price… Ever. You can say… “$10? That’s a good price, would you be willing to go for $5?” If you are nice and respectful, 90% of the time they will say yes, or at least make a counter offer.

Don’t say you don’t have enough unless you really don’t. People don’t like being lied to. I usually say something like, “It’s a good price, but I’m trying to conserve my money, I’ve got a lot of yard sales to go to.” The simple truth. Make it entertaining for them, engage them about their house or garden. If you ask for a discount and they are thinking about it, laugh and shrug your shoulders. If you can make them laugh, they will give you whatever deal you want.

Okay you silly dog, When you see me start to bargain pop your head up and look cute.

I have a long running trick… I’ll ask for a deal and then while they’re thinking about it, I give a little whistle and Murphy the Half Blind Devil Wonder Dog will pop his head out of the window and look ridiculous. The seller then says “OMG what a cute dog!” and the price drops. If that doesn’t work, I tell them what a trouble maker he is and that usual seals the bargain. The conversation is more important than the item.

I will not buy from people I do not like. I do not want their bad karma going home with me. If I feel someone is too attached to something and will resent selling it, I do not want it. With that attitude, the deals are almost unending.

If you’re interested in the stuffed raccoon (and there is no one else eyeing it), do not run right up to it and say it’s the greatest thing ever… Look at something else first… Wander around a little. You don’t have to lie, you can say it’s a fun piece, but don’t let on you’re salivating. I got a great stuffed raccoon that way, but had to resell it on bay after Da Wife refused to let it live in the dining room and I should mention… bought for $20 and sold for $300. Which brings us to reselling.

No one wants to know that they are selling you something and that you are going to resell it. I don’t like lying to people and I don’t want them to be unhappy about the deal, so I simply say something like, “What a great item, and for that price, if it doesn’t fit in the house, I can always resell it later.” Well, our house is so crowded that not much fits in it anymore, so I’m not exactly lying. Another good but honest trick is to take a young nephew or niece with you. A 10 year old kid can ask for a deal and no one can refuse them. It teaches the kid how money and bargaining works, everybody has a good time and you get killer deals. I’ll tell my nephew that he has $10 to spend for the day and he gets to keep whatever he finds, however at the end of the day, he has to give me back the change. That kid picks it up pronto.<

Usually the seller will ask a price, it’s always dangerous when they say, “Make me an offer.” If you go too high, you’ve been had, when you go too low, they get insulted. So I’ll usually insist they give me a starting place, say $10. Sometimes I’ll offer $5, depending on their mood. If they’re having fun, then $5 is perfect, if they seem a little harried, then I’d say $5.50 or maybe $6. If their mood is good, then they probably don’t really care what they get. If they are getting tired or feeling overwhelmed then 1/2 will feel too low for them and even a little increase will make it feel better. If they offer $8 or $9, then the final price will probably be around $6 or $7. If the exchange seems to be bogging down, offer them $6.50… The 50 cents represents a victory for them without really changing your bottom line.

If there are multiple items, bargain hard for the first item, then ask what the price would be for 2 or 3 of them… If the price comes down more, ask about taking all of them. This can be a substantial savings. Remember, they want to get rid of the stuff. They save time and trouble if you simply take it all off their hands. You can pay $3 for 1 item and $5 for 6 items. You can also bundle deals. If you bargain for 6 items individually, ask them for a discount for all the items together. Again… Never take the first price. It’s like they’re coming up against the Yard Sale Guru. If they get a feeling that you will not accept the first price, then they will give you discounts. If they get a feel that you want the item and are willing to pay, the price will be set. If your habit is to always bargain, that will be the aura you will present. Just ilke if you are there to have fun, they will know that too.

Nowadays, you can use your smartphone to figure out true value, but try not to be obvious about it.You can also use bar code reading programs like Redlaser to check the value of books. I’ve often seen old music books or unusual novels that turn out to be worth $50-$60 and you can get them for a quarter. Sometimes, if the mood is right, you might find yourself educating the seller about the true value of their stuff. Honestly, what goes around, comes around. You might not get that statue, but you make friends and they will often give you some other great deal, just because you did not take advantage of them.

As you enter someone’s property, figure out who the head honcho is and introduce yourself. Yard sales are at least partially social events and people want to know who you are. If you’re nice to them, they will direct you to their best bargains. I’ve been invited in for tea, been served lemon cranberry muffins, shared in BBQ ribs, and been given wonderful gifts. I printed up seed packages and filled them with sunflower seeds from our garden and after the bargaining is over I will give them away as a thank you for a fun bargaining session… People are thrilled and they remember me year after year.

About neighborhoods. A lot of people will tell you that rich neighborhoods are the best, but I don’t find that to be true. Rich people buy really good stuff and then hold onto it until it’s finished. That’s one of the lessons of being rich. They can also think that because they are rich and their neighborhood are totally upmarket, that their stuff is “Valuable”. When the truth is, that often you can find it at a different sale in a different area of town for a tenth of the price. I like upwardly mobile areas. The people there buy the best they can, but then feel the need to upgrade, or they buy more than they need, but the stuff can be eclectic and fun. Student areas can be fun too. The kids are often entertaining and creative and don’t really grasp the value of things. Particularly around the end of the school year when they are going home and don’t want to bother packing the great TV their parents paid for. Found some of the best kitchen knives on the market from a student who just didn’t know or care what she had They had been badly abused, but then, I recondition knives as a hobby and now they are show pieces.

There are a lot of people who swear by Estate Sales, but I do not find them interesting and rarely go to them. For one thing, they are usually run by professionals who know exactly what stuff is worth and are dedicated to squeezing every cent out of an item. They are business people on a commission and are not there to socialize, so they are not usually as much fun to deal with.I remember trying to buy a small aluminum coffee pot to make chai in and they wanted $15 for it… I can buy the same one at Walmart for $6.95. People seem to think that because it is an estate sale, it’s automatically an antique and more valuable. That’s not where the treasures are. And then there are the people who call their yard sales “Estate Sales” because they think then they can charge higher prices. If it’s called an Estate Sale, I want someone to be dead!

The other thing about Estate Sales is that a lot of the professional buyers descend on them like vultures and they can be crowded and aggressive. I don’t like people grabbing stuff from in front of me and I’m not going to push anyone out of the way. Yard sales are usually not as chaotic (usually) and generally more friendly.

Carry a lot of small bills… and I mean a lot. First off, no one wants to bargain for 10 minutes over a $3 item and then have you pull out a $20 bill, not to mention that people will often be strapped for change. If they can’t break a $5 bill, then the price just went up to $5. It’s also way nice if you come to a yard sale and they have run out of singles and you can break a $20 for them. You will get bargains for that. Also carry a pocket full of change. I bought a miniature tape recorder for a quarter that later turned out to be worth $95 on eBay… Lots of the best treasures are small. I’ve been carrying a tiny round brass Ganesh around in my pocket for years that I got for 50 cents.

As you approach a yard sale, run through the things you are looking for, but when you actually get there, let your gaze go soft and remain open to possibilities. Stuff will jump out at you. Get a sense of what kind of people they are as you approach, sometimes as you drive up, you’ll get a feeling that it’s better to just keep going. Trust those feelings, just like you trust the feeling as you pull up that you might have hit pay dirt.

There are various ways to turn a good profit at yard sales. One way is to be a pro and know the market better than anyone else. That entails research and reading and going to auctions… but I’m not that organized, so I’ll tell you a secret… It’s called the “I wants.” That is to say, if you look at something and you really want it… Chances are someone else wants it too. Even if it is something that you have no use for or don’t know much about, if you want it, so does someone else. I’m sure I miss a lot of potential scores, but I have a good time, meet truly interesting people and find fantastic bargains. Just like not arriving too early, or being too aggressive about the bargaining, the point is to have a good time and come out ahead.

I run like a mad man, but break around 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon. I could squeeze out the last few drops by rolling until 4:00 or 5:00, but then the joy goes out of it. Every item has a story, a memory. When my wife and I drive around town, we have this series of stories. “Remember that place? Weren’t those people great? Remember that crazy guy that lived there?” It makes the town a different kind of place, a home town, a living breathing series of stories and experiences. The time I went into a house and all the widows were painted black and the owners didn’t acknowledge us. They just gestured vaguely at the house as if it was all for sale and they didn’t care. I met a guy in the back part of the house and we discussed if they might be vampires and we might be on the menu, or the time I admired a lady’s bamboo and she helped me dig up a small stand to take home as a gift.

So that’s a basic primer on the Koans of Yard sailing. Remember, when you see the Portapotty… Stop and use it!


3 Responses to “The Knowledge! (advanced yard sale techniques) + Yard Sale Finds for 2011”
  1. Katie Tetzlaff Larsen says:

    I read the WHOLE thing — next a book!

  2. mike says:

    very nice… good stuff in there! have a nice day.

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