Looking to get your financial house in order? Pay close attention to one room: the garage.
Garage sales prove financially smart whether you’re buying or selling; this week we’ll concentrate on the buying part. I’ve been a big fan of garage sales ever since I was in high school. My mom (who, yes, survived the Depression on cabbage) took me to sale after sale, amazed at the great stuff others cast off. She furnished our home with chairs I lugged from local sales atop my teenage noggin.
Today I frequent sales several times a month — and with the warm weather arriving, colorful garage sale poster boards will dot lawns will all the urgency of sprouting tulips. In Chicago, you can drive down an alley some weekends and see a dozen or more sales happening at once. Need clothes? Furniture? A great set of bookshelf speakers? Before you pay retail, why not hit some garage sales in your neighborhood, or a short drive away, and see what treasures you can find?
I once found a new Ermenegildo Zegna tie for a buck. A lousy buck. New, it cost about $150. My Cuisinart toaster over ($10) and my Emerson microwave ($20) were both purchased at garage sales, each used maybe once before I snagged them.
I’m also the proud owner of two Italian suits, in my exact measurements, that I got for free. Yup, free. And a snare drum I bought for $25 and painted silver for use as a play prop, turned out to be an antique Slingerland jazz drum that’s now worth an estimated $750 after I did $250 of restoration work.
Here, I’ll list 10 keys to garage sale success — the dos and don’ts for making your money stretch further than you ever thought possible. But you also need to know the pitfalls, too, because you don’t want to spend your money on a ton of junk.
FUEL UP, PLAN AHEAD
Check the classifieds via craigslist, your local newspaper, or a community website, as they’re the best places to find sales. Play your route to hit at least several in a given time span. Most start around 9 a.m. or so and end before 4 p.m., so head out in the morning after a satisfying breakfast. Rash buys are often made on an empty stomach.
KNOW THE AVOID LIST
Old TVs are lousy buys at garage sales, no matter how cheap, as they’ll prove costly if they need fixing. Take a pass on older printers (finding drivers and cartridges can turn into a goose chase) and one-dimensional appliances such as bread makers. (When was the last time you used a bread maker?) Don’t buy anything on impulse, either–that creates a financial bad habit, not a discipline, which leads to my next pointer…
MAKE YOUR SHOPPING LIST
Successful shopping on a budget boils down to listing what you need or want beforehand. So prior to hitting sales, I tally the household items or clothes I need, or musical instruments I might want to purchase for my recording studio. (That’s how I found the snare drum.)
INSPECT IT CLOSELY!
Check clothes for stains and rips, examine furniture joints and legs for stripped screws or cracks, take that bike for a spin up and down the block. Some good eggs will actually point out flaws in items that you thought looked just fine. (After all, you know where they live!)
TEST IT, TEST IT, TEST IT
This form of close inspection is especially true of anything that runs on electricity. I once made the mistake of buying a power drill at a garage sale without testing it. When I got home, I discovered the motor was dying. Always test consumer electronics or mechanical items before you buy them, and ask lots of questions about their use. If the owner can’t answer, you have room to haggle. But how to haggle? Here’s how I do it…
REMEMBER THE “WIGGLE ROOM” QUESTION
Remember that most people don’t hold garage sales to make zillions; they’re trying to get rid of stuff. Even if you feel giddy after spotting a $300 leather jacket for $30. play it cool: “Hmmmm. So how much wiggle room is there on the price?” Or ask, “What price can you give me on this?” (Avoid “How low can you go?”, which makes sellers defensive, or “Can you give me a break?”, a question that only has a yes or no answer.) Haggling is easier when buying multiple items. Three times out of four, you’ll snag discounts without the discomfort of driving a hard bargain.
KEEP YOUR EYES PEELED FOR COLLECTIBLES TO RESELL
If you have an eye for certain items, from rare baseball cards to fine art, always keep your eyes peeled. I see at least half a dozen stories a year about folks who purchase rare paintings or a complete set of 1950s baseball cards for peanuts, and clean up reselling them. I’m most envious of the fellow who once bought a Fender Telecaster at a garage sale for about $50, and later learned it was a near-flawless specimen from the first batch of Fenders ever made. Its value at the time was, oh, $100,000 or so.
ENLIST A DEVIL’S ADVOCATE
Unchecked bargain hunting can breed garage sale gluttony, so take friends along who will say things like: “Do you really need that?” or “Your girlfriend’s gonna hate that boar’s head, hate it.” (Was a boar’s head really on your shopping list?)
JUST BECAUSE YOU DON’T SEE IT DOESN’T MEAN IT’S NOT THERE
I always ask garage sale vendors about items on my list, even if I don’t see them on display. About half the time, someone has an item they either forgot to bring out or didn’t show for various reasons. Imagine lugging a piano out to the yard, for example.
COME BACK TO COOL SALES LATER IN THE DAY
By then the desperation factor to get rid of items rises exponentially, and in some cases, unsold items will creep out to a trash pickup area. At one sale I attended, the proprietor wanted a lot of money for a Pottery Barn dresser–too much, I thought. I returned later, and found the same dresser out in the alley for trash pickup. My wife and I hauled it off, repainted it, and it now sits in our daughter’s room.
I have no way of knowing how much I’ve saved by shopping garage sales over the last 10 years, but it’s in the thousands of dollars. At one of the final sales I attended last summer, a neighbor practically begged me to take away her Yamaha stereo, CD changer and bookshelf speakers — all matched components — for about $25. That stereo, looking new as the day she bought it, now occupies a proud spot in the Carlozo living room. In fact, my son’s listening to the sound from his Netflix show on it as I write this, and it rocks.
Now if I could only find a nice stereo equalizer to go with it — in someone’s garage, of course.