Saturday, April 28, 2012

How to win at yard sales

In one of my first blog entries, I wrote about how many of my household goods have been loving gifts and hand-me-downs from friends (you can read that entry here).  Almost all the rest of my wares and tools--from clothes to furniture to kitchen things--come from yard sales.

I learned to yard sale (yard shop?) from my mother and aunt.  Nearly every Friday and Saturday in the summer, my mother and I would venture across town seeking treasures.  We have all kinds of stories hung and folded away in our homes: the stained glass dome light in my parents' house, the little roll-top desk in my bedroom, all our luggage, my turntable, garden tools, innumerable books and skirts and mugs.

Even amid the hectic life of a grad student, I have often made time for yard sales.  Rising from yard sales makes me get out of bed much earlier than I would otherwise, and the delight of finding good, lasting things for such little money blunts the temptation to buy new things later in the week.

Here, then, is my brief guide to finding treasures and having fun at yard sales:


Throughout the year, keep a "watch-for" list for yourself and your friends.  Whenever you think, "I would really love to find an immersion blender, or a bicycle, or a little black dress," write it down. Yard sales often have such an array of goods that it can be helpful to know what you want to notice. If you are looking for furniture, write down any relevant  measurements and keep them with your yard-sale money.

Plan your expedition carefully.  Some yard sales are posted on Craigslist, but the best place to find listings is the classified section of a Saturday-morning newspaper.  Usually they are grouped by neighborhood, which makes planning a route easier. 

Take plenty of small bills and change.  During the summer, I usually keep a pouch of cash dedicated just to yard sales.  My mother uses the cash-back bonus from her credit card for her summer yard-sale money.  If you are in the market for something that might be more than $10 or $20, you might want to take a check book with you, as well. 

Take something to drink and a snack. Since the best yard sales are early in the morning, I like to take a travel mug of tea and some cereal to munch.   If you have a shopping companion who is takes longer than you at sales, consider bringing a book so you can wait gracefully, if need be. 

If possible, go with friends.  I've had many successful yard-sale expeditions solo, but it is easier and more fun to go together. Practically, having one person navigate to listed addresses and to watch for signs posted is really helpful.  Socially, spending a morning wandering from sale to sale can be really good quality time, rather like a road trip in miniature. Plus, even if you don't find any material goods, you have spent time in good company.

Type of Yard Sales
The best types of yard sales are those which offer goods from lots of people at once.  Sales held at churches and schools tend to be the best for both selection and price.  Multifamily and neighborhood sales are also good, especially if an entire subdivision, for example, agrees to hold yard sales on the same day. 

I have also noticed that different neighborhoods have very different kinds of yard sales. If you know your city well, you can learn to predict with some accuracy how good the sales will be.  Generally, the best sales happen in older neighborhood.  You want to go to yard sales held by people who bought high-quality goods twenty-five years ago, and who are now primarily interested in cleaning out their house.  If they want to get rid of things, prices will be lower. Historical districts were always the best neighborhoods in my hometown.  New subdivisions tend to have the worst yard sales.  The items for sale, like the houses, tend to be generic and overpriced. 

Shopping itself is the fun part.  After you have been to a few sales in your town, decide upon some general price guidelines for items you might buy. For example, here are some of my general limits

Clothing: 50¢ to $3 (something has to be *really* nice to get $3)
Books: 25¢ to $1
Furniture: $5 - $20, depending on quality, although we did once pay $50 for a bed
Miscellany (kitchen utensils, crafts supplies, stationery): 25¢  to $1

If you are shopping with friends, it is fun to have some running contests during the day, such as "Strangest Item for Sale."  You can enjoying seeking and showing these sorts of things without having to buy them.


I am much more shy about bargaining than my mother and aunt, but I will sometimes offer a different price than what is listed.  I usually only do this, however, if I am buying several things, and can offer a certain price for the whole bag or bundle. These offers are usually accepted.

If you want to bring the price down on a particular item, it is sometimes worthwhile to go back to the sale in the early afternoon, when most sales are shutting down.  People are often willing to take a lower price if their other option is not selling it all. 

Showing Ritual 

This is essential. After the yard sales, go home and show someone, anyone, what you found. My mother and I will do this together, even if we have shopped together the entire day. Sometimes I have done it via Skype with friends.  It is a chance to give thanks for what you found and to rejoice with the success of your friends. 

And with that, allow me to show you some of my recent yard-sale discoveries.
The suitcase, not the cat
Little black dress

Shoes, rain gauge, owl wrapping paper

Foldable sun hat, comfy shirt, and shorts all came from yard sales.

Vintage sewing notions, groovy stationery

Basket, tea tin, and fancy soap

This is my first apartment. The rocking chair and its blanket, the corner shelf, many of the books, all the glass bottles, the dove stained-glass above my head, and much more came from yard sales.

The desk, the blue pillow, the glass bottles, and all the embroidery hoops.
Do you go to yard sales? If so, what is the most exciting or interesting thing you ever found?


  1. $2 crockpot. I've gotten more use and joy out of it than you could possibly imagine.

    1. Indeed! My bread machine was a $2 yardsale purchase, and it has served me very well.

  2. Today was our neighborhood garage sale. I spent $5.25 and got 21 books (mostly hardback children's books from 30 or 40 years ago, including one with a Hawthorne short story!), the game Racko, two VHS tapes, shorts for Steve, jeans for Mikayla, t-shirt for Ethan, swimsuit and PJ pants for me, a truck and a couple bath toys for Ethan, and a little dollhouse and some sewing cards for Mikayla. Love yard sales, especially when I can just walk around my neighborhood!

    1. That's a great morning, Beth. I'm sorry we haven't been able to yard sale together while we've been in Waco.