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Design expert Eddie Ross reveals how to navigate flea markets like a pro

It's flea market season, and if you're anything like us, you love the thrill of the hunt. But for some people, the crowds, endless vendor stalls, heaps of inventory and price haggling can be a bit overwhelming. So how do you prep for a fun, productive day of treasure seeking?

To learn how the experts navigate a flea market, we tapped home design guru Eddie Ross of Better Homes and Gardens, author of "Modern Mix: Curating Personal Style with Chic & Accessible Finds," from which these tips are culled:

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  • Swim upstream: Get your lay of the land first with an online map. Start at the back, where booths won’t be as picked over, and work your way forward.
Photographs by Bryan E. McCay from Modern Mix by Eddie Ross and Jaithan Kochar, reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith.
Eddie Ross
  • Go big first: If it’s furniture you want, focus on that first. Scan the aisles quickly and slow down to look more closely if something catches your eye. Can’t commit? Jot down the booth number or mark it on a map. I even ask dealers for their cell numbers. Finding a specific booth again can be a nightmare at big flea markets.
  • Look high, buy low: Study the items at higher-end booths — the ones merchandised like stores — then try to find them for less in junkier spots.
Photographs by Bryan E. McCay from Modern Mix by Eddie Ross and Jaithan Kochar, reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith.
Photographs by Bryan E. McCay from Modern Mix by Eddie Ross and Jaithan Kochar, reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith.

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  • Dig in: There’s good stuff in all of those boxes other people pass up. It may need a little work, but you’ll score.
  • Pull the trigger: If you don’t, someone else will. Making a decision is hard sometimes, but when you find something you love at a fair price, buy it.
Photographs by Bryan E. McCay from Modern Mix by Eddie Ross and Jaithan Kochar, reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith.
Photographs by Bryan E. McCay from Modern Mix by Eddie Ross and Jaithan Kochar, reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith.

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  • Get social: Some dealers are walking encyclopedias. When you come across one who’s knowledgeable, stay awhile — that’s how you learn.
  • Play nice: Let’s face it — you’re at a flea market because you want a deal, but it’s not going to happen if you insult a dealer by low-balling. If they’re asking $100, don’t counter with $20. Ask them what their lowest price would be — say it’s $90 — and if that still seems high, offer them $70 and go from there. Dealers worked hard to find their wares and are trying to make a living.
  • Take two: Make another round if you’re up for it — you’ll catch things you missed the first time. Circle back to booths with items that caught your eye early on; you might find a better deal.
  • Dress the part: Wear comfy shoes and layers you can peel off as the day warms up. If you want to make deals, leave labels and flashy jewelry at home.
Photographs by Bryan E. McCay from Modern Mix by Eddie Ross and Jaithan Kochar, reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith.

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  • Bring cash: Some dealers take checks and credit cards, but you’ll get better deals with cash. I give myself a budget and take only that amount. (Flash forward to my mad dash to the ATM, followed by a week of ramen noodles on gorgeous china.) If you don’t have enough, give the dealer a deposit and go get the rest.
Photographs by Bryan E. McCay from Modern Mix by Eddie Ross and Jaithan Kochar, reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith.
Hitting a flea market? Don't leave home without this.

One last tip, but it's a key one: Pack all your must-have essentials in an easy-to-tote bag. These include:

  • A design notebook (keep dimensions, ideas and inspirational photos in one place; include paint chips and fabric swatches)
  • Tape measure
  • Magnifying glass
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Bug spray
  • Lip balm
  • Sunscreen
  • Band-Aids
  • Hand wipes
  • Poncho
  • Umbrella
  • Hat
  • Snacks
  • Water
  • Flashlight
  • Sturdy bags for hauling goodies
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