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How to score big at garage sales

With a little bit of advance planning, you can greatly improve your experience at garage sales and save serious cash on all sorts of purchases, both big and small.

How do you feel about garage sales? Love ‘em? Hate ‘em? Fall somewhere in the middle?

People tend to have strong visceral reactions to the idea of pawing through strangers’ used stuff in search of bargains. Even if yard sales aren’t your cup of tea, though, this column could help you view them in a new light.

With a little bit of advance planning, you can greatly improve the experiences you have at these events and save serious cash on all sorts of purchases, both big and small. So whether you’re a devotee of garage sales or the kind of person who simply gets dragged along to them, the following tips can help you bring home the gold.

1. Map out your route. Check your newspaper’s classified section and look for geographical concentrations of potentially good yard sales. You also can do the same thing online at Craigslist. Decide where you want to go before you leave home so you don’t get lost or waste time and gasoline.

2. Know the drill. Neighborhood- or street-wide sales and sales at churches, schools and non-profit organizations tend to offer the biggest and best variety. Sales in affluent neighborhoods typically have higher-quality items, although they may be overpriced. It usually isn’t practical to shop for baby clothes in a retirement community or antiques in a neighborhood with jungle gyms in every backyard.

3. Strategize about when and how to shop. If you go early in the day, you’ll get the best selection; if you go late in the day, you’ll get the best prices. Always try to get the seller to name a price first before blurting out what you’d be willing to spend.

4. Remember, you’re after bargains. Be aware of how much it would cost to buy a certain item new, and then try to pay 10 percent or less for it. Pay up to 25 percent for something you really want – (and maybe even a little more than that if it’s something you really, really want). Be sure to bring along plenty of small bills and change.

5. Haggling can be good for you. It might not be nice to haggle over some purchases – say, items in the $1-and-under bin – but don’t be afraid to haggle over items you care about. Consider leaving your phone number with the seller if you can’t agree on a price. You just might get a call if the item doesn’t sell.

6. Take all sorts of items on a test drive. Thoroughly examine the condition of any item before you buy it. Open all the drawers, plug in appliances, check clothing and books for mildew and hold vinyl record albums flat to see whether they’re badly warped. Look inside boxes to make sure they actually contain what you think they contain.

7. Expect great deals on clothes. You can find plenty of inexpensive clothes at yard sales because they’re generally poor sellers. When buying used clothing for kids, don’t put complete confidence in the size on the label. The garment has likely been washed many times, so it may have shrunk.

8. Know when to say no. The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that you do not purchase certain items at yard sales, including: soft bedding for babies, car seats, cribs, accordion-style baby gates, zippered bean-bag chairs and hair dryers with plain plugs. If you have a question about a specific item, call the commission’s hotline at (800) 638-2772 or visit this site to see whether it has been recalled for safety reasons.

9. Care for potential purchases. Pick up any items you may want and carry them around with you until you make a final decision. If you don’t, chances are someone else will snatch them up. If you’re shopping with small children, hold on to their purchases too. Drive around with a bag or bags and some extra newspapers so you can wrap up breakables and prevent purchases from rolling around inside your vehicle.

10. See the big picture. Examine yard-sale items not only for their primary uses but for their potential uses as well. Imagine how an item could look in the future with a little TLC. But if you know you’ll never actually restore an item that needs some help, don’t buy it and add to the clutter in your own home.