Richard Zambito, vice president of the Parklawn Civic Association in Alexandria, Va., has become the neighborhood’s unofficial garage and yard sale inspector.
In the last few years, Zambito has seen sales go from occasional friendly and benign events that brought the community together to extreme and prolific selling juggernauts.
“Two weeks ago, I drove by a home and they were having an auto sale, 20 cars parked on the lawn,” he explained, adding that some residents are now holding weekly sales. “And I went by another home and saw the yard full of appliances, including vacuum cleaners, washing machines and driers.”
Zambito thinks the sales have become a nuisance, creating traffic and litter problems. He’s on a mission to get county officials to curb them, and he’s even been taking photos of the sales and confronting residents who hold them.
“Last time I took photos they chased me down the road,” he said about residents who were unhappy he’s trying to curtail their roadside retailing.
In South Greensburg, Pa., a borough of Pittsburgh, town council president Clentin Martin also wants to put the kibosh on lawn and driveway bazaars, but he found out that messing with garage sales could be the new third rail of politics.
He just introduced an ordinance that would limit the number of garage sales residents can have every year to four and would charge $5 for each sale. For that, he said, he’s been called a communist. “I’ve gotten more heat on this than anything I’ve ever done,” he said.
Towns from Pittsburgh to Dallas are moving to curb so-called extreme garage sales and many residents are balking.
A sacred American ritual is coming under fire. Tough economic conditions have led to a rise in such home-based vendors who see the process as a way to make a few extra bucks, not just clean out the basement. Cities and towns, which don’t get tax revenues from the sales and have to deal with the traffic problem and sanitation issues related to the driveway trade, are fighting back by imposing fees and asking residents to get permits, many of which limit the sales to only a handful a year.
Today, there are about 45,000 garage sales held every weekend across the U.S., according to TagSellIt.com, and there’s no sign residents will be easing up on the home marketplaces on their own.
“The middle class appears to be shrinking while the lower-classes are growing, and members of the middle class seem to be engaging in thrift behaviors as an adaptive strategy under conditions of downward mobility,” said Todd Goodsell, assistant professor in the department of sociology at Brigham Young University, who has studied local thrift economies.
Indeed, advertisements for garage sales can be seen dotting communities all across the country, especially as the temperatures start to warm up; and ads on online classified sites are prolific. In recent years, garage sale ads on Craigslist have been on the rise, said Susan Mactavish Best, a spokeswoman for the company. She would not provide specifics.
Some municipalities in New York are seeing some locations holding garage sales every weekend, said Steve Silverberg, an attorney in Tarrytown, N.Y., who concentrates on municipal land use and zoning.
Many of these residents, he added, are essentially operating a business from their homes, and many towns don’t allow that in residential areas. In response, local government officials are putting zoning ordinances in place with limitations on the number of sales each home can have per year.
“There are a lot of issues that lead to this. All these cars pulling up, people all over the place, and people who live near don’t particularly care for it,” he explained. “A municipality is allowed to control local zoning.”
Dallas’ city council decided to take control of the burgeoning yard retailers.
Last year, the council decided in a close vote to limit the number of yard sales residents could hold and also require that residents get a permit and pay $15 for each sale.
And the city ordinance has restrictions on the number and placement of yard sale signs residents can put up in the neighborhood: "There is a limit of two garage sales at a premises during any 12 month period and each sale may not exceed more than three consecutive calendar days in length. Only one sign is allowed upon the lot where the sale is taking place. Signs placed on medians, public property or utility poles are illegal."
“It wasn’t about making revenue for the city more than to get something under control that was increasingly growing out of control,” said Dallas council member Dwaine Caraway. “People throughout neighborhoods and communities -- some people, not all -- were taking advantage of it. They’d roll out stuff and roll it back in every weekend. A garage sale to me is you got an old pair of shoes, or an old set of golf clubs or dishes. But this stuff was in boxes. Some with tags on them.”
Caraway admitted he’s gotten some flak from the community for supporting the fee and the council is now considering knocking off $5 from the fee. He wants to keep restrictions on residents, however, especially those who had “opened up weekly businesses and were not paying any taxes either.”
But he added, “no one is going to be thrown in jail. It’s to figure out who are the abusers and the good people. Good people will appreciate it in the long run.”
Aaron LaPedis, author of “The Garage Sale Millionaire”, who has held about 50 garage sales in his lifetime, isn’t so sure.
“We should be allowed as Americans to have a garage sales, make a little money, without being permitted and taxed everywhere we go,” he said. “A normal person would probably have two garage sales a year.”
Where residents go overboard and run businesses from their homes, he said, government officials should crack down, but not on average yard sale enthusiasts.
Such sales are great for communities and for the environment, he pointed out.
“Having a garage sale is very green because it recycles items,” he said. “People are now going to start throwing away stuff.”