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Yard sale yarns

Ten tips for the savvy stoop sale shopper

With all the money I’ve spent at yard sales, I could have taken a trip around the world. As corny as it may sound, for me, yard sale shopping or selling is not about saving or making money but about sport, entertainment and community. Sport in the sense of the hunt, the find and closing the deal; entertainment because a morning spent yard sale shopping usually cost me less than a movie (now more than $10 at most New York City theatres), and community in the sense of an exchange of goods in the open market as well as meeting new neighbors and catching up with others.

I happen to live in a neighborhood where many of my neighbors share the same vision. Every rain-free weekend, and some times on weekdays, locals set up shop along the street, on their stoops or in their front yards. I remember one particular weekend after a string of rainy ones. It was bumper-to-bumper yard sales for at least a mile along the main drag. I also remember what I bought that day. One rare find was a set of four coffee cups with a picture of the Morton salt girl that say, “When it rains, it pours.” It cost me $1 for the set. The vendor was thrilled when I snagged them and she said she couldn’t imagine who would buy these. “Must like salt,” she concluded. I do like salt but it’s the design that caught my eye and I thought they’d match the Campbell soup mugs I picked up elsewhere, four for $2. (I eventually sold the Campbell soup mugs for $2 when I tired of them.)

Did I need those Morton salt mugs? No. Did I want them? Yes. Was the price right? Yes. Do I have room for them in my apartment? Absolutely not but we’ll get to that later.

First, the No. 1 rule of yard sale shopping: Don’t stop if you don’t want to shop. Just looking doesn’t apply at yard sales. There is always something for a dollar or some one-of-a-kind object at some ridiculously low price that you have to have. I still have my more-than-a-foot tall wooden Unicorn statue, which resembles a carnival carousel horse, that’s mounted on a colorful red and yellow stand and cost a $1. Several years later, I couldn’t resist the wooden desktop lamp with a horse and fence at its base for $5. I’ve never used it as a lamp nor do I intend to, it’s more a companion piece for the unicorn statue.

On the flip side, if there is nothing for a $1, move one. Or rule No. 2: Every vendor should have something for $1. And its corollary: if the goods are priced too high, move on. Take a glance at the goods on sale. Eye the price tag of any object of which you know its full retail value. If that item is overpriced, the rest most likely will be. For example, at a recent sale, I noticed some green cereal bowls that matched ones I’d bought at Ikea for about $1 each. The yard sale vendor had tagged them $1 each. So I said, “I bought those bowls for $1 each new at Ikea.” (Another tip: Don’t be shy at yard sales. Speak your mind.) Immediately, she dropped her price to two for $1, and added something like “Lady, you’re not helping me.” Without the bowls, I moved on. I don’t want to spend my morning haggling with vendors who have the profit motive in mind. I’d rather buy from vendors who are doing the real neighborly thing — where prices are low and the people are friendly.

Rule No. 3: Set limits or only buy items for what you think they are worth. Technically, material goods have no intrinsic value. A T-shirt is not worth $1 or $75. It’s worth what the market will bear. The savvy shopper, however, will set an intrinsic value in an effort to control the market. I just won’t buy an item if the price is not right, even if I need it, been looking for it or desperately want it.

For example, I’m a stickler when it comes to books. I won’t pay more than $1 for a hardcover book or 50 cents for a paperback. So I’ve turned down the “The Devil Wears Prada: A Novel” by Lauren Weisberger when it was priced at $3. But I snagged a hardback of “Seabiscuit” for a $1 when it first came out. (The first and only sports book I’ve ever read.) I had to wait about a year but eventually found a hardcover copy of “Lonely Bones” for a $1. I also managed to pick up Pete Hamill’s first novel “Snow in August” for $1 and then had him sign it when he came to the neighborhood to promote his second novel, “Forever: A Novel.”

Rule No. 4: Only buy goods in near-perfect condition. This ruleeliminates half, if not more, of the stuff out there. So when it comes to books, that means no underlining, no folded pages, no yellowed pages! No stains on clothes. No missing parts on toys, furniture, electronics, etc.

Rule No. 5: Shop for what you need. I always have a mental list of items I’m looking for, so I’m ready when I see a deal. For years, I’ve been looking for a stereo CD player but only at the right price. So when I spotted the AIWA tabletop CD player for $30 this past April, I knew to grab it.

A word about buying electronic goods: How do you know it’s going to work? You don’t. It’s a yard sale shopping risk. If you don’t want to gamble, don’t do it.

Obviously, buying from a neighbor — you know where they live — makes it easier to take that risk. On big ticket items, ask for a phone number. If they have a car, take their license plate number. Of course, they may be moving, as in a moving sale.

Have I been duped? Yes. One time, I bought a standing wooden lamp for $10 from a guy just around the corner from where I live. I figured he lives around the block — no problem. It turns out the lamp had this funky switch and only worked on its own time. The very next day, no exaggeration, I see the guy that sold me the lamp and say, “Heh, you! You sold me a broken lamp!” His response: “It worked for me. Just fix it.” What was I going to do? Make him take it back. Rather than fix the wooden lamp, I replaced it with a metal lamp I found at another sale for $6. Turns out the lamp gets so hot, I’ve nearly burned myself several times on the metal parts. In the end, would it be cheaper to buy a lamp full-price at a store? Maybe. Will I continue to look for a lamp on the street? Probably. Why? Because it’s so much more fun.

Rule No. 6: Shop for what you don’t need. See rule No. 1. Great finds are the reason why die-hard yard sale shoppers set their alarms earlier on weekends than weekdays. Some finds that fall into this category are: a metal replica of the Statue of Liberty for 25 cents, a 5-by-5 ½ inch black-and-white television for $5, which sits on top of my computer monitor for heavy news or breaking news days; a miniature rock collection for $2 and of course, my collection of more than a dozen souvenir-type metal religious objects from Israel that started with an electric Chanukah menorah for $10 at a church sale. A warning here: don’t buy something that can potentially turn into a collection unless you’re ready to accept the consequences. One of which is if you see an item for the collection at the right price you have to buy it. You also have to find space for this junk, which brings us to rule No. 7: Recycle. This may be one of the most important rules. Bring something into the house, something has to go. It’s easy with books and most baubles (although you do get attached to some of them, like the unicorn statue.) It’s harder with “better” finds. But when I scored a near perfect full-length leather coat from Express for $10, I had to let go of the bomber-style leather jacket with the Saks Fifth Avenue label I overpaid $25 for.   

Rule No. 8: enjoy the experience. A good morning yard sale shopping usually runs me $10-20, and I usually come home with a bag of stuff. Think of it this way. Movies cost at least $10. A burger and fries cost more than $10 in neighborhood pubs. If I spent $10-20 on a day of yard sale shopping, I’ve gotten more than my money’s worth.

Rule No. 9: Talk to your neighbors. Part of the yard sale shopping experience is getting to know your neighbors.From year to year, I remember who I bought what from or who bought what from me, and sometimes we pick up the conversation from there. I bought the AIWA stereo from neighbors a few blocks away who last year I had purchased a Williams-Sonoma kitchen timer for $1. (BTW, I use the timer all the time.) When closing the deal I mentioned that I come to their sale every year, and we got to talking a bit. They then invited me to sell with them that day. So I grabbed some stuff of my apartment set up shop next to them and in about an hour I had paid for the stereo and was able to buy a wooden CD rack from them as well with my “profits.” The rest I donated to charity, which brings us to rule No. 10: Spread good karma. In terms of material value, my best deal has to be a brand-new mountain bike, valued at about $400, that someone gave me for free. At the time, I offered to pay the vendor something but she said, “Just make sure if you ever get rid of it, pass it on for free.” So freebies go back into the market as freebies. Same goes with great deals. (Remember the Campbell’s soup cups?)

In the long run, I don’t save money by shopping at yard sales nor do I make a profit when I sell, nor do I expect to. That’s not the point. Yet somehow I still feel I’m ahead of the game. Now if you want to make money, try another sport.