Garage Sale Savvy

You know all that stuff your family no longer uses or needs? Here's how to recycle it -- and make some money in the bargain. Plus, check out our tips and tales from tag-sale veterans.


I remember our first garage sale very well. My husband and I had been preparing for weeks. We were confident we had everything under control -- until we opened the garage door an hour before the sale and found three overly eager customers already waiting in our driveway. Before we could even put out our tables, four more cars pulled up. The good news: It continued like that all day. By the end of the sale, we had made enough to cover the cost of the swing set we wanted to buy. The bad news: We barely had time to feed the kids, never mind ourselves.

That was ten garage sales ago. We've learned a lot -- mostly the hard way -- and managed to net between $100 and $800 every year. A bonus: It's been a great way to keep a cap on the enormous amount of stuff we invariably accumulate. Want to get in on the action? Read on for an insider's secrets to a successful, family-friendly garage sale.

Get the Word Out

Advertising is key to a good turn-out. But don't expect a few signs around the neighborhood to do the job. Call the classifieds section of your local newspaper to find out the cost and deadline for placing an ad that runs from the Wednesday before the sale through the big day itself. Also, check your newsstand for community papers; these weeklies often charge a nominal fee for classified ads -- and sometimes nothing at all.

Before taking out an ad, call your city or town hall to ask about any ordinances governing garage sales. Some communities require a permit or stipulate sale hours -- and though such regulation is rare, it's better to know the rules before you've spent money publicizing the event.

When you write your ad, be sure it includes the day and date of your sale, starting and ending times, your address and the nearest cross streets, and some specifics about what you're selling. (Ad costs are usually per line, sometimes per word, so be concise.) If you have loads of infant and baby gear, you might want to add "Attention New Moms!" If there will be lots of maternity wear, address your ad to mothers-to-be. In case of uncooperative weather, it's a good idea to include "Rain or Shine" to discourage would-be customers from assuming the sale is canceled. And to prevent getting caught unprepared (as we were that first year), you might want to add "No early birds, please" to your ad (but don't expect that to be totally effective).

In addition, you'll want to make a flier with the same info and photocopy it by the dozens (use brightly colored paper). Post them in area supermarkets, your children's school, the library, the commuter-train station -- anywhere with a community-events board. Then, early on the morning of the sale, tack up a flier or two at the nearest intersection. To identify your house, make sure to put a few balloons or crepe-paper streamers at the end of the driveway.

Priced to Sell

To get an idea of the going rate for secondhand items, visit consignment shops and stores that sell used clothing and household items. (Note: Forget about trying to make a bigger buck by charging more. Because most garage-sale junkies know what things go for, your plan will backfire.) Consignment shops, unlike other secondhand stores, are in the business of selling things on behalf of individuals; typically, the shop will split the profits 50/50 or 60/40 with the merchandise owner. (Always check with the shop to find out for sure). Using this as a gauge, I generally price my items at 60 to 75 percent of the consignment-shop price -- in other words, less than what a shop would charge but slightly more than what I'd get if I sold them at one.

Make sure to tag each item with a clearly visible price. In addition to being buyer-friendly, this keeps you from having to answer four customers about four different things at one time. It's not unusual for customers to bargain -- especially if they're buying in volume.

If all the merchandise is clearly marked, you won't be caught off guard when someone offers 20 bucks for a pile of baby clothes. In that case, by the way, an acceptable arrangement is 10 percent off the ticketed price. One exception: If it's late in the day, offering a better deal may be worth the time you'd otherwise spend boxing everything up again. And always know your rock-bottom price for each item.

Presentation Is Everything

For better browsing, group items by category and place the most attractive or like-new products in front. Appliances should be cleaned and electrical items plugged in (make sure you have enough extension cords on hand) -- people generally won't buy something if they can't see that it works. And don't sell items such as strollers and car seats until you check with the Consumer Products Safety Commission (800-638-2772 or to make sure they haven't been recalled.

Separate and hang clothes according to size and gender. (Everything should be washed and, if nec- essary, ironed.) Maternity fashions are a big seller. Display them with faux bellies made from balloons or plastic bags stuffed with newspaper. Children's clothes, too, are always in demand. I've found that many young mothers go to garage sales looking specifically for gently worn kids' clothing. For this reason, make sure sizes are easy to spot -- labels too. (Brand-name clothes move more quickly because moms trust that they're well-made).

Arrange accessories cleverly: For example, use stuffed animals to model pint-size hats, mittens, sunglasses, and shoes. Promote quality Halloween costumes with photos of your children wearing them.

Set out toys where kids can play with them. It's worth the time to assemble the train sets and dollhouses because parents can rarely resist buying something their child is so wrapped up in. It's also worth locating instructions and other printed material that came with assembly-required and big-ticket toys.

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Dollars and Sense

For every customer kind enough to have exact change, there will be two with nothing smaller than a $20 bill. Be prepared to make change all day: You'll need to have a few hundred dollars in small bills -- and a calculator. Five-dollar bills are usually better than tens (unless you have a lot of higher-priced items), and you can never have too many ones. If there is a lot of merchandise priced under $1, get a roll of quarters ($10 worth) from the bank.

Store all money in a sturdy, lockable box. Keep it closed except when making a transaction -- and never let it out of your sight. Because it can be hard, if not impossible, for one person to manage this along with everything else, I strongly recommend that you have at least two adults working at all times. Keep a running tally of your sales, and to be safe, store large bills -- and everything over the $100 or so you need to have on hand -- in a safe place in the house.

How to Involve the Kids

If you have school-age children, encourage them to hunt through their closets and drawers for things they no longer play with or use. As motivation, offer them a cut of the proceeds from their contributions. Another kid-size entrepreneurial venture: hawking lemonade and cookies at the sale. It's a low-key way to teach kids to be resourceful and, coupled with letting them share in the profits, helps them appreciate the value of money. Preschoolers will be less interested in helping and may even prove a distraction. My advice: Plan a playdate at a friend's house or a visit to Grandma's. Hiring a baby-sitter should be a last resort, since her payment comes out of your profits.

Be Prepared

Nothing ruins a garage sale faster than a downpour. Translation: Have a Plan B. Ours is to use tables with wheels so they can be easily rolled into the garage. Another idea is to go with tables small enough to be carried in by one person. Short of that, have enough plastic tarp to cover the tables -- though you'll still want to move them back into the garage.

Finally, keep a cordless or cell phone with you -- having one pretty much covers you against anything else that could go wrong.

Garage-Sale Goodies -- and Duds

Some items just don't sell -- no matter how well they're displayed or how much your family might have enjoyed them. Here's a good primer to keep in mind.

Sure Bets

  • Children's clothes and shoes
  • Toys in good condition
  • Sporting gear
  • Children's hardcover books
  • Empty picture frames
  • Tools in good condition
  • Homemade quilts (especially vintage)

Forget About It

  • Old toasters and TVs
  • Board games for adults
  • Paperback novels
  • Used pots and pans
  • Cassette tapes
  • Used sheets and blankets
  • Computer equipment

Inspired to have a tag-sale of your own? Be sure to check out our tips and true tales from tag-sale veterans.

Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the April 2002 issue of Parents magazine.

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