The Biggest Mistakes Most People Make at Garage Sales

Garage sales are go-to destinations for bargain hunters and antiques aficionados in search of one-of-a-kind pieces to complete their home or wardrobe. But make a few missteps in navigating this time-honored neighborhood tradition, and you could wind up squandering time and money. Here are 10 mistakes people commonly make when shopping at garage sales—and how to avoid them.

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You Didn't Scout the Location

With around 165,000 garage sales held in the United States every week, it’s easy—albeit wrong—to assume you’ll stumble onto one without planning. Even in the off chance that you do find a few sales, your shopping time and the number of locations you can visit in a given day will be limited. You’ll maximize your time and your haul if you check your community newspaper, a neighborhood social network (like, or at least one day ahead of your shopping excursion to pinpoint several nearby garage sales.

You Didn’t Make a Shopping List

While it may be tempting to open your wallet for every trinket on offer at a garage sale, it’s also the surest path to breaking your budget. If you have a money or time limit in place for your shopping trip, draw up a list ahead of time based on the types of items mentioned in the garage sale ads, for instance, baby clothes, housewares, or vintage jewelry. Narrow the list to items you need or want most, and you’ll leave the sale with your arms full and your wallet just slightly lighter.

Related: 10 Ways to Score Big at a Yard Sale

Your Timing Is Off

Most garage sales run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m, but the cream of the castaways tends to sell out in the morning. If you roll out of bed at noon, you’re in for slim pickings. Big-ticket items like furniture, however, are the exception to this rule. Trying to negotiate a lower price on these items in the morning is usually ineffective because the homeowner is anticipating plenty of other offers throughout the day. Your odds of success in haggling go up in the late afternoon, when both shoppers and offers are in shorter supply.

You Went Wild with Electronics

Bicycle helmets, tires, computers, and TVs are just a few of the items you should never buy at a garage sale. Their history and condition are difficult to assess on site, and as a result, their safety and remaining useful life are hard to predict. To avoid bringing home a safety hazard or a clunker, stick to items that, for the most part, remain safe and useful as they age, such as clothing, most toys, decor, jewelry, and furniture. You can always pick up refurbished appliances or electronics with warranties relatively cheaply at online stores like Amazon, where you can be much more confident of their condition.

Related: 11 Things Never to Buy Secondhand

You Glossed Over the Goods

Honest garage sale brokers will be the first to tell you that the secondhand sofa you have your eye on has a stain on the underside of a seat cushion, that a bed frame is missing a few screws, or that those skinny jeans have a small rip on the back pocket. But don’t count on this transparency. To avoid buyer’s remorse, do your due diligence by carefully inspecting the condition and operation of any garage sale find before forking over cash.

You Didn’t Measure

If you leave home without a measuring tape, you’ll be forced to just guess the size or dimensions of clothes, tablecloths, and furniture, and may come home with an item that’s too big or too small for your needs. Because most garage sale items can’t be returned and some sellers prevent you from trying on certain garments, bring a measuring tape with you to ensure that size-sensitive purchases will be an exact fit.

You Didn’t Ask for the Bundle Price

The thrill of finding multiple items that catch your fancy at a garage sale may fade when you start adding up their prices. Instead of negotiating and paying for items individually, negotiate a bundle price—that is, a lower price for a group of items—to boost your savings. For example, if you pick up three shirts and a hat worth $14 in total, try offering $10 for the bunch. Sellers are more likely to negotiate with buyers who are willing to take multiple pieces off their hands.

You Didn’t Bring Small Bills

Cash is the only payment that most sellers will accept at garage sales. But if you stop by your neighbor’s sale with a fat stack of twenties, or worse, a couple of Benjamins, expecting him to make change, you may instead end up giving him a big tip you didn’t budget for. Homeowners usually keep only a limited quantity of small bills on hand to make change for customers, especially at the start of the day, so be sure to convert large bills into smaller denominations—ideally no higher than tens—before you hit the sales.

You Passed Up Vintage Wares

Fans of the program “Antiques Roadshow” are all too familiar with the fortuitous tale of the buyer who pays a paltry sum for a secondhand collectible at a garage sale only to be told years later that selling it could fund his or her retirement. From baseball cards to rare toys, there are often hidden gems at garage sales that you should scoop up if they’re reasonably priced. If the value of the item increases, you could make a tidy profit upon resale. If it doesn’t, you won’t be out much money, and you’ll have had the enjoyment of owning something special. 

You Didn’t See the Potential of the Pieces

Whether it’s an old dresser, a plain wreath, or a builder-grade mirror, buyers pass up garage sale finds with a dingy or unfinished look to their own detriment. If only they had seen the hidden DIY potential in these unassuming artifacts, they could have transformed them into must-have modern showpieces with their own two hands. Don’t be afraid to buy a piece that looks past its prime. If it’s in good condition, you can revamp it and make it your own with paint, wood stain, and other creative touches.

Snag a Deal

Avoid these garage sale mistakes and you’ll walk away with a treasure trove of goods.