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How to win at garage sale shopping: a five-step plan

Maryse Dubois

“My mum has a bit of a reputation for winning at garage sale shopping,” says Uber Carshare borrower Willow, from Brunswick.

“She’ll do a few sales every weekend - she’s done it since I was a kid. So yep, I’d say it’s a bit obsessive. She doesn’t need anything, so she does it for the challenge of finding really good stuff - she usually just gives it to friends. My dad says it’s the hunter-gatherer instinct in her.”

Wondering why you only ever come home with a half-burnt candle and a scratched VHS tape, when people like Willow’s mum pick up vintage leather jackets, beautiful china and as-new surfboards for spare change? Check out these 5 tips for winning at garage sales.

Step 1: Plan ahead

Make a treasure trail: Check the local classifieds or, if you’re shopping on the annual Garage Sale Trail day, the Garage Sale Trail Website. Confirm times, pin the locations on a map on your phone, and work out a good route.

Book your wheels. While it’s handy to have a ute or van to bring home your haul, another strategy is to:

  • get a small car that’s easy to park,
  • visit all the sales,
  • reserve any large items, and then
  • book a larger vehicle for picking things up at a later time.

Consider parking ahead of time. If you live in the city, don’t expect that you’ll find a park outside, especially for popular garage sales. Parking a few blocks away and walking can be quicker than cruising for a park nearby. If you can, get a friend to drive: they can drop you off to do Step 2, go round the block, and only park if it looks promising. (They’ll need to be a member, of course - they can join for free in a few minutes.)

Get an early night. Ever noticed those “No Earlybirds!” warnings on garage sale ads? Only suckers pay attention, and suckers do not win at garage sales. Pick up your car the night before, and set your alarm.

Step 2: Scan and judge

Scan the array quickly before deciding to stay. “Wear sunglasses,” says Arun. “Don’t make eye contact or small talk before you’ve decided to stay.”

Break this rule, and you’ll end up buying a pink nylon crocheted toilet roll cover out of sheer awkwardness, because there’s no-one else shopping and you feel bad.

Be judgemental. There are a lot of garage sales on at the same time. Time is precious. Don’t like their taste in glassware? Think their book selection is bourgeois? Move on.

Unless it’s a group garage sale, you can tell at a quick glance whether this household has:

  • collected beautiful, high-quality goods over the years. cared for them lovingly, and will now sell them for ridiculously low prices so that they’ll go to a good home like yours; or
  • accumulated craploads of junk, trashed it, stored it in a mouldy cupboard and is now trying to get back more than the price they paid for this sh#t.

Step 3: Pounce first, think second

“I still remember the ones that got away,” says Dylan, a borrower from Randwick. "I saw an amazing blue Le Creuset crockpot at a garage sale in Mosman for $5, and while I was standing there wondering if I really needed it, this silver-haired woman just slid on in and scooped it up."

"That’s when I realised I really, really needed it. But there was no way she was giving it up, and it’s kind of rude to wrestle with an older lady, so ...”

Step 4: Haggle properly

Garage sales are meant for bargaining. No-one wants to pack their stuff back into the garage at the end of the day, so it’s in the seller’s interest to make the sale. Here’s how to haggle:

  • Decide on the top price you’re willing to say.
  • Gather together all of the things you want to buy first. It’s easier to negotiate a discount for all of them at once.
  • Ask what the price is - even if there’s a sticker on it. You’d be surprised how many times sellers will look at an item they’ve put a $5 sticker on, shrug, and say ‘Oh, you can have that for 50 cents.” (Translated: “Mate, I’d pay you just to get that thing out of my life.”)
  • When they come back with a number, just say “hmm …” and put the item down. Wait much longer than you feel comfortable. This will often prompt a lower offer from sellers just wanting to fill the silence.
  • Carry small change. When you’ve knocked the price down from $10 to 20 cents, pulling out a pineapple ($50) to pay with is just going to make things awkward.

Step 5: Have a getaway vehicle

“In my uni days, I’d go garage shopping on my bike because I didn’t have a car,” says James.

“One of the most embarrassing moments of my life was when I was heading home on my treadly one Saturday with a big CD player under one arm (cost $2, played about 50% of my CDs, super bargain) and I tried to jump up a curb in front of some girls who were waiting for the bus. I tipped face first into the pavement, and they all giggled. I wanted to die.”

Lesson learnt. Nowadays, James has a job as an architect and can afford $20 to rent a neighbour’s car for the morning. He also knows not to buy shitty out-of-date electronics. Life is good.

Find a car for your weekend bargain hunting

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