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10 yard-sale “rules” from a longtime bargain shopper
When hunting for treasures at yard sales, go in with a plan. Photo: Annette Dawm/Pexels

10 yard-sale “rules” from a longtime bargain shopper


Yard sales are about the thrill of the hunt and appreciating all things useful and beautiful — here are some top tips for shoppers, from preparation to etiquette

I love going to yard sales with my sister.

Yard saling is about much more than buying cheap stuff or keeping waste out of a seemingly endless landfill.

It’s about following an unspoken etiquette to come by your bargains fair and square. It’s about seller and buyer both leaving the transaction feeling satisfied and pleased.

It’s also about the thrill of the hunt.

Attending a yard sale is a nostalgic ritual for my sister, Alex, and me. When I told Alex my town was having a community yard sale back in the summer of 2000, it didn’t take much to reel in this seasoned bargain hunter.

She drove two hours from the Greater Toronto Area to my village of St. George, Ont., stayed overnight and we rolled out at 7 a.m.

For the next 25 years, we’ve enjoyed catching up on each other’s lives, observing (and, yes, sometimes judging) human nature and finding vintage treasures.

By treasures, I mean things that make us smile (or a version of what Marie Kondo calls “sparking joy”).

Yard saling is a family tradition begun by our mother, Luci. Mom enjoyed a bargain and she had great taste. She used to make the rounds of our rural Ontario region on Saturday mornings looking for dishes, jewellery, books, tools, furniture and everything in between.

The excitement at finding interesting things was infectious. The rest of the family at various times joined in: my dad, David, Alex, my brother Philip and I. Going to yard sales was a way to shop inexpensively, a morning out and a treasure hunt.

Looking back, I can see that it was a nostalgic trip for Mom and an appreciation of well-made, interesting and useful things.

Since then, Alex and I have been mentally compiling a list of things we’ve learned — rules for yard-sale buyers that serve us well. Here are our top 10:

1. Be prepared.

Our number one rule: Keep drinks — including coffee — to a minimum. Bathroom breaks waste precious early-morning time: there will be opportunities to grab a coffee at Tim’s and use the facilities later in the morning (see “Avoid the time wasters,” below).

Travel light and dress comfortably. Cute sundresses and pretty sandals are for amateurs. T-shirts, sneakers, caps, sunglasses and sunscreen all are musts. We recommend a cross-body purse or sling bag that leaves your hands free.

Stock up on small bills, toonies, loonies and coins the day before. This will help you maintain your bargaining leverage.

Flashing $20 bills can work against you getting a bargain. We’ve struck many a deal with cash on hand: “$7? Hmmm [reaches into pocket]. Would you take $5?”

You may find a black-light flashlight useful to help you detect Vaseline glass (also known as uranium glass — the real thing will give off a neon glow).

A jeweller’s loupe or small magnifying glass is another handy tool that lets you find hallmarks on jewellery and marks on gemstones.

Alex found this gold and amethyst ring, which she describes as “huge and cool,” for $4. Photo courtesy the author

2. Know when to yard sale.

Our favourite village-wide yard sale is held annually on the first Saturday in August. Since we started going to sales in the late 1970s, Saturday mornings have become prime time before the good stuff is snatched up. The earlier, the better.

Picture this: it’s 7 a.m., the air is cool, the sun is out, and you feel ready to pounce as items are laid out on tables and in driveways, yards, garages and church parking lots.

There’s nothing better than yard saling on a sunny day. Unless it’s yard saling on a rainy day. Overcast weather can work in your favour by keeping the crowds down and allowing you to snap up premium items.

It's also worth noting that a cruise of the neighbourhood on a Friday evening can yield hidden treasure as people get stuff ready in garages for the Saturday morning crowd.

3. Develop a yard sale strategy.

The night before a good sale, my sister’s anticipation sometimes reaches the point of anxiety as she contemplates strategy and the promise of hidden treasure.

We always park on my street and cover it on foot. Then there is usually a moment of hesitation when, like kids in a candy store, we feel overwhelmed by the possibilities.

We snap ourselves out of it. Time spent discussing or aimlessly driving could be better spent pawing through McCoy Pottery cookie jars and 1920s jewellery, and haggling for deals.

We tend to choose a different part of town each time. We sometimes rationalize that the older part of town may yield better bounty. The truth is, you never know where you’re going to find something special.

4. Stick to that strategy.

Even on a fun day out, sometimes you need to have discipline.

This rule was created for me and my weakness for books, and so often means forgoing a dig through a delicious box of reading material. If I stop too long to look, I may miss out on other great finds.

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All I can say is choose your book rummages carefully based on type of book, number of books, condition of books and good old-fashioned gut instinct. Same goes for any collection where you might spend too much time lingering in one spot.

5. Learn to cope with FOMO.

Driving into town can be a challenge. With the first rural yard-sale sign often comes the overwhelming temptation to pull over and start shopping.

Do a calculation here: is the risk of missing out on a treasure at this yard sale greater than the risk of missing out on something in town? There will always be ones that got away, so following your instincts is the best advice.

From Alex: “This classic Hudson’s Bay wool coat cost me a whopping 25 cents. It cost me $18 to dry clean! It’s a short version. I think it weighs 10 pounds. Warm, for sure, but for a quarter? What were they thinking?” She acknowledges this was before Facebook Marketplace and Kijiji existed. Photo courtesy the author

6. Speak the language.

Chit-chat: There’s a fine line between a bright “Good morning” and being drawn into someone’s life story. However, on the whole, it’s good to chat with sellers. When you develop a rapport with a seller, they will sometimes feel better about parting with a family heirloom knowing it’s going to a home where it will be appreciated.

Making an offer: “Will you take $2 for it?” I’ve heard my sister use this phrase effectively many times and it strikes the perfect balance between respectfulness and pleading. If the negotiation progresses, try “Could you do 3?” Having only small change on hand drives home the bargain. (“Will you take $5 for the whole box?”)

Don’t be too petty: Some people like to haggle over a price simply for the sake of haggling. Remember these are yard-sale prices. Ask yourself if it’s worth devaluing what might be someone’s personal family items in order to save 25 cents.

Playing the space card: When you reach a certain age and situation in life, you may have limited space in which to store your treasures. It is absolutely accurate to shake your head and say wistfully to your yard-sale buddy within earshot of the seller — or even directly to the seller — that you wish you had room for those teak chairs.

A conversation might start with a statement that feels accurate: “My partner will kill me if I bring this home,” followed by an earnest discussion of where said item could go in the house. This is an honest moment of reflection and indecision. It is also a useful bargaining strategy.

7. Ask yourself: To buy or not to buy?

These are the questions:

  • Do I love it?
  • Do I have a place or person for it?
  • Is it beautiful?
  • Is it useful?
  • Is it well made?
  • Is it made of quality material?
  • How long will it last?
  • Can I clean it easily?
  • Is it functioning?
  • Is it rare?
  • Will I use it?
  • Do I have room for it?
  • Do I have one already, and if so, will it add to my growing collection or become clutter?

And a deeper question, especially important if none of the above applies: Why do I want it?

Sometimes we want that Pyrex dish for sentimental reasons. Maybe it reminds us of a dish our mother used when we were kids. In that instance, sometimes lingering on the item, talking about it with a fellow treasure hunter or taking a photo can satisfy that need for nostalgia.

8. Assess the risk-reward equation.

Taking in your hands something when you see it versus leaving it can be a double-edged sword. Follow your gut instinct and pick it up right away with intention to buy.

Usually, touching the item is a good way to gauge if it’s a keeper. If, by the time you’re ready to leave a sale, you are no longer enthused, it’s easy enough to put it down and walk away.

On the other hand, it’s a relatively small investment! Low yard-sale prices mean that your decision may come down to the space you have available. Either way, with each sale you learn something new about yourself, your taste and your values.

Some of our memorable moments and great finds:

  • A live, rooted evergreen tree for sale: $20. We passed.
  • A large ice-cream brand sign in the shape of a strawberry cone: $1.
  • Vintage movie star birthday calendar bought for me by my sister that turned out to be from a museum exhibition whose commemorative coffee table book I had, unbeknownst to her, received as a gift. Fate.
  • Gold-and-amethyst ring, huge and cool: $4.
  • Two cut-glass chandeliers: $8.
  • Vintage mint green Bakelite radio Alex bought for $5 and, in a rare move, later sold for US$888.

This cookie jar made by McCoy Pottery, a sought-after brand, cost $5. Photo courtesy the author

9. Avoid the time wasters.

Realistically, you have about three hours to hunt for treasures before the good stuff disappears.

Zero in on what you love to buy — be it filigree jewellery, wrought-iron furniture, children’s clothing or Fiestaware — and try to bypass spots that seem unlikely to deliver. Having said that, some of our most thrilling finds have been in improbable places.

Beware recurring yard sales. In some towns these happen on Saturdays (and Sundays — that should be a tip-off). You will soon know if this yard sale is full of recycled, hard-to-unload and sometimes downright useless items. Situational awareness will help you avoid wasting precious yard-saling time.

Put down your phone. We didn’t have cellphones back in the day. Using your phone can be a wonderful way to record cool finds, test them on other people and get questions answered. But don’t let them slow you down. Live in the moment!

10. Home in on the beautiful, useful or meaningful.

It’s interesting how we view objects found at yard sales, garage sales, church rummage sales or flea markets.

With no context, we must decide an item’s inherent value. For us, this can be summed up in the words of William Morris, founder of the arts and crafts movement of the late 19th century: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

I would add to those criteria things that are meaningful to us — things that rocket us back in time and serve as touchstones in our lives.

I now live in another town an hour away, but my sister and I still meet every year in St. George and hit the sales every August. We still are drawn by the thrill of the hunt.

I wish you happy days of hunting, appreciating, repurposing and keeping the past alive!


Colleen Cross is a trade magazine editor, proofreader and freelance writer based in Simcoe, Ontario, who is fascinated by Hollywood’s golden years.

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