1. Do your research Study up on the types of items you want, suggests the Toronto decorator Sabrina Linn, a former style editor and consummate bargain hunter who mixes vintage and designer pieces for her clients. “For example, if you’re interested in mid-century modern furniture, educate yourself on styles, materials and construction so you can tell the difference between knock-offs and the real thing,” she says. “You don’t want to walk past a really good deal on something that’s actually quite rare and valuable.”
2. Prepare yourself To get the most out of flea markets and garage sales, put a whole day aside. Look in the morning paper and map out several locations, wear comfortable clothes and shoes, and bring along sunscreen, a hat, a snack and your measuring tape. “And make sure you bring cash,” says Linn. “Bigger flea markets have ATMs on site, but there are usually long lineups, and if it’s not your bank, you’ll have to pay a service charge,” she says. “If you’re serious, take a couple of hundred dollars in 20-, 10- and five-dollar bills.”
3. Timing is everything If you can go to only one or two garage sales, make the trip worth your while by timing your arrival properly. If you go early, you’ll get the best selection; if you go at the end of the day, you’ll probably get the best deals. “That’s when sellers are more motivated to get rid of everything,” says Linn. “They’ll offer five items for the price of one, and sometimes even give things away.” Some sales can start early, so set your alarm.
4. Go with a plan “There’s always a lot of stuff that’s 50 cents or a dollar, and it’s easy to get carried away,” says Linn. To avoid impulse shopping, decide what you need ahead of time, give yourself a price limit, make a list and stick to it. But don’t be too specific. “If you say, ‘I want a green lamp with a white shade,’ you might be eliminating a lot of wonderful items,” says Linn. “Just know your style and that you want a lamp, and it’s amazing what will jump out at you.”
5. Think fast If something catches your eye, avoid hesitation, especially if it fits your criteria and budget. “Don’t hem and haw over an item, because there’s somebody right behind you who will buy it,” says Linn. If you’re inclined to “think about it,” she suggests shifting your perspective: “Keep in mind that the piece is one-of-a-kind. If it’s sold, it’s not like the seller is going to restock the shelves with the exact same thing.” Vendors rarely wait for buyers to make up their minds, “but, if you sweet-talk them and the item is expensive, they may put it on hold for a maximum of half an hour.”
6. Master the art of haggling It’s common to start low, offering about 50 percent of the asking price, and then work your way up from there. But Linn has a different strategy: “I don’t want to insult them by offering a low price, so I open up the negotiation process by simply saying, ‘Is this your best price?’ And then if you’re friendly or buying more than one item, they’ll likely give it to you for less.”
7. Be realistic about fix-ups If an item is only slightly worn, go for it. “Look for items that you could easily spruce up with soap and water or a can of spray paint; metal or wicker furniture tends to clean up easily,” says Linn. Rewiring a lamp is also a simple enough fix for a unique item you love. “But I’d avoid anything that shows a lot of damage.” A broken chair or table with a missing leg, for example, will probably cost you more time and money than it’s worth, says Linn. “And because of hygiene concerns, I wouldn’t buy a fabric-covered item, unless I was definitely planning on reupholstering it.”