Garage sale shopping tips

Yard-sale season's here! We'll show you how to separate the jewels from the junk


Summer marks the beginning of garage sale and flea market season. But before you head out with you visions of hidden gems waiting to be discovered, take a little time to read these tips and ensure you don’t end up with your own garage full of unwanted items.

Look for great shapes rather than perfect pieces
A little paint or upholstery can go a long way. Almost any surface can be sanded, painted or varnished, so don’t be put off by scratched or flaking finishes. Think outside the box — what might look gawdy and heavy in dark oak may look fresh and new in glossy white, or vivid green. Chairs with fussy wooden arm details and tired upholstery can also get a facelift from an upholsterer who can remove dated fluting or piping. Remember that if you’re not able to do it yourself, you should factor is at least $300 to refinish or reupholster a chair, and $500 or more for a sofa. Having a wood piece spray-painted is quick and easy, but if you want a finish that really lasts and don’t have the time to cope with all that sanding, a professional sprayer can do the job for you. Sometimes the rustic finish on a chest of drawers can look great when paired with a shiny new marble or granite top and re-purposed as a bathroom vanity or kitchen island.

If you’re looking for deals, head to flea markets and garage sales towards the end of the day when vendors are more likely to negotiate
Professionals may never offer huge bargains (although a little back and forth is to be expected, and part of the fun) but prices do have a tendency to drop towards the end of the day when the prospect of packing up a van may seem daunting. In the case of garage sales, prices may even drop to zero since, let’s face it, the main reason people have garage sales is to get rid of stuff.

If you’re looking for something specific, head our early in the morning, before all the best pieces are snapped up. Be prepared to pay sticker price though
If you have your heart set on a crystal chandelier, or fashionable collectible (like stoneware or the jadite made famous by Martha Stewart) you’re best to head out at the crack of dawn. Store owners make a career out of combing flea markets and auctions and know the early bird gets the worm. One advantage you have is that you can always pay a little more than they can, since you are not trying to re-sell.

Carry lots of small bills with you so you don’t get stuck paying more when a vendor says they have no change
Let’s face it, it’s hard to cry poor with a wad of twenties in your wallet. Vendors like a quick sale, so lots of five dollar bills, loonies and toonies are a plus. If you know you’re looking for something substantial, get a couple of hundred dollars in cash so you don’t have to rely on a vendor to hold an item for you while you head to a bank machine.

If you don’t have the time or skill to fix it, don’t buy it
Don’t pick up any items you think you are going to refinish if you really don’t have the time, money, or ability to do so. They will only sit in your home and make you anxious. Sure, there are lots of great items out there — like single silver spoons that would look fabulous in a large shadow box backed with linen, but ask yourself if you’ll ever get around to building a shadowbox.

If you’re looking to fill a space, bring measurements, snapshots and paint or fabric swatches
This is especially true in the case of furniture. Cabinets converted into bathroom vanities need to fit exactly and it would be a shame to end up with something far too big with no other purpose in your house. And while you may be confident as you head out of your house that you know exactly what you like, chances are your clear vision will get muddled when you’re faced with rows and rows of items.

Don’t overlook a vendor because of poor merchandising
It’s a case of the diamond in the rough syndrome. Savvy merchandisers (often professional retailers) know that well-displayed wares will attract buyers, and hence justify higher prices. No matter how dirty or unappealing a booth may appear, you don’t know until you venture in what kind of treasures you might uncover. And don’t be afraid to bring a piece out into the light, or away from other merchandise to get a clear idea of what it looks like.