Editor's Note: As sure as heat and humidity, rummage and garage sales are a certain sign of summer. Our veteran shopper tells us how to get the most for our money, and have fun, buying "nearly new."
Lining up: You might want to avoid lining up early to rush inside the minute the doors open. That could seem counterintuitive but most of the time a lot of 'the best stuff' is still there after the dealers and early birds rush through. If you do arrive early, park near the sale's exit door (which is not always the same as the entrance.) That way it's easy enough to bring purchases out to your car and go back for more. Just accept the fact that items are 'as is' and 'as donated'. And give the sale workers a break -- don't insist on bargaining or negotiating in the first hours.
Bring a big, lightweight bag: Pick one up at IKEA, or Home Goods, or Trader Joe's and bring it along to stash small items before you get to checkout.
Keep a notebook: How big is the space for the new bookcase? Is your tween-aged daughter a girl's large or lady's small? What is your husband's ice skate size anyway? Is "The House of Seven Gables" or "The Deerslayer" on next year's seventh grade reading list? If you're like us, we can never remember exactly. Make lists!
Be nice: The people you see 'minding the shop' at rummages have likely spent countless hours preparing the sale. Don't ask for or expect a discount as soon as the doors open, don't hoard items or throw them on the floor, be mindful of your fellow shoppers and 'play nice'.
Also keep in mind: A measuring tape comes in handy, so does a cell phone camera, a bottle of water and small snack. Dress for the weather, if it's hot outside, it'll be hotter inside the sale. Wear comfy shoes and carry the bare minimum – a small shoulder bag just big enough to hold cash, keys and cell phone is ideal. Allow your mind to wander and look for serendipity in that oddball item you never knew existed.
Clothing: There will be racks and piles of garments ranging from brand-new-in-the-box baby clothes to vintage chic to high fashion items to Wal-Mart or Old Navy rejects. When you find something you're interested in purchasing, check it carefully for rips, stains and funny smells. Items donated from a chain-smoking household may never 'smell' clean, some perspiration odors are permanent, some flaws are unfixable. It pays to stop and think a minute before you buy: cashmere sweaters are often priced the same as acrylic-blends and are a much better buy. The same goes for items from high-end department stores such as Saks and Bloomingdales that are often lumped together with those from big-box stores.
Furniture: No matter how enticing the bargain, remember that ya gotta get it home and generally that means moving it ASAP. If you have access to a van, SVU or large station wagon it's not a problem. Use the same rule of thumb as buying clothes, a used IKEA bookcase isn't as good a buy as one from Crate and Barrel or an antique. Most rummage sale purchases benefit from a good cleaning and polishing so look beneath the cobwebs and dust for fine finishes and solid wood.
Books, CDs, DVDs, etc etc: Most used-book dealers reject items exposed to water -- a good idea. Also avoid mildewed, crumpled and dirty books. First rule for media purchases is to make sure that the correct disk is in the case. Then check to see if there are scratches or dings before buying.
Housewares: Rummage sales are a great place to buy gourmet cookware items: fancy pots and pans, stemware, expensive appliances. Pass on any table items that are discolored, cracked or chipped.
Antique and collectibles: Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who bought something at a church sale for a song and found that it was worth the moon. Face it, that's probably not going to happen. Some organizations running sales have quite knowledgeable volunteers combing for valuable items for pre-sale. Others call in local dealers for pricing help. If you find something you love and have to have that's great -- but the days of making Ebay killings on tag sale finds are sadly, most likely over.
Kids clothing, toys, strollers and other items: If you're a new mother or have one in your life you can hit the rummage jackpot. Since babies grow so quickly unopened and unused items are donated, often in their original packaging. Expensive strollers are usually priced at 5% to 10% of original cost – add some elbow grease and a new padded liner and you're golden. Make sure to bring your list of sizes and tape measure.
Appliances: Ask if it's possible to test the coffee maker, iron, TV blender, etc. If that's not possible, then it's buyer beware. Most sales request that all donations be in working order, but duds can slip through the cracks. Assume that the appliances are in working order and that all the parts of the item are present. Then figure out how much you're willing to pay for something that you may find is incomplete or not in working condition. For rummages, garage sales and the like all sales are final.
Any tips that work for you? Fabulous finds that you got for a song? Share it in the comments.
A version of this story first ran in 2010.