This is a guest-post from Chris Heiska, The Yardsale Queen.

Some people believe the myth that there’s only junk at yardsales and thrift stores. That is absolutely not true. Buying at yardsales doesn’t necessarily mean that you are buying someone’s used, dirty castoffs. I often find Christmas wrapping paper still attached to the box,
or a wedding card tucked inside of a box that was probably a duplicate wedding gift (and now the present that probably cost $40 in the store is selling for $5 at a yardsale).

The nicer stuff does get snapped up quickly, so persistence is the key. I often stop by the thrift store in my town two or more times a week to see what “new” stuff has come in. Often the cashier says to me, “Oh, we just put this out today.”

I can’t say specifically that shopping at yardsales and thrift stores is totally responsible for us living a debt-free life, but I know it has definitely helped. (Our mortgage was paid off in April 2000.) For instance, I’m not spending $99 for a metal two-drawer filing cabinet at Staples and putting it on a credit card; instead, I bought a similar one for $4 at thrift store. I don’t have high credit card bills since if I know I need something, I just wait until I can find it cheap at a yardsale.

Shopping at yardsales has enhanced our lifestyle — our money goes a lot further than buying retail. My son is enjoying playing in a $50 camping tent from Target that we have set up in the backyard. I paid $5 (still new in the box) at a yardsale a few years back.

Here are a few tips when shopping at yardsales:

  • Be sure to look over stuff carefully since things are generally sold “as-is”.
  • It’s easier to shop when I am not lugging my huge heavy handbag around so I wear a fanny pack. It keeps my hands free to look over items and carry stuff.
  • If you are buying something in a box, make sure its what it says it is. My friend was disappointed when he bought a printer at a yardsale and opened the box at home to find the seller’s old printer in the box, not the one pictured on the box.
  • Carry lots of change and small bills — much quicker to pay for something with exact change than waiting for the seller to make change.
  • When buying electronics, ask to plug it in to test it.
  • When buying a big item (like a desk or set of drawers), if you have to come back later with a truck to pick it up, take a piece with you — like a single drawer. That way the seller won’t be tempted to sell it to someone else who comes by later and offers more money.
  • Clothes can be a real bargain at yardsales. The downfall is that you can’t try them on to see if they fit. Sometimes thrift stores have dressing rooms. Make sure all the buttons are there and the zipper zips. I also check the label for cleaning instructions (if it says Dry Clean Only, I tend to stay away since I want wash ‘n’ wear clothing). I also try to plan ahead for any special event clothing we may need. When I saw a classic conservative black dress ($5) that could be used for funerals or weddings (multipurpose!) I bought it since I knew it would come in handy.
  • When buying CDs, VHS, or DVDs, check to make sure the right item is in the right case. Check the backs of DVDs and Cds for excessive scratches.
  • If toys are electronics aren’t working, check the battery compartment to see if they have corroded batteries inside. I keep a multi-purpose tool in my fanny pack with a screwdriver to check.
  • Look toys over carefully before giving to your child. I found nails and thumbtacks thrown in a canister of TinkerToys. For baby items, you can usually call the manufacturer’s toll-free number to find out if an item has been recalled. The safety belt on my child’s baby swing (that I bought at a yardsale) had been recalled and they sent me a replacement safety belt.
  • In general, I would stay away from buying a used baby carseat at a yardsale or thrift unless of course I personally knew and trusted the seller.
  • If you buy glassware, gently run your fingers of the edges. Sometimes your fingers can catch imperfections easier than your eyes.

Note that not every thrift store is created equal — some are run by volunteers and others are run for profit by storeowners. To find some non-profit thrift stores in your area (or to check some out while on vacation), visit thethriftshopper.com. [J.D.'s note: I covered this site in April.]

And when you do decide to check out your local thrift stores, flea markets and yardsales, you never know who you may run into. Celebrities who have been seen buying secondhand include Kirstie Alley, Jodie Foster, Clint Eastwood and even Oprah to name a few. If buying secondhand is good enough for them, it’s good enough for me!

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Visit Chris at The Yardsale Queen for more ideas on how to save money at garage sales and thrift stores. Be sure to take part in her busy yardsale/thrifting message board.

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