Summer is coming, and the weather is warming around much of the United States. You know what that means: Yard sale season is upon us! Hosting a yard sale — or garage sale or tag sale or whatever you want to call it — can be a great way to clear out clutter and generate a bit of quick cash.

In fact, Kris and I joined some of our friends last weekend to clear out some of the Stuff we’ve collected since our last sale in 2006 — and some of the Stuff that neither of us wants since the divorce. We had a good time sitting around a driveway in southeast Portland, joking, eating donuts, and trying to convince people to buy our (former) treasures.

As a veteran of many profitable yard sales, here are some of my top tips:

  • Be clear on the purpose of your sale. Are you selling things to make money or to get rid of them? This question affects everything you do, from how you price things to how willing you are to negotiate. (If your goal is to get top dollar, you should really be selling on eBay or Craigslist.) Last weekend, for instance, I just wanted to get rid of stuff. I was willing to take almost any offer.
  • A group sale is better than selling alone. If you can coordinate a weekend sale with your neighbors, you’ll draw more traffic. Here in Portland, the Eastmoreland Garage Sale — which includes nearly 150 households — brings in thousands of people every June.
  • Advertise effectively. Stick an ad in the newspaper. Put up a notice on Craigslist. Post clear, simple signs around the neighborhood. Make sure your signs are readable. It’s best to use big bold text like “HUGE SALE” with an arrow pointing the right direction. (The Yard Sale Queen has a great page highlighting the difference between good and bad yard sale signs.)
  • Be prepared. Wear comfortable clothing. Have water and snacks at hand. Get plenty of one-dollar bills and a roll of quarters the day before. Move things out early. Good preparation will help things run smoothly. I’ll admit that I was unprepared for our sale this weekend, so I missed the first few hours (the hours when the most serious buyers arrive) because I was still getting my things ready to sell.
  • Display items to their advantage. People will be more inclined to stop if you set up shop in your yard or driveway. Some folks are reluctant to enter a dark and dreary garage. Make your sale inviting and easy to browse. You can lure customers by placing highly desirable items near the road.
  • Think like a customer. As soon as you’ve opened and fielded the initial flood of shoppers, walk through your sale as if you were there to buy something. How does it feel? Are things clearly marked? Is it easy to move around? Are your books on the ground in boxes? Or are they placed neatly on shelves or tables? Would you pay $10 for that porcelain cat?
  • Do not bad-mouth your stuff. At one group garage sale, a friend consistently told customers what was wrong with the items they were buying. “Oh, that book is awful. That’s a terrible movie. That skillet doesn’t heat very well. That game is boring.” We sent this friend inside to drink beer ASAP. This year, Kris and her friends did the opposite. It was hilarious to watch them say things like, “Wow, that sweater looks great on you!”
  • Be willing to bargain, but be less flexible at the start. On the first day, you want to get as much as you can for each item. Most people will still buy Aunt Lucy’s soup tureen at $5 even after asking you to sell it for $3. If they’re bargaining, it’s because they want the item. Don’t be completely rigid, but don’t give your stuff away at the start.
  • Do not use a cash box. Carry your money with you at all times. Casual thieves and professional swindlers can both make off with cash boxes in an instant. We use a cheap cloth apron/utility belt from the local hardware store to carry our money. Some people use a fanny pack or a zippered bank deposit pouch. (Here are more tips for avoiding garage sale scams.)
  • Have a plan for what you’ll do with your unsold merchandise. Some non-profits will pick up unsold stuff, so research this ahead of time. On Saturday, we loaded all of our unsold stuff into a Honda Element and hauled it to a local thrift store.

Running a yard sale isn’t rocket science. But if you put a little effort into creating an environment where it’s pleasant to browse and easy to find junk treasures, you’ll make a lot more money. Or some money, anyhow.

Last weekend, I was able to purge tons of old record albums, as well as some paperbound comic book compilations. These are things I needed to get rid of anyway because they were a mental and physical burden on my life. In exchange, I earned $105. Not bad.

A Scene from the Sale

On Friday, one man bought a bunch of kids’ stuff. “That’s a good haul,” Kris said. “It’ll keep somebody busy for a while.”

“I hope so,” said the man. “With kids, it’s all about the units, the units of time.”

“What?” we all said. We were a bit confused.

“It’s from About a Boy,” the man explained. “In that movie, the main character breaks his life into units of time, where one unit is half an hour. Well, I think of units of time when I’m dealing with my kids. I try to buy units of time where they’re occupied, which means I’m able to do my own thing. Garage sales are the highest-efficiency unit purchaser for kids. I’m spending just a few bucks here, but I’m buying many units of time. Totally worth it.”

My friend Amy Jo laughed. “I get it,” she said. “Right now, every Lego in our house is earning its keep. They were expensive up front, but they’ve bought us hours and hours and hours and hours to do the things we need to do because they keep my son occupied. They were worth every penny.”

“Exactly,” the man said as he paid for the toys. All weekend long, I’ve been thinking about units of time. Love the concept — and not just for kids.

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