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Next Avenue: ‘I want to make $700.’ The science of running a successful garage sale

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This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org.

Steve Sultanoff, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at the Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology in California, started going to yard sales over 30 years ago.

“I started attending when I got divorced,” he explains. “My wife got everything in the house, and I ended up with an empty house and limited resources.”

He bounced back from the divorce but is still a fan of shopping at yard sales, even going to them when he is on vacation and once making a pilgrimage to the World’s Largest Garage Sale, an annual event with over 500 vendors, held in Warrensburg, New York. “I’ve made some great buys over the years,” he says.

While some of his purchases have been collectibles, many have been highly practical. “Twenty years ago, I purchased 1,000 greeting cards from a representative,” Sultanoff recalls. “Most did not have envelopes. At another sale months later, I was given a free box of about 500 greeting-card envelopes. I am still using the cards. Imagine how much I have saved in greeting card costs over the years, and the cards were mostly high-end.”

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“Yard sales, also known as tag sales or garage sales, are a great way to declutter your home and give useful items a second life,” says Mike Kelleher, stuff expert on “Legacy List” with Matt Paxton, a television series that captures the emotional highs and lows of families downsizing their homes.

Kelleher says that there is a science to running a successful garage sale. “It does require some thought and planning,” he explains.

10 tips for a successful yard sale

To help you prepare for having a garage sale this summer, Next Avenue surveyed its expert sources and compiled these 10 tips:

1. Decide what to sell

Everything should be in good working condition, not broken or stained. “Clothing and good quality cookware like Le Creuset are always popular,” Kelleher says. “Other hot yard sale items include vinyl records, old toys or vintage movie posters. These are the type of items you can’t just pick up at Target.”
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Sultanoff suggests going to a few local garage sales before having your own. “That will give you an idea of what items to sell, pricing and how to arrange your sale,” he explains.

2. Pick a location

Before holding a yard sale, check with your city or town regarding any yard sale rules. “Some cities may charge for a license,” says Sultanoff.

“A house that is easily accessible by car and walking traffic is ideal,” says Kelleher. “Ample parking is also important. No one wants to get blocked in by another car and be unable to leave.”

Depending on how much you have to sell, you may consider a multifamily event. More items may entice more shoppers to attend.

Also, consider using social media in conjunction with holding a physical sale so people who cannot attend the event can still purchase items.

3. Set a goal for the sale

There are two main reasons people choose to have yard sales: to make money and get rid of items they no longer use. Before the sale, it is essential to determine your primary motivation.

A good goal is to focus on making a certain total amount of money (such as, “I want to make $700 so I can pay a bill or go on vacation”) and worry less about what you earn on each piece. Or set the goal as finally being able to use the garage to park your car.

4. Pricing — Part 1

Emma Gordon, founder of USSalvage Yards, has been running successful yard sales for several years and says correct pricing is key. “I avoid pricing items based on sentiments,” she says. “Instead, I ask friends how much they’d be willing to pay for an item, then set the price based on their responses.”

Sultanoff also urges caution. “Don’t expect to get ‘top dollar’ for your items or think you will make back what you paid for an item,” he says. “While you may sell the occasional high-priced item (someone covets your brand-new camera and knows it’s cheaper than in the store), most buyers want major deals. Sellers need to learn to price their items ‘to sell’ otherwise, they may not move.”

If you cannot bring yourself to lower the price, consider selling the item in a different way, such as at a consignment store.

5. Advertise

“Start promoting the sale one week before, but not earlier,” Kelleher advises. “If your sale is on a Saturday, you want to start advertising that Sunday or Monday. If you do it before that, people may get confused about which Saturday you are referring to in the ad.”

Kelleher suggests advertising with a combination of social media (Craigslist, Instagram, local community sites) and old-fashioned signs posted throughout your neighborhood.

“Use actual poster board with obscenely big lettering so people can read it if they are driving past in their car,” he says. “If they can’t read it, it probably won’t be worth it for them to turn around to see what is said.”

Make it simple: date, time, phone number and address, maybe with an arrow pointing toward the yard. Also, let people know if the event is “rain or shine” or if there is a rain date. If it is a multifamily sale, advertise that fact.

6. Set up early

Plan to set up early in the morning of the sale day or the night before. Enlist friends or neighbors to help with the setup, takedown and during the sale.

Kelleher says, “Set up aisles to make it easy for people to walk-through. Don’t overcrowd the tables with merchandise. Buyers need to be able to get to stuff, so you don’t want to make it difficult to navigate.”

Kelleher also suggests placing “like” items together. “Set up items like little rooms in your house,” he says. “Group together kitchen stuff, yard tools, bedding and towels, clothing, etc. You are selling the dream and convincing buyers that these items would work in their lives.”

Another tip is to place expensive or valuable items closer to where you can see them. “I hate to say it, but there are thieves who attend tag sales,” Sultanoff says. “I once saw a van pull up and steal a baby crib.”

Also see: How to value the stuff you inherited

7. Pricing — Part 2

If possible, mark every item with its price. It can get confusing if you set it up as “everything on this table is $5,” and things get moved around.

A good option is to place different color stickers on each item and display a master key for buyers; all things with a blue sticker are $5, red stickers are $10, and so on.

“Be sure to have at least a few items displayed at bargain prices,” suggests Sultanoff. “This will encourage buyers that your prices are good.”

Consider setting aside a table for items you are willing to give away at no cost. “Free stuff makes people happy,” says Kelleher.

Make it easy for buyers to pay. Have small bills on hand to give change. If using Venmo, PayPal
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or Zelle, display the handle or QR code to scan in several places so that buyers don’t have to ask continually.

8. Prepare to negotiate

“You need to be willing to negotiate,” says Kelleher. “People love to haggle. It’s part of why they go to a tag sale.”

A yard sale is not the time to get overly sentimental about an item or be insulted by a shopper’s comment. “This is why you want to establish a goal beforehand,” Kelleher says. “You may be more willing to take 25% or 50% off the price depending on the item if you remind yourself that getting rid of it means you will finally be able to put your car in the garage.”

Know your limit regarding pricing. “If you do not want to sell it for a low price, then don’t,” Sultanoff says, “and be prepared that it may or may not sell.”

9. Keep your cool

Expect some buyers to come before the start time (and others to arrive on or after the stated end time). Greet people when they arrive but don’t hover. Make sure you have enough help at the sale, so buyers don’t have to wait long.

Again, don’t get upset if buyers offer you less than your set price for an item. “You should already have said your goodbyes to the item when you put it up for sale,” Kelleher says. “That said, if the person is being aggressive or rude, divorce yourself from the situation. Firmly say, ‘No, I can’t sell’ and move on.”

More: Three expert tips for a successful, money-making yard sale

10. Be nice

This final tip is for customers. “It’s easier to accept less money from someone polite,” Kelleher says. “I’ve sold items to people for less than what I planned just because they were such nice people and I liked them.

Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer specializing in a wide range of topics from parenting to pop culture to life after 50. She is a mother of three and lives in New Jersey with her husband and teenage son. Read more of her work on randimazzella.com. 

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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