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7 Tips For Becoming A Master Garage Sale Shopper

Hitting a garage sale or two might sound like a relaxing way to spend a weekend afternoon.

But for Mike McConnell sales of other people’s stuff promised an adrenaline rush akin to gambling. For 15 years, McConnell spent every weekend scouring estate sales, garage sales and yard sales, looking to win big by finding treasures to resell for profit.

McConnell has given up his weekend warrior status to be the auction manager at Pacific Galleries in Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood. Now, he says, the treasures come to him. For example, the day I visited, McConnell was preparing an auction of a large game taxidermy collection from a big game hunter in Edmonds. After all those years in the trenches, McConnell has tips and secrets that even the greenest shopper can use to get the most bang for her buck, from estate sales to yard sales.

McConnell begins with a tale of treasure hunting taken to the extreme. He tells me there were notorious shoppers who used to look for sales with published addresses and show up the night before. “They’d knock on the door and say, ‘I have a funeral the next day,’ and they wondered if they could just come and look through,” McConnell says. “Even though, apparently, they were grief stricken, they still wanted to look through the things. And some people would let them get away with that.” McConnell says occasionally these unscrupulous buyers would still come to the sale the next day. This brings us to McConnell’s first tip.

1. Do not show up before a sale begins and lie your way into getting a preview of the merchandise.

2. At an estate sale, head immediately to the patio, cellar and garage. “If I had to chart everything I’ve found that's been amazing and terrific,” McConnell says, “it’s been in the patio, in the garage or in the cellar.” He theorizes this is because when stuff is no longer practical to use every day, that's where it goes. McConnell once found a beautiful set of vintage chairs waiting to be re-upholstered in a basement at an estate sale. In the living room at the same sale? Totally comfortable, well-used contemporary recliners worth nothing.

3. No matter what kind of sales you’re heading to, having a dedicated shopping partner who shares your mission is key. A partner can motivate you to get to a sale early, help search for treasures, or stay in the driver's seat of the car while you hop out to scan a sale to see if it’s worth your time. Work out your hand signals for, “Park! This is a great sale,” and, “Start the car, let’s head to the next sale,” ahead of time.

4. Know your neighborhoods. If there are estate sales or yard sales in wealthier neighborhoods, they might be worth your time, depending on your shopping goals. However, don’t put too much faith in this method of selecting sales. McConnell says picking sales is mostly a process of divination. In his experience, luck plays a huge role in choosing good sales.

5. If your plan is to treasure hunt at as many garage and yard sales as possible, be as efficient as you can. This means making a snap decision on whether a sale is worth investigating based on the stuff you see as soon as you arrive.

6. Be prepared to accept that if you apply Tip 5 too rigorously, you are going to miss out on some potentially great finds. “Even with the Internet today, people don’t know the value of their stuff,” McConnell points out.

7. McConnell’s reluctant to call this a tip, but it’s his personal guiding principle for shopping yard sales and garage sales. “Buy something that you like yourself, even if the intention is to resell it, because you might be stuck with it for a long time,” he says.

For McConnell, those things are first-edition books. He knows that when it comes to first editions by well-known authors, “these things were published in great quantities, but when I find one, I still feel like I found the Holy Grail.” One of his best finds came from a garage sale that initially looked like a waste of time (remember Tips 5 and 6?). But McConnell headed for the books anyway. That’s where he found a first edition of one of his favorite writers, Virginia Woolf.

McConnell compares the adrenaline rush from finding that first edition to “paying to go to Six Flags and getting on the biggest roller coaster.”  McConnell will not be reselling that Virginia Woolf, or any of the other first editions he’s found over the years. Those are his to keep.