The insider guide to garage sales

Garage sales, yard sales, tag sales. No matter what you call them, everyone’s after the same thing—the thrill of the hunt. In the Midwest, garage sales typically start on Thursdays and end on Saturdays from May through October. People have made it through the long winter and most have done some cleaning out and hope to make a few extra bucks on the items they’re no longer using.

I’ve been “garage sale-ing” for 30 years and, as time has passed, my wish list has changed. But my love of the pastime has not waned. In my late teens and twenties, I was looking for furniture and household goods for my college dorm and first apartment. Soon I was decorating my first house and by my 30s I was buying baby gear and clothes for my family. There’s always something on my list!

I get the itch every spring for warm, sunny days, walking the neighborhood streets, searching for treasure. And while I get incredible deals on great stuff, it’s not only the items I bring home, but the intangibles that are worth their weight in gold.

Things you find while you’re not looking

New hobbies

Fishing, photography, baking, crafting—pretty much anything you’re interested in can be found at a garage sale. You may even discover a hobby you never knew you were interested in!

For example, my good friend wanted his wife to start golfing with him, but she had never even set foot on a putting green. I took his wife out one Saturday morning and we came across a lady’s set of clubs in a new purple golf bag. It was an investment of $40—perfect for a beginner. The previous owner of the clubs told us that she’d tried to like golf, but just couldn’t find the time for it. Her disinterest was our gain.

The perfect neighborhood

Garage sales are a great excuse to explore new parts of town. Some days, I will venture out to neighborhoods I’ve never been, which is how I found my dream house! My best “garage sale-ing” friend and I had an entire day to shop, so we hopped in the car and drove out about 20 minutes from our usual area. As we followed the signs to the neighborhood sale, we pulled up to a brand new development of about 200 houses. I was so struck by the neighborhood that I dragged my husband out there the very next day to walk through some open houses. We picked out our house in our dream location—one we never would have considered had it not been for their neighborhood garage sale.


The most valuable find I’ve uncovered through my garage sale hunts have been the relationships I’ve developed with those who have traveled with me over the years. My best garage-sale friend, Carol, has been with me since we were 16 and over that time we’ve talked about boyfriends, family and jobs. The relationships I have with my sisters, nieces, nephews and my son have all grown as a result of spending quality time together sifting through the junk looking for treasure.

A few tips for beginners

Whether you’re a seasoned garage sale veteran or a newbie, here are some tips to help you make the most of your time:

Look for neighborhood, community or development sales

If you play your cards right, you can hit up to 50 sales in one location, saving you precious time and gas money.

Generally, what you find at sales is reflected by the neighborhood. In a young neighborhood, you’ll score maternity, baby and kids clothes. In an older neighborhood, you’re more likely to find vintage décor and collectibles. In an affluent area, there not be that many sales, but you can find some bargains on high-end merchandise that doesn’t fit into the owner’s upgrade plans.

Here’s another tip: When it comes to “rummage sales,” keep in mind that most of the “good” items have been rummaged through by the volunteers, so by the time the sale is open to the public, it may not be worth your time.

Try before you buy

Most sellers are honest, but sometimes they just don’t know if an electronic or gadget works. Ask to plug in a light or appliance before you purchase it. There’s usually an outside outlet available at most homes. Owners want to get rid of their stuff so they are usually more than happy to let you test it.

Be prepared

I have found that having a “garage-sale kit” in the car is a definite time- and money-saver. Keep these items with you to help you make the best decisions on your purchases:

  • Cash—Most people only take cash but you may get lucky and be able to write a check or use Paypal for bigger items.
  • Smartphone, GPS or an old-fashioned map—Plan your route ahead of time to help you find your sales.
  • A measuring tape and the dimensions of the spaces you are trying to fill—You’ll know immediately if the new item is going to fit.
  • Drinks and snacks—When the sun is hot and the hours pass, you will get thirsty and hungry!
  • Comfortable walking shoes, jacket, hat and umbrella—Don’t let a little weather keep you from those deals.

You’re now ready to hit the streets in search of your own treasures. Be careful driving and watch for pedestrians, especially in neighborhood sales where there’s lots of traffic.

Happy hunting!