FORT WORTH, Texas -- True story. The first words my now-19-year-old son read out loud were "garage" and "sale." Spying the sign ahead, he knew, as did I, that those words held promise of a treasure yet to be found for mere pennies on the dollar.
Today, garage sales are my brand of recycling-meets-profit margin. If my kids outgrow something, or if an item has outlived its purpose, I put it aside to include in my next sale. Planning is key to a successful sale. Here's how to do it.
City rules and neighbors
It is important to research and secure the permits required by local government. Check your city's website for details.
Because most municipalities restrict the number of signs you can post, an ad in a local paper is money well spent.
It is also a good idea to notify your neighbors of the impending sale. A flier dropped off a few days before will give them a heads-up that traffic and parking may be heavy, and they can also plan to attend the sale.
Gather your goods
There are two main goals: First, to get rid of things, and second, to realize a little reward for the effort. This isn't Antiques Road Show in the driveway, out to make a huge profit off of that lamp Aunt May insisted you take from her 1970s throwback guest room. No, no, no, the sale is held to A) find a great home for that lamp and B) make a buck or two.
Stockpiling items over the course of a few months -- or in my case, a year -- should yield enough merchandise to make holding and attending a sale worthwhile. As you put things aside, make sure they are clean, that they work, that any needed repairs are done and that any necessary literature or accessories are included. A Barbie karaoke machine is only going to be valuable to the buyer if it includes the power cord and the manual.
Friends and neighbors are also good sources for sale items. A co-worker who knew I was gathering things for a sale recently sent me home with a large mirror, several frames and an oscillating fan that his family no longer wanted. All were still in great shape.
A different approach is to co-host a sale. Another friend had a lot of items she no longer wanted, but she also wanted to share in the profits. She helped with organizing and working the sale, and marked her items with her initials so she could be credited. Marking each item with a different color tag is another easy way to keep track.
Set up your 'store'
Think like a retail store owner. When you walk into your favorite shop, do you have to step over shoe boxes thrown willy-nilly on the floor and paw through crates of unfolded clothes? No, the owner has made an effort for you to see all that is available and has grouped everything in a pleasing way. If you have clothing for sale, borrow or rent a rolling rack. Shorts and pants are fine folded on a table, but shirts, dresses and jackets sell much better if they are on hangers. If you cannot locate a clothing rack, improvise one with a sturdy rod hung securely from the garage rafters.
Look at what your inventory is like and group accordingly. Clothing, toys, books, electronics, household items and Christmas are just a few of the categories that I put together.
Typically, valuable items like large electronics and furniture are big draws, so place them at the back and center of the sale, the highest-profile areas. Buyers will have to walk through all of the merchandise to get to the most attractive items, which will increase the chances of additional sales.
Items should be priced individually, with the exception of clothing. Nothing frustrates a shopper more than having to track down the sale host to get prices. (I try to price items as I stockpile them.) For clothing, a well-placed price list is all you need (for example: T-shirts, $1; Dresses, $5). While some items may be worth more than others, the simplicity of a list keeps traffic and merchandise moving. Also, make sure you have a copy of the price list at the "checkout."
One nonsale item that is essential is a power cord that buyers can use to test electronic items.
Keep it moving
Enlist a friend or your spouse to regularly walk through the sale area, filling in holes where merchandise can be replaced, answering questions, encouraging sales and bargaining.
Keep people hydrated
Summer is the optimum time for garage sales, since the weather is most predictable. Make it easier for people to stay outside in the heat and keep shopping by selling water.
My daughter is in charge of her own concession stand for hot, thirsty buyers. Consider selling lemonade or baked goods. It is a good money-earning opportunity for kids, and a way to keep buyers engaged.
Set reasonable prices
Again, you are asking customers to buy what you no longer want. So even if that fan cost $60 new, don't expect to get even half of that at a garage sale. Price it to move; $10-$15 for an almost-new fan is far more reasonable.
Price your items so that you won't be bringing them back into your garage at the end of the day. If you have more expensive items to offer, like a flat-screen TV, do a little research. Look at websites such as Craigslist to see what people are asking locally for items similar to yours, then price it for less.
Don't be reluctant to bargain with potential buyers. At my sales, prices are typically firm at the beginning of the sale day, 8 a.m., and discounts are offered as the day wears on, say at about 11 a.m.
Make checkout easy
Just like a store, make it easy for buyers to pay for their items. We set up a table at the sale entrance with price lists, a calculator, a cash box, a supply of bags and a tablet to keep track of sales (if more than one person is hosting).
It is important to have enough change on hand. If yours is the first sale buyers attend, you'll soon be awash in $20 bills, so make sure you have plenty of small bills, as well as quarters. (I usually start out with $100 in change.)
One tip: A carpenter's apron makes a handy cash holder and change-maker. To keep everything safe, lock up extra money.
Garage sales typically are understood to be all sales final, but there are exceptions. If key components are missing or broken, the buyer should expect to be able to return the item for a refund.
At our last sale, we sold a bug zapper that was still in the original box and that we assumed worked. It didn't, so we gave the guy his $10 back. It turns out that we were able to locate the receipt and return it to Walmart for a $50 refund.
Inevitably, there will be items left over at the end of the sale. Remembering the first goal of the sale -- to get rid of stuff -- consider donating everything to a charity. You will keep those items from repopulating your house, and you will earn a tax write-off.
Some charities will pick up your leftovers, while others ask that you deliver the items to a drop-off location. Either way, you have met your goal.
Another option for software, CDs, books or magazines: Take them to a reseller, such as Half Price Books.