How to spot garage sale finds and bargains

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Bruce Littlefield, author of Garage Sale America shows us his tips for spotting the best garage sale finds and bargains.

How to spot garage sale finds and bargains When trying to spot the best garage sale finds and bargains, how do you know if an item is trash or treasure? These simple tips can help you determine if it’s worth a few pennies or a few dollars—whether for yourself or resale.
  • Beware of overpriced goods; garage sale bargains are items that you can't buy at a dollar store for the same price or less.
  • Kitschy items can be some of the best garage sale finds - they are often collectible in someone’s mind.
  • Also look for items that are highly collectible, such as McCcoy pottery, salt and pepper shakers and hand-carved decoys.
  • Look for appealing style and markings from well-known makers (avoid ‘made in china!’).
  • Single pieces from china sets can be great garage sale finds; replacements.com specializes in selling single pieces from sets—you may be able to sell to them there, or even on eBay.
  • At the end of the day, value is determined by how much you’re willing to pay, or how much you’re willing to let it go for.
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LISA: Hi, I’m Lisa Birnbach for howdini.com. How do you know if that find you found at a garage sale is trash or treasure? Let’s ask the expert, Bruce Littlefield, author of Garage Sale America. Bruce, what is this stuff? Is it good or bad?

BRUCE: Well, it’s a good fifty-fifty mix I’d say. We’re in the perfect spot, somebody’s garage, and there’s always treasures to unearth in somebody’s garage, of course. One of the things I say, is that if you go to somebody’s garage sale, and somebody has marked an errant mug for a dollar, you know that everything else on the table is overpriced, and its probably time to turn on your heels and run.

LISA: Now why is that?

BRUCE:  Well, because you can go to the dollar store and buy one of those for a dollar, and a matching set at that.

LISA: Basically, you’re looking for sets because little bits and pieces do not a collection make.

BRUCE:  Exactly. Little bits and pieces are junk. Unless, for example, you find something like this. These are McDonalds mugs. They’re Flintstones, they’re collectible, they’res somebody who’s missing this very one right now. And if they got to a garage sale and it was marked a quarter, they would be the happiest people alive. So that’s something that would be a kitsch thing that would be worth something at a garage sale to someone.

LISA: Okay. So kitsch is one of the big categories of collectibles, right?

BRUCE:  Absolutely. This is also kitsch. These are fantastic. This is sort of a double thing, because they’re salt and pepper shakers, right, they’re cloisonné, and they’re pretty cool. So if I had a friend that was a salt and pepper shaker collector, or –

LISA: And a lot of people do collect those.

BRUCE:  A lot of people. And you know why? Because they’re small and they’re easy to come by.

LISA: What about the age of these salt and pepper shakers? Does that have any impact or is it just that they’re so darn cute?

BRUCE:  Age is always, does have impact especially if they’re in good condition, which these are. One is missing a stopper, but stoppers are easy to come by.

LISA: Right. And how much would you pay for those?

BRUCE:  Eight to ten bucks for the set.

LISA: So with pottery, what are we looking for? This, for example, looks like a clean, well-designed piece.

BRUCE:  It is. It’s beautiful. So first of all, what you’re looking for is style. Our eye is attracted to it, it’s a nice color, we like it, nice yellow –

LISA: Right.

BRUCE:  Nice yellow. I would pick this off the table. Now one of the thing you always want to look at is the bottom markings.

LISA: Right.

BRUCE: Look beneath, and this, obviously, this says McCcoy.

LISA: McCcoy.

BRUCE:  USA McCcoy.

LISA: Is that a well-known potter?

BRUCE: It is a very well-known pottery. It’ll retain its value over time.

LISA:Great.

BRUCE:  I’ve got some great pieces of china here, but, if you, remember what I was telling you about looking on the bottom?

LISA: Right?

BRUCE:  This says ‘Made in China.’

LISA:Right.

BRUCE:  Mark of death. Now other things that have, look at this. This, if you look on the bottom, is Staffordshire, made in England. Its fine bone china, and its Elsmere pattern. If this was marked for a really reasonable price, I know that it sells for a lot on EBay. I would grab those and run, and also then maybe re-sell it on EBay because it’s not my style, but somebody’s style, they love it.

LISA: Bruce, if you find a pattern, a piece, an odd piece from a good pattern, is it still worth buying or are you talking about buying in multiple?

BRUCE:  Yes. And I’ll tell you why. Its, they, there’s a website called replacements.com, and they have single pieces of all sorts of china, and they, it is valuable to them because they’re in the resell market for those kinds of things.

LISA: So at the very least, you can sell it to them.

BRUCE:  Absolutely.

LISA: And get a victory.

BRUCE:  Yep. These are all good because these are the kinds of thing that you can use in a single, this is Spode.

LISA: Oh.

BRUCE:  So you’ve heard of the name, right?

LISA:Yeah. Spode is a big deal.

BRUCE:  So you know that if this is marked a dollar at a garage sale, grab and run. Now look at this. This is, this is adorable. This is from the fifties, its penguins and it’s the Penguin brand from West Bend. So it has the functional value.

LISA: Right.

BRUCE:  But this also has a cool, chic value.

LISA: Mmhmm.

BRUCE:  This looks great for a bar setting, correct?

LISA: I could use this, but more importantly, this would be how much at a garage sale?

BRUCE: Well at your garage sale, I’m hoping you’ll give it to me for five bucks, but I, if it were at a garage sale and it was twelve, fifteen bucks, I would still probably grab it.

LISA: Right.

BRUCE:  Oh, speaking of birds, look at this. Okay, so this is a decoy.

LISA: Right.

BRUCE:  Now hand-carved decoys are valuable. People pay a lot of money because people collect them.

LISA: Oh, whiplash!

BRUCE:  Oh, yes. Now this is a fun piece. I’m not sure of its origins. So this might actually have value, I don’t know. Its not signed or anything like that.

LISA: It's plaster, it’s not sculpted, right?

BRUCE:  Yeah, no, yeah, it's plaster.

LISA: Yeah.

BRUCE:  So.

LISA: But still, something for everybody.

BRUCE:  Somebody probably got this on a great trip somewhere.

LISA: Uh-huh.

BRUCE: Which brings me to a really great last point. Is that, at the end of the day, value is what you set it to be.

LISA: Right.

BRUCE:  So as a buyer or a seller. And I have this. This is –

LISA: Aw. It's precious.

BRUCE: It is precious.  At the end of the day, whether you get rid of something or buy something, has a lot to do with heart, right?

LISA: Right.

BRUCE: So value at the end of the day has to do with how much you’re willing to pay, or how much you’re willing to let it go for.

LISA:Right. And if you want to hold on to something when you see it on the table, get it, right?

BRUCE: Grab it. Why not?

LISA: Grab it. Thanks, Bruce.

BRUCE:  You’re welcome.

LISA: For howdini.com, I’m Lisa Birnbach.

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meet theexpert
  • Bruce Littlefield

    Bruce Littlefield Design and Lifestyle Guru Bruce Littlefield is a New York-based designer, writer, and restaurateur. Hailed as a "design and lifestyle guru" by Publisher's Weekly, he is the author of the recently published Merry Christmas, America!: Megawatt Displays Across the U.S.A. (HarperCollins 2007), Garage Sale America and Airstream Living (HarperCollins 2007), and co-writer of the best-selling Use What You've Got and Other Business Lessons I learned from My Mom (Penguin Group) with real-estate magnate Barbara Corcoran. The Today more about this expert »

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