Garage Sale Hunting : A Full-Time Job?

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Editor’s Note:  This is the second article in a MainStreet series called Secondhand Nation, which takes a closer look at how thrift stores, garage sales and secondhand shops have fared during the recession and what the future holds for the frugal consumer.

Phoenix resident Rebecca Smith Moore started going to neighborhood garage sales to save money. What she didn’t expect was to find a way to make some as well.

Back in 2008, Moore and her husband went from being a two-income family to a one-income family after she left her job as an administrative assistant following the birth of their third child. Local yard sales subsequently become a convenient place to find deals.  

“Phoenix is garage sale nation,” says Moore, now a mother of four, explaining that people from wealthy neighborhoods in her area would hold sales where you could find designer children’s clothes, often with the tags still on, well below their list price. “I would go to [these sales] to find toys, clothes and furniture for my kids.”

During one outing, Moore spotted a $250 leather sectional in perfect condition. Looking to make the space for it in her living room, she put her old couch up for sale on Craigslist. In less than a day, it had sold for $340, leaving her with an extra $90 and a sectional in better condition than the old one.

“I couldn’t believe how fast it sold,” Moore says. “I told my husband ‘I think I can really make some money off of this.'”

Her assumption was proven correct the next week when she bought another sectional at a garage sale for $175. This one also sold on Craigslist in a relatively short amount of time for $450.

Now, Moore is able to supplement her family’s income by essentially flipping other folks’ unwanted goods. Since that initial purchase in 2008, she has flipped couches, chairs, dining room tables and cabinets. Occasionally, she will buy items that need refurbishing. A children’s bedroom set covered in crayon cost her $65. Once cleaned and varnished, it sold on Craigslist in one day for $600.

“I would say I make about $1,000 a month in supplemental income,” Moore says, adding that her garage sale purchases, which can be viewed extensively on her blog Becca’s Bargains, have netted more income than other small side jobs she tried after leaving her full-time position. “I ran a home daycare service for a while and didn’t make as much money.” 

Back in school to get her nursing degree, Moore tells MainStreet she recently slowed her side business a bit. But she doubts she will ever abandon her efforts entirely.

“The economy isn’t quite what it used to be,” Moore says. “Sometimes the kids need glasses, something needs to be repaired … it’s nice to have the money on hand for those unexpected surprises.”

Garage Sales Gone Viral

While Moore’s story is unique, she’s not the only one using garage sales to boost her family’s income.

Austin Allgaier launched YardSaleSearch.com after his wife and sister-in-law started scouring garage sales for discounts on children’s clothes.

“It seemed like the most economic thing to do,” Allgaier says, explaining that he and his brother have big families -- four and six children, respectively. “Our wives stumbled across tons of bargains that helped our families out a lot.”

Looking to help families in similar situations, Allgaeir and his brother started the site in 2003. Users can now find or advertise a garage sale in their area on YardSaleSearch.com. General listings are free, but residents pay a $5 fee to have a listing appear at the top of search results.

While the site’s volume had grown steadily since its founding, Allgaeir says he has seen a 50% increase in site traffic compared with last year. He is also seeing a similar 50% year-over-year increase in the amount of classified advertisements on the site.  

And YardSaleSearch.com, while thriving, isn’t the only garage sale search engine in existence. GarageSaleHunter.com, GarageSaleTracker.com and GarageSales.com are just a few of the sites started in the past decade to make garage sales more accessible to shoppers.

A Buyer’s Market

Allgaier attributes his success to people’s growing reliance on the Internet, but admits the recession has played a major part in garage sales’ prevalence.

“People have garage sales to clear out their junk and make a little bit of extra money,” Allgaier says. “Having a garage sale and going to a garage sale are two different things.”

What Allgaiers means is that, these days, garage sales have become less about making a profit off of your old stuff and more about scoring a great deal.

Moore agrees, pointing out ironically that the few garage sales she herself has held net significantly less profit for her than the ones she chose to attend.

“I felt like I was getting rid of stuff more than I was making money,” she says. “After a while, it felt like no one was buying anything and I was giving things away.”

Her sentiments are reinforced by more than one voice on Main Street. While some folks attest to bringing in up to $600 by selling their stuff on the front lawn, most people we spoke to wanted to discuss the great bargains they found when combing through their neighbor’s castoffs.

Alabama resident Donna Thomas-Rodgers, for example, bragged about the $1,200 cherrywood dining room set she bought from a couple who were moving overseas. Marcia Noyes of Golden, Colo., once bought a luxury Mont Blanc pen for 10 cents. And then there’s the recent story of Rick Norsigian, who bought what may be $200 million worth of Ansel Adams negatives at a yard sale in Fresno, Calif., for $45. (The provenance of the negatives has been disputed.)

“One man's trash is another man's treasure,” Virginia resident and garage sale enthusiast Elliott B. Jaffa says.

Americana for Sale

This might explain why garage sales will continue to have appeal, even once the recession subsides.

Consider the World’s Longest Yard Sale. Started back in 1987, the annual event, held over four days in August, initially set out to prove that the back roads in Kentucky and Tennessee had more to offer than just interstate travel. County officials put together a list of attractions and let vendors rent land along U.S. Highway 127. Now the sale covers more than 675 miles -- 30 were added this year -- and spans six states.

According to Leann Smith, tourism director for Fentress County, Tenn., where the sale is still headquartered, people fly in from northern states or even foreign countries to visit the sale. There, they can find anything from a 25-cent picture frame to a $10,000 all-terrain vehicle. It’s also spurred a laundry list of copycats. New York, Delaware and Minnesota all hold large-scale "yard sales" that span several cities.

“Over the last five years, there’s been a spurt in the attention the sale has received,” Smith tells MainStreet. But she maintains that, while the economy has contributed to the sale’s popularity, it’s the experience that's the real draw.

“It gives people a real sense of Americana,” Smith says. “People visit with the vendors, look for unique one-of-a-kind items and leave with friends for a lifetime.”

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