Yard-Sale Temptations - Buyer Beware

An energetic segment of the American economy has ended its seasonal hibernation and is now thundering along at full speed. The signs are literally everywhere: Clusters sprout like dandelions in vacant lots, beckon on sandwich boards at street corners, and wave like pennants from telephone poles at busy intersections, and all are emblazoned with the same urgent message: YARD SALE.

A Nobel Prize in economics is waiting for the person who figures out a way to accurately measure the flow of dollars generated by this national recycling effort. Newspaper advertising departments, gas stations, and doughnut shops are among the beneficiaries cashing in on the monetary ripple effect as bargain hunters criss-cross the local landscape each weekend.

Experts will argue about why yard sales have become so popular. Is a growing underclass unable to reap any material gains from the booming stock market? Is modern society simply expressing new enthusiasm for the old Yankee frontier philosophy of use it up/wear it out/make it do? Are we made to feel superior when we see the junk other people have stockpiled in their basements? Do we just love to shop?

What I find most fascinating, after a casual inspection of yard sale inventories, is that a definite pecking order has evolved, with certain items in high demand and others viewed with disdain. My neighbor, Bud, shared some thoughtful insights after his recent household clearance.

Tools sell fast, especially power tools like an electric drill or gas mower. Ditto for garden implements. I had heard this before, though it stands to reason if you are having a yard sale, you would expect to sell yard things. Bud said four shovels were gone almost instantly. "I was only askin' a few bucks each," he explained. "Probably shoulda charged more." It's the lament of all successful merchants.

But yard sale patrons also have strong preferences for certain leisure items.

Golf clubs are viewed with only slightly less enthusiasm than bars of gold bullion, though Bud ran into trouble because his clubs were left-handed. "Coulda sold 'em a hundred times if they were righties," he said.

At the other end of the spectrum, the avocado, orange, and/or harvest gold end are goods that can only be described as economically inert, such as portable typewriters from the 1960s. Useful, but no demand exists in the free market. Bud had one in good working condition for just $5, but it didn't sell until late Sunday afternoon.

Some things can't even be given away. Bud wondered if I wanted a free bowling ball or two. They languished in the driveway, unclaimed all weekend. It was a nice offer, but in the end I followed my own simple rule for resisting yard sale temptations: If the price seems reasonable, let the buyer beware, and if there is no price, don't even think about it.

* Jeffrey Shaffer, a regular Monitor humor contributor, lives in Portland, Ore.

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