Treasure hunt

Don't toss it, hawk it. How to find and sell yard stuff.

Walt Collins is tickled about the return of spring, but not for reasons you might think. Sure, he enjoys the usual harbingers - robins, daffodils, fresh asparagus. But to this affable man from Stewartstown, Pa., nothing says spring like rummaging through other people's stuff.

Yard sale. Garage sale. Tag sale. Every sunny weekend for the past 35 years, Mr. Collins has gone gewgaw hunting. And he is hardly alone.

Troll the suburbs of any American town on a Saturday morning and you'll find folks prepping for the arrival of shoppers like Collins. Telephone poles are decked with hand-scrawled signs and front lawns are dotted with castoff furniture and bric-a-brac. It's a socioeconomic phenomenon that's part grass-roots capitalism, part spring cleanup, and part neighborhood prattle session.

Dedicated scavengers, like Collins, rise before dawn. They've circled newspaper ads days before. Their goal is to be first on the scene. "Money's not a factor," Collins says. "I go for fun. I meet the nicest people, and amusing things happen." He recalls one sale when he gave the host a few tips. "This is how you dicker," he instructed her, "You're asking $10, I just offered $5, so now you say 'How about $9?' " He wound up paying $7, and their banter got everyone's attention.

A retired insurance salesman, Collins has negotiated some memorable items over the years. One time he met former Baltimore Oriole great Mark Belanger at a sale and talked him into selling an autographed bat for Collins's son Dan. As a boy, Dan and his siblings often tagged along with their father. They learned, he says, to shop in affluent towns - that's where you'll find the best loot.

Sam Smith, a seventh-grader in Lincoln, Mass., is also getting lessons in yard-sale shopping. He gave up Saturday soccer so he and his mom, Tucker, can visit yard sales. "I'm up at 6 on Saturdays anyway," he says. "And there aren't any good cartoons on anymore."

Ms. Smith drives, Sam navigates. "We have a great time," she says, calling Sam her "vice president of acquisitions." On a recent Saturday, they stopped at five sales. Sam goes after the electronics; his mom scans the furniture. Buyers, Smith says, need an open mind. Don't expect to find a specific item.Get there early, head for the most expensive items, and always barter.

Some of the best deals can be found at church rummage sales, she adds. "Items are donated, so [sellers] don't have emotional ties to them. No one will say 'Oh, I got that as a wedding gift. I know it's expensive, so that'll be $50,' " she explains.

If you are the one hosting a yard sale, Smith's tips include putting price tags on every item ("You'll get exhausted if people have to keep asking"), keeping the hours short ("Hardly anyone shops at yard sales later than noon"), and being firm with early birds ("It's unfair to those who arrive on time ..."), offering a bag of stuff for $1 at the end, and arranging for help at closing time so you don't have to haul all of the dregs to the dump yourself. (See sidebar above.)

But yard-sale junkies all have their own approach.

Rachel Travers, who held about a dozen yard sales when living in Los Angeles, couldn't be bothered with price tags. She likes to make a personal connection with every buyer, so she invites inquiries about cost. "Make me an offer," she told people at her sale a few weeks ago. This approach didn't seem to hurt her bottom line: she pocketed a cool $1,300.

As for early birds, she welcomes them. Even encouraging them in her newspaper ads. She also attributes her success to presentation ("Your display should look organized and attractive") and rock-bottom prices. "People expect low prices at a yard sale," she adds. "So if you have anything of value, take it to an antique shop."

People don't follow this advice enough, according to Edith Flowers Kilgo, publisher of "Creative Downscaling" a newsletter about upscale living on a budget. "Ever since [the PBS television show] 'Antiques Roadshow,' sellers have become more savvy and are overpricing things regardless of condition," she says. The rule of thumb, she adds, should be one-tenth the item's original value.

Flowers Kilgo, who lives in Jonesboro, Ga., has hosted an average of one yard sale per year for the past 30 years. She and her husband have almost furnished their entire living room with yard-sale purchases. They bought a mahogany table, for instance, that was in terrible shape. But now that they have refinished it, the friend who sold it wants it back.

Ms. Kilgo sizes up yard sales with the "drive-by" approach. "I look for big-ticket items like furniture. If I see Barney or strollers or especially those giveaway plastic cups from Burger King, I won't stop," she says. She teams up with friends or neighbors when hosting yard sales. This increases the amount of stuff, making it more substantial, beefs up the sales force, and cuts down on advertising costs.

Kilgo is a firm believer in pricing everything. "It makes people uncomfortable to have to ask about prices. They think you are sizing them up and adjusting prices depending on the person."

She takes a polite Southern approach to bargaining. "I might say, 'I love this teapot, but did you realize it's chipped? Would you take $2?" In other words, she explains, "Admire the merchandise first, so they know you're not just there to take them. You have to respect for seller."

"It's the ultimate in recycling," Smith says as she checks the time to see if she can squeeze in one more stop. She hasn't found any antiques yet. And Sam still hopes to score a lava lamp. But they're content with their new finds. In just a few days, it'll be time again to check those ads....

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