How to Shop a Yard Sale

This time of year, yard sales (I call them crap sales) are everywhere. It’s time to spring clean, to take all your unwanted pieces of crap and put price tags on each piece instead of putting them in the trash! Yay!

Of course, if you’re an internet reseller like me, you browse these things not because you’re looking to pay fifty cents for a gently-used cheese grater with moldy mozzarella fuzzing up some of the holes, but because you want to find that Holy Grail. You know, the thing you saw on Antiques Roadshow once and vowed to buy if you ever found it at a yard sale, because that’s where the person who had it on the show bought theirs? And they paid like a dollar and it was worth fifty grand and changed their life when they found out what it was worth?

You can have multiple Holy Grails. I have several, and no, I’m not telling you what they are. But I will give you some tips to sort through the shit at yard sales, because 99% of what you find is just that—worthless shit. Now, if you’re shopping for yourself and you like an item, by all means buy it for personal use. If it’s worth the money to you, then you’ve gotten a good deal. But if you’re buying for resale, you need to know what something is worth on your site or sites of choice.

  1. Look at things carefully. Sometimes people collect stuff that looks similar—that ugly (to me) blue-and-white pattern on dishes, for example, is really popular. “Blue Danube” is one pattern that can sometimes do well on eBay, but that refers to a specific type of china. There’s no design patent on a color scheme; anyone can make blue-and-white dishes with a floral pattern, although they can’t copy the Blue Danube pattern exactly, or the copyrighted backstamp.
    Recently I went to a sale with a bunch of blue-and-white pottery. That stuff was all over the damn place. It was like a smurf threw up in there.
    Whatever. I found some Blue Danube plates (checked the backstamp and looked at similar pieces on eBay) marked at $7 a piece, which is probably a decent price if you were buying for a personal collection. However, after seeing what they go for on eBay, I realized that after fees I would lose money reselling them, so I moved on.
    In another room, I came across two tiny vases in blue-and-white. They were very similar to the Blue Danube pattern, but not exactly the same. I picked up the first one, and the markings on the bottom were in Japanese—I think. What I mean is, it was a language that doesn’t used the standard alphabet, so I actually don’t know for sure what it was and couldn’t read it. Now that tells me it was probably made overseas prior to the 1920’s, after which the U.S. required imports to be stamped with “Made in wherever.”
    Was it valuable? I have no idea. I couldn’t read whatever language it was in, so I couldn’t look it up online. Since I had no clue how to resell it or what to charge, I decided it probably wasn’t worth $14 to me and put it down. I then picked up the next vase and turned it over. It said “Made in China.”
  2. Nine times out of ten, “Made in China” means worthless, with the exception of electronics. Some electronics from the eighties are a great deal. As far as china/pottery goes, most is worthless if it has the “Made in China” stamp. It might have some value to a collector, but it is probably not an antique.
    That little vase? Priced at $14, the same as the one that was almost a hundred years old (at least). Sometimes people do this because they don’t know the damn difference, but this was an estate sale run by professionals, so I’m assuming they were hoping some idiot would pay $14 a piece to have a not-quite-matching set.
  3. Dickering. I love dickering for a better deal. I once got a Whieldon Ware pitcher in excellent condition for ten dollars and resold it for sixty or seventy. The seller wanted thirty or forty, but after fees and free shipping, I would not have made much profit at that price, so I talked him down.
    Start by complementing the item, and for crap’s sake don’t say you want to resell it. Make up a story about how nice it will look in your dining room, kitchen, or whatever room seems appropriate. (I do this all the time. I don’t even have a dining room. I eat my meals from a TV tray in front of the TV, which is the only thing I care to look at while eating.)
    Remain firm with whatever price you want. Never overpay just because you want something. If they refuse to come down, thank them for their time and move on. Sometimes if you pass by at the end of the day and it’s still there, they might be willing to reconsider your offer.
  4. Use your phone to look up stuff you don’t recognize. I can’t tell you how many times I almost passed something up as worthless, but then I looked at it on eBay, saw what the Completeds (eBay’s list of completed auctions for a particular item or keyword) went for, and realized I was about to pass up a high-profit item.

W. T. Fallon is the author of Fail to the Chief, a political satire in which the presidential election is carried out via reality show, which is almost as bizarre and far-fetched as our current reality. 



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