Friday, January 25, 2013

The Quick and Dirty Yard Sale

Earlier today, my brother emailed me: "Hey brother, I need some advice from the king of garage sales." Cool! I'm not just an expert, but I'm the king. Talk about a boost to this thrifty monarch's ego.

As I talked with him, I was shocked to learn that he'd never hosted one before, then realized that there might be others in the same predicament of wanting to host a yard sale but not knowing how to go about it.
Now before I go on, permit this brief digression in the form of a simple equation: yard sale = garage sale = tag sale = rummage sale = moving sale. Clear? Good. I use "yard sale" for the simple reason that it's short and easier to write on signs, and "tag sale" is obscure to many people.
 By the way, I'm not the first to give advice of this nature. Do a quick search and you'll find compendiums of tips on hosting a yard sale. But I'm going to tell you a slightly different strategy.

Say you're like my brother: He's hosting a yard sale (in fact, a moving sale) in less than two days. He's also clearing out his house for his entire family -- the rest of the family is already at the new town finding a rental home. He doesn't have anyone at the old location he can really rely on to help so he's on his own. So, time and energy are limited resources. Oh, and of course he hasn't done this before.

This, my friend, is the Way of the Quick and Dirty Yard Sale.


PREP YOUR STUFF


If you really do have some extra time, consider a crash course on de-cluttering (which also applies to moving). I recommend and own Scaling Down.

Yes, I know, you don't have time to prepare. So try my four-step strategy:


1) Pretend that you had to leave your house today, forever, and could only take what you could carry. What would that be? Alternately, what would you grab if there was a fire? Sort them (mentally or physically) and set those things aside. Those are non-negotiables and go with you.

2) If that method is too brutal, allow yourself the luxury of this scenario: You're going to live out of your car for the next year. Take only what will fit in your car.

Now that you have your "keepers"...

3) Take the quick, easy pass through your stuff and see what's easy to part with. That's the first entry into the yard sale pile.

4) You'll be left with a small pile of keepers, and probably an equally small pile of yard sale stuff. The easy part is done. Now you have to sort through the rest. (If you're in the fortunate position of limited to a 9'x12' trailer for everything, as my brother is, this part is much easier.) There are lots of methods to do this, but my key advice is:
  • Be brutal. Don't let sentimental instincts kick in. This stuff's gotta go.
  • If it's more expensive to pack and transport it than to buy new similar stuff, get rid of it. (A closet full of craft materials will make some yard-saler very happy.)
  • If you're having a debate with yourself about whether it stays or goes, it goes.
By the way, as you're sorting stuff into the "it goes away" pile, give yourself the luxury of throwing truly useless or broken stuff into the trash. I'm normally all about being thrifty and loving the dents and scratches, but unless it's vintage or valuable, no one will want a half-broken item. 

Conversely, for anything that is especially valuable, or a common secondhand commodity like a TV, you should try to advertise on Craigslist, your local newspaper, or a similar venue. You'll get more money for it as an individual sale than as a yard sale item. Just bear in mind the time constraints. The neat thing about Craiglist is that it's free and you can pull your ad any time... like in the middle of the yard sale where it just sold.

When you're all done sorting, look at the keeper pile. My gosh, it looks huge, right? Is it going to fit in that trailer? Now go through it again, and again, until you wear yourself down and you've pared down to what you absolutely must keep. It helps to visualize how much work it will be to box the stuff up, load it onto your trailer/moving van/covered wagon, haul it within the same conveyance, unload it at the destination, and unpack it all. Much less exhausting to just sell it now, right?

WHEN DO YOU HAVE YOUR SALE?

Friday and Saturday are ideal. In my experience, Sundays are not good days to have a yard sale; there's very little traffic. This might be a regional thing, but I've tried to host a sale on Saturday and Sunday and I might as well not have bothered with Sunday. If you only have the weekend available, do a Saturday Only sale and don't bother with Sunday.

Try to time the sale so that it's at the beginning of the month. More people get their paychecks at that time, and they will have cash to spend. Don't plan your sale on the same day as a big local event; you can't compete!

Plan to start at 8 a.m. Most sales end between 1 and 3 p.m., and I've noticed that traffic often drops off after lunch time, but you can go as late as 5 p.m. if you want.


PREP YOUR SALE


You can exhaustively plan your yard sale, which I recommend if you have time, or you can do it this way:

Advertise your yard sale for free on Craigslist.
  • Take just a few moments to look at the way other people post their sales, and mimic them. 
  • It is critical that you list the day(s) of the sale, the start and end times, and the full street address (plus a link to a map if you can.)
  • DO list any notable items that you have for sale. Post pictures if you can.
  • DON'T mention the trivial items that will be found at every yard sale: Kitchen utensils, t-shirts and jeans, extension cords, etc.
  • One key phrase you'll want to use is "No early birds" (or "No early sales"). This discourages people from showing up an hour earlier than your posted start time to try to snag the good stuff while you're still struggling to set up and inject yourself with coffee. It doesn't prevent all of them, though, so keep that in mind.
  • For the love of all that is holy, don't say "Everything must go". Of course everything must go. That's why you're hosting a yard sale and not opening a curio shop.
Advertise in your local newspaper (optional).
  • This isn't normally free, but you may catch more of an audience. I wouldn't count on it, though; nearly anyone who's going to bother to look up yard sale in advance is going to hit Craigslist. The one advantage is that they often group sales by zip code or city region.
Put up signs.
  • Keep the information on the signs simple. Required: "Yard Sale" (or just "Sale"); your address; day(s)/times; directional arrow.
  • Use BIG, bold lettering. Remember, most of your traffic will be from people driving by. You want to make sure they can read your sign in a second or two, and be able to spontaneously turn and follow the arrows.
  • Don't embellish. Don't draw pictures. Keep it simple. 
  • Use contrast: A dark lettering on white background, or vice versa. Day-glo poster board also works well.
  • Materials: Don't use flimsy paper alone. Use cardboard as a backing and ideally put white paperboard over the cardboard. For the lettering, use a thick dark-colored permanent marker or even paint, if you have a fine brush.
  • If you can use a sturdy cardboard box as your sign, with something heavy (rocks or cans) in the bottom, do that. 
  • If you have flat signs, put them up at eye level on a pole. Use heavy packing tape or duct tape, and lots of it. (Pay attention to local zoning laws about signage. A good rule of thumb is that if you see other yard sale signs up, it's probably okay, but you take responsibility for not looking it up.)
  • Location: Put signs at major cross-streets near your street, and at least two blocks out in every direction. If necessary, put up additional signs with directional arrows so people don't get lost trying to find your place. Once you've gotten them into your neighborhood, it's fine to just put a small sign that's just a directional arrow (especially helpful if it's on day-glo poster board). 
  • When preparing signs (the day or night before), I just make several with various directional arrows, so that I have options to choose from when running around and hanging them up. You may have leftovers; it's okay. 
Arrange to deal with the leftovers.
There will be things that just don't sell. What are you going to do with them after the sale? You can pack them away for the next sale (which I don't recommend), you can donate them, or you can trash them.

Donations: You have options:
  • Some organizations will pick your leftover yard sale items up from your house! You have to arrange a pick-up beforehand. Check your area for charitable organizations that do home pick-up. 
  • Pack up the leftovers and haul them to a thrift store or other non-profit organization that will re-sell or re-purpose them. Get a receipt. You'll be able to write off the donated goods on your taxes. The donor (that's you) determines what the items are worth on the receipt, so jot down a quick list of what you're taking to donate, so you can work out a good price later.
  • Advertise a "free day" or "free hour" to get rid of the leftovers. You can advertise in your original Craigslist ad, or you can create a second ad on Craigslist (in the free section) or the Freecycle Network
Trash. You have two options:
  • Pack up everything and haul it to the dump yourself, in which case you'll probably pay a flat fee per truck or trailer load. This is usually cheaper than the next option.
  • Have your trash company haul it away the next time they pick up your trash. Give them a call and let them know you have an extra trash load. 


GET HELP


This process is going to take a lot of energy, and it would be awesome to have someone help you. Get your spouse, roommate, older kids, family members, and friends to help if possible. (They're usually free labor.) If you don't have those options, find a teenager in the neighborhood who you can pay a nominal amount to help. 

If you're paying someone to help, offer a commission on sold items. That way they'll have a vested interest in making the stuff sell.

Regardless of whether you're getting free labor or paying someone to help, provide lunch. Pizza's my choice for yard sales, but if you're feeling thrifty, have food prepared that is ready to go. You won't have time to cook. In my old neighborhood, we used to have people come by selling tamales to yard sale hosts. They were irresistible. 

You can have someone help put up signs, set up, price items, sell items, and tear down, or any of those things. Even a little bit of help putting up signs is better than nothing.


GATHER YOUR MATERIALS


You will need the following:
  • Price stickers. This can be special yard sale stickers with common prices pre-printed on them, plain white stickers, or just masking tape. With the latter two options, you'll need a Sharpie to write prices on the stickers. Also consider plain white paper to make larger tags for bigger items.
  • Cash and change. Get $40 in one dollar bills, and about $10 in change.
  • Cash box. Something relatively secure to keep your earnings in. I usually wear a shop apron with big pockets and carry the cash with me, but if you get $100 in one dollar bills, or $20 in change, you'll want to stash it somewhere. 
  • Tape. Packing tape or duct tape for putting up signs around the neighborhood. Packing tape or smaller clear tape for putting on labels or small signs at the sale.
  • Boxes or bins for smaller items.
  • Bags (used plastic grocery bags work nice) to give customers to hold the items they buy, and for the clothes or books (see below).
  • Extension cord to test electrical devices during the sale.
  • Water, coffee (if you do that) and snacks for during the sale. You won't have time to pop inside and whip up an omelette. (Unless you have someone to help with the sale, you may not have time to pee for the first couple of hours.)


SORT AND PRICE YOUR ITEMS


Some people do this as they're hosting the sale. I've done it to some extent and I don't advise it. Try to price things ahead of time, but if you're really stretched for prep time, it can be done this way.

Sections

Again, keep it simple. At minimum, have three sections:  
  • The free section (or table, or box) will probably grow over the course of the day as you realize you've overpriced items or that you'll have to haul the leftovers away if they don't go away themselves. Don't put stuff in here that's obviously trash. Put this section in the middle of the sale, not to the side, so it draws people in.
  • The "make an offer" section is annoying for some people (sellers and buyers alike), but it's often the easiest way to deal with things you don't have time to price or don't really know how to price. Just be prepared to do a lot of talking. Label this section clearly, or have a big sign that says "Anything without a price is 'make an offer'". Expect to repeat that phrase many, many times.
  • The fixed price section should have items you've already stickered. Note on the price sticker if the price is firm. 

Prices

It's wise to have bins or sections where the items are one price: $5, $1, 50 cents, 25 cents, etc. If you only have three items that are 50 cents, throw them in the 25 cent bin. The fewer denominations of sections you have, the easier it is for everyone.

Special Items

  • Books. You have either one or two prices for books (for example, paperbacks and hard covers books). If you wanted to sort them out further, you should have taken them to a used bookstore and gotten a better deal for them. Price them very cheaply. Consider selling them by the bag or box.
  • CDs, cassette tapes, DVDs, VCR tapes: Price each type the same; don't try to charge more for 'better' movies. 
  • Clothes. I barely bother with trying to sell clothes at a yard sale any more. But if you do, hang up the really nice items (like prom dresses) and price them separately. Otherwise, sell clothes by the bag.
  • Computers. I'm a computer guy, so I'm particularly sensitive to this. These buggers get outdated so quickly and most people have no idea of the value of them. Hint: It's much less than you think. Software should have all the discs and manuals included, and priced like CDs (e.g., cheap). An old CRT monitor? Put it in the free section and count yourself lucky if someone hauls it away for you. A broken computer? Good luck. A computer system that's more than five years old? 1/20th the price you paid for it new. Yeah, it hurts, but these things depreciate faster than cars. Make sure you have wiped your personal data from the computers!


PREP THE SALE AREA


The day or night before, go clean up and prepare the area where you'll have the sale. Normally that's your driveway and/or lawn, and maybe part of the garage. Sweep off concrete surfaces, clean up stray twigs from the lawn, etc. Put anything away you don't want sold (like bikes, water hoses, etc.)

As much as possible, set out your tables that you'll use for your sale items. (Obviously if you are concerned about tables getting stolen overnight, skip this step.) This will help with the rushed morning setup.

You want 'tables' where your sale items can be displayed and touched by people walking among them without having to bend over. Often people don't have several sets of nice folding tables hanging around waiting for yard sales. You can use pretty much anything that can create a flat surface to hold items and display them several feet off the ground. I keep a set of 5' boards in my garage for various things, and can pull them out to prop on cinder blocks or milk crates, or even folding chairs, if necessary. Get creative. 

You can spread blankets or sheets on the lawn to create distinct sections of your sale items. 

Stick a couple of balloons on your mailbox, if you have one at the front of your property, and park your car(s) down the street so that there's plenty of room for customers to park.


THE MORNING OF THE SALE


  • Get up early. Remember how you told people not to come early? Well, some of them won't listen.
  • Make your coffee, get your breakfast, shower, do whatever you need to do before you take a step outside. You'll get sucked in to the sale as soon as you're out there.

SETTING OUT YOUR SALE ITEMS

  • Pay attention to the weather! If it's going to rain, use a canopy or set up inside the garage.
  • Pay attention to the sun! You don't want it beating down on electronics, vinyl records, CDs, or other things of that nature. Put those items in the garage or underneath tables to block the sun.
  • Prop long items (like skis) against the house. 
  • Place large bulky items like furniture or exercise machines either at the back, or off to the side. You don't want them blocking the view or walking path to other items.
  • Try to group similar items together. Put all the electronics in one place, kitchen items together, etc.


SELLING 


Ah, here's the fun part. The back-and-forth haggling, the art of the sale and the perception of the sweet deal, the subtle cues you pick up from the potential buyer... Hold on, you're not a carpet merchant in the bazaar, you're just trying to make a few bucks and get rid of some useless junk at the same time. 

By all means, if you enjoy haggling and that kind of interaction, go nuts. But if you want to keep it simple, follow these guidelines:
  • You're not going to make a lot of money. If you were into making lots of money, you'd stick to Craigslist, eBay, consignment stores, etc. A yard sale is primarily for getting rid of stuff, and secondarily for getting a bit of cash for that stuff. You're already winning by getting rid of extra stuff you don't need and reclaiming the space (or saving your back with the moving process). Consider the cash to be a bonus and it will all go so much easier.
  • Expect to be talked down. That's why they're coming to a yard sale and not going to Wal-Mart, to get a good deal. You can price things a little higher and allow yourself to come down, if that's your thing. 
  • Nothing at a yard sale is a "firm" or "non-negotiable" price. Period. You shouldn't have it in the sale if you're not prepared to part with it at ANY price.
  • Most people will offer something like this: "$5 for the toy and $2 for the chair? How about I give you $6 for both?" Take it! You've just gotten rid of TWO items that you don't have to pack up again! If you'd held firm, you'd have $5 in hand and only gotten rid of one item.
  • At my sales, if a kid desperately wants a toy and can't afford the 25 cents that it costs, they walk away with the toy. You can say it's good PR, but really, it's about re-purposing the items, isn't it? I'd rather see something of mine go to someone who adores it than hold out for someone who might pay a bit more.
  • If it's a hot day, sell cold water bottles. (Some people are out for hours and forget this.) If it's a cold day, sell coffee. You can actually make some tidy money this way.
  • Make sure you have an extension cord set up so buyers can test anything electric (lamps, electronic devices, etc) before they buy them, to know that they're working.
  • Make sure you let buyers know that everything is as-is, no refunds. I've been surprised at the times when people have come back the next day and wanted a refund for something they decided they didn't want. (If you sold them something that really was broken, on the other hand, you should provide a refund.)
  • To hold an item or not to hold an item for a buyer? Some folks will browse your sale and ask you to hold an item while they go home to get money. Sometimes they never come back, and you're stuck holding an item that could have sold. My suggestion is to take a deposit; even if it's just a few bucks, they will come back for the deposit if they decide not to buy the item. Also, make it clear that you will hold it only for a certain amount of time (say, one hour).
  • If it's the last day of your sale, the last hour should be 1/2 price hour (or even free). You don't really want to pack those things back up, do you?


AFTER THE SALE


  • Deal with the leftovers. (See above.)
  • Take down any neighborhood signs.
  • Go deposit the cash into the bank, if you can. I'm not especially paranoid, but on the other hand, you've just advertised to the city that you have a bunch of cash in your home.
Congratulations! You've had a yard sale! I hope everything worked successfully for you. With just these few guidelines, yard sales can even be fun, especially if you take a laissez-faire attitude toward them. 

1 comment:

  1. My friend Mary read this and said that she wanted to add a note about thieves. According to her, there may be one that lifts something expensive with all the distractions you'll be under, so you should have a look-out and put the high dollar items inside an open garage or next to you.

    While I haven't personally had the experience of thievery at my own yard sale, I also did unconsciously follow the above advice. Keep that in mind!

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