Garage sales offer joys that online auction sites don't

Devotees of the yard sale relish the hunt, touching the goods, asking questions, haggling over price.

Posted: May 25, 2007

The dirty, tarnished bracelet sold for 50 cents, but it cleaned up to reveal a sterling silver and 18-karat gold piece of jewelry worth several hundred dollars. It's one of Jenn Callum's best finds, and an example of why - even in the age of the online auction - many treasure hunters still seek out traditional garage sales.

Call it a yard sale, a tag sale, a rummage sale, or a boot sale, but don't call it a relic that has been rendered obsolete.

In fact, the Internet is increasingly complementing garage sales, making it easier to connect buyers and sellers who once relied solely on newspaper advertisements and roadside signs. Many newspapers put sale listings online - you can find them, and post them, on the phillymarketplace.com page - and non-auction Web sites try to help sellers ramp up foot traffic by allowing them to post information about their events.

The greater amount of pricing information on the Web via online auction sites is creating more savvy "garagers," says Callum, whose own Web site, www.garagesale-guru.com, offers information for buyers and sellers. Some shoppers search residential sales specifically to find items that will fetch much more attractive selling prices online.

Despite the ability to point and click to purchases from home, many shoppers of secondhand gems simply crave the sensory experience that online auctions aren't able to provide, says John D. Schroeder, author of Garage Sale Fever!

"Garage-sale buyers thrive on the thrill of the hunt and like to see, touch and ask questions about their purchases - and even dicker on the price - plus take the item home immediately from a garage sale. That does not happen in online auctions," he says.

Many municipalities charge a nominal fee for a permit to hold a garage sale. But there is no national database that tracks the number of sales or the amount of money that clutter-clearing homeowners reap from them. Judging by the growth of online sites that focus on the sales, business is booming.

On many Saturday mornings, Callum, 39, heads out with a clipboard of garage-sale addresses found on the Internet, arranged geographically to make the most of her time. She can hit dozens of sales in a day, deciding with a glance if they're worth a stroll through.

"The online garage-sale-listings sites are slow to catch on, although they are certainly gaining in popularity," Callum says. Online newspaper ads are usually her sources of choice.

But newspapers are not the only sources for information on garage-sale whereabouts. Garage-sale-specific sites like GarageSaleHunter.com also offer free listings to visitors.

Information about garage sales has grown substantially at craigslist.org in recent years, says Susan MacTavish Best, a craigslist spokeswoman. In April 2002, a couple of months after the listings first started appearing on the site, 2,447 notices were posted there; in April 2006, 46,129 garage sales were advertised on craigslist. By April of this year, notices for about 120,000 garage sales were posted during the month.

"The craigslist community is really about people connecting with other people in their hood, usually in person," Best says. More than 90 percent of craigslist sales and transactions take place within the same community, she adds. "With that in mind, it's really an obvious choice for people to advertise for free their garage sales on the site, as they know locals will see the ad, read the ad, and come to the sale."

Can't decide whether to unload your unwanted items online or at a garage sale? Schroeder offers these tips:

When to sell online. When you have an item that requires national prospects rather than local. It may be a specialized collectible that needs a wide audience to sell. Or if the item is small and easy to ship, or has no flaws or imperfections that prospective buyers would need to see, go with an online effort.

If you want maximum money, online is best - people don't usually get into bidding wars at garage sales.

When to sell at a garage sale: When the item is common and doesn't justify a national ad to find a buyer. Examples are CD players, toasters, books and videos. Likewise, when an item is large or heavy and would be a pain to ship to someone, selling locally is best. Examples are a nice sofa or a table and chairs.

When you just want to get rid of clutter and money is secondary, go with a garage sale. This is especially advisable if there are things a buyer would want to know beforehand, like whether an electrical appliance still works.

Finally, if you have lots of stuff you want to get rid of all at once, put that stuff out on the lawn. And price it to move.

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