Three tips on how to scope out a worthwhile yard sale...from your car

One of my mom's favorite memories of my childhood is the essay I wrote about my summer vacation in third grade -- It was all about "yardsailing."

My spelling's a little better now, but the after-effects of having spent every spring and summer weekend of my life from age four through 13 rummaging through other people's castoffs are still apparent. After a stop at the Brimfield Fair today with a friend and his mother -- both of whom enjoy old things but would still be qualified as yard sale neophytes -- we were heading back home, stopping at some yard sales along the way. We drove by one and my friend asked "Should we stop?" I had only gotten a brief glimpse but I suggested that we keep moving: "It looks overpriced," I explained.
Long story, short: We stopped and it was overpriced and none of us got anything. On a casual early afternoon adventure, this is no big deal. But if you're up early hoping for a shot at the big score, you cannot afford to waste valuable time at sales that have dim prospects. You need to be able to drive by and scan quickly to decide whether it's likely to be a worthwhile adventure.

Of course you can always get out and poke around for a few minutes, but if parking is an issue, this can make a quick stop a much longer one. So with that introduction, here are a few tips on evaluating a yard sale from the car. These aren't fool proof, and occasionally they may lead you astray. But if you combine them, they can save you a lot of time -- and get you to the good sales before the good stuff is gone:
  • Look for signs of fake yard sales: Some wanna-be antique dealers operate yard sale every week, hauling the same overpriced junk out of their garage in the hope of snookering some naive passersby. How can you separate these types from the legitimate once-every-couple-summers-at-most yard sale holders? One telltale sign is in the sign. If you see attractive-looking, painted or professionally-printed signs, this is a significant red flag: Who puts a lot of effort into making signs they're going to throw out at the end of the day?
  • Be wary of sales held by professional yard sale holders: Another bane of the yard sale world are the small businesses that conduct yard sales for other people. They sort, price, display and sell everything in exchange for a commission or flat fee. The problem for yard salers is that these people know what they're doing. They have a lot of experience and look stuff up on eBay. The stuff that ends up at the sale is nearly always overpriced, and these yard sales are usually worth avoiding. If you see a professional-looking cash box and signs with the name of a company or logo, it's generally best to move on to the next sale.
  • Good organization can be a sign of bad prices. This one is less consistently true than the first two but is still a good rule of thumb: If the sale is laid out in an exceptionally manicured, organized way, it suggests that the owner has an overly high opinion of his merchandise -- and has devoted a lot of time to organizing the sale, which means he probably expects to make a large amount of money rather than a small one.
The only way to know for sure whether a yard sale has good stuff is to take a careful look through everything. But if you're in a town with a lot of sales, you've got to manage your time wisely to bag the real bargains. These three tips will give you a competitive advantage.
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