Everyone dreams of going to yard sales and buying things that are worth thousands of dollars on "Antiques Roadshow." That seldom happens, but you can find a lot of bargains. They are a great way for new parents to find inexpensive baby clothes and furniture. They are a source of furniture and furnishings for college students and on-a-budget newlyweds. They can be a place to find materials for certain crafts, or simply things that interest you, such as books, CDs, jewelry and dishes.
Here are some suggestions from William Athey and Amelia Graehl, yard-sale connoisseurs, as well as other experts on getting the most from yard sales:
• Plan your route. Don't simply drive around looking for signs. Check the classified ads in the newspaper and on-line. Find the sales closest to you or that sound the most interesting and decide which ones to visit.
• Realize that you will have the most selection if you hit a sale at its start. On the other hand, you might get better prices if you go near the end. A lot might depend on how badly you need and want the items.
• Be suspicious if you see a lot of new electronic equipment. It could very well be stolen.
• Take along a list of sizes of children, grandchildren and other family members, including inseam, sleeve lengths, waist measurements. Have a tape measure so you can check the lengths. At most places you won't be able to try things on.
• Have your money in small bills, and don't pull it all out at once. You don't want to tempt thieves with a wad of bills, and you don't want to clean out the cashier of all the change.
• If you see something you might want but aren't sure, carry it with you until you decide. Otherwise it might be gone when you go back.
• Inspect things carefully. They are usually sold "as is." If you get home and find a crack, a missing piece or an appliance that doesn't work, you're out of luck.
• Open board games and puzzles to make sure that all the pieces seem to be there. If you want to purchase electrical items, see if you can plug them to make sure they work. Look in boxes to see if the item is the same as on the box. Sometimes when people upgrade, they put an old item in the next box which is fine if you know that's what you are getting.
• Don't be afraid to haggle. If you are buying several items or it's getting late in the day, you might get a better price.
• Look at potential, especially with furniture. An ugly couch can be covered with a throw. A scared desk can be refinished or painted. Consider how much work an item will be to fix up and whether or not it is worth that to you.
• Carry along a canvas tote bag for your purchases.
• Be wary of buying things like car seats and baby furniture unless you are sure they have not been involved in a safety re-call. Even lead-infused toys from China might be showing up at yard sales. If you are in the market for baby items, you might want to check the Consumer Product Safety Commission website www.cpsc.gov/ before you go. Or, call the toll-free hotline at 1-800-638-2772.