The Great Garage Sale

A well-organized garage sale can help you turn clutter into cash; in fact, you could end up generating a tidy profit. Here's how.

By Diana Shepherd
Updated: August 19, 2014

If you're like most people, you probably managed to acquire a lot of surplus household items, gadgets, knick-knacks, and just plain junk over the course of your marriage. Chances are, it started in the basement or the attic: a gradual accumulation of material possessions that you never use, but somehow, you can't quite bear to get rid of either. Then the clutter spread to your closets, bookshelves, countertops, that space under the stairs, trunks, and boxes (Rubbermaid has a whole line of products designed specifically to hold your personal clutter!).

Your notes from that interesting psychology class in college; the baby's highchair (the "baby" is a ten-year-old boy, now); that old football; three of the six vases you received as wedding presents; the fondue set you never used -- all these and more are taking up valuable physical and psychic space in your home. The breakdown of your relationship has caused you to begin a new chapter in your life, so why not use this opportunity to really start fresh by getting rid of all that clutter?

A successful garage sale fits the bill perfectly. After you and your ex have divvied up the "good stuff," what you're left with is potential garage-sale material. Even something you think is little better than junk has a good chance of selling at a well-managed garage sale.

There can be terrific benefits to organizing a sale: you'll get rid of unwanted possessions instead of packing and lugging them with you if/when you move; you'll put some extra cash in your pocket; and you'll have the pleasure of knowing you're a good citizen of the planet, since your old stuff will be recycled to new owners rather than ending up in a landfill.

If you can't bear the thought of organizing and holding a garage sale, you can still turn some of those unwanted goods into cash by selling them to a company that buys and sells used goods.

Here are some tips to help ensure your sale is a success in every way.

When to hold your sale
If you're selling your house as a result of your divorce, consider holding a garage sale before you put your house on the market. Clearing out those old unwanted possessions will make the rooms appear roomier, and will make it easier for prospective buyers to imagine their stuff in the house.

If you're selling your house as a result of your divorce, consider holding a garage sale before you put your house on the market. Clearing out those old unwanted possessions will make the rooms appear roomier, and will make it easier for prospective buyers to imagine their stuff in the house. You may want to hold a second sale before you move to clear out the items you weren't sure you could part with the first time around.

Even if one of you is staying in the house, holding a garage sale is a good way to unburden yourselves -- physically and emotionally. Make sure you work out a clear agreement in advance on how the proceeds will be split: right down the middle; 50/50 except for certain big-ticket items (his camping equipment, her cross-country skis, etc.); or each of you agrees on ownership of every item before the sale (in this case, make sure to use different colored tags to mark your or your ex's merchandise).

For obvious reasons, most sales are held on weekends during the spring, summer, and fall (one of my neighbors holds monthly garage sales from May to October every year -- it's a cottage industry for her).

What to offer

You'd be surprised what sells at well-publicized and organized garage sales. With some clever marketing, you can even get rid of junk. For the purposes of this story, "junk" is not the same as "garbage." Junk consists of tacky (to you) or broken items you don't want to bother fixing: an Elvis bust, a Kleenex holder in the shape of a dog, a kid's bike missing the chain and seat, or an old electric lawn mower missing a wheel are all examples of junk.

Junk can actually be good for sales -- as long as you don't offer too much of it. Dot your junk around the good items, and make sure you have at least five or six quality items for every piece of junk. If the amount of junk is overwhelming, it will drive serious customers away and lower the price of the good items. Junk in moderation can make the good items seem more attractive -- and therefore worth more money -- in comparison.

There are certain categories of merchandise that tend to do well at garage sales. The most common are:

  • Sports equipment: this includes exercise equipment (such as treadmills and stationary bikes).
  • Linens: cloth tablecloths and napkins, curtains and drapes, bedspreads and duvet covers, bedsheets still in their original packaging.
  • Hand-made items: crocheted or knitted blankets, handwoven fabrics or rugs, lace tablecloths or drapes.
  • Furniture: must be in good condition if modern; damaged antiques will sell if they're repairable.
  • Home decorations: vases; candlesticks and candelabras; china, crystal, or glass figurines and ornaments; framed paintings or posters; bookends; decorative wooden spice racks; etc.
  • Electronic equipment
  • Home-repair supplies and tools
  • Magazines and books
  • Clothing: the '70s are back again, so drag out those wide-leg jeans and crop-tops. Bring out all your seldom/never worn or hated items -- even bridesmaids' dresses will sell at garage sales! Kids' and babies' clothes in good condition are always in high demand.
  • Costume jewelry: unwanted rings, earrings, bracelets, and necklaces are popular impulse purchases.
  • Luggage and purses: old steamer trunks and chests in reasonable shape will be snapped up immediately for a good price (they sell for $150+ in antique shops, and are usually purchased for household decoration rather than travel). Leather luggage will usually sell, as will "period" (e.g. Art Deco) or attractive handbags.
  • Toys and games: if and only if they're in good condition, these can be popular items. Games must have all their pieces, and toys shouldn't look like they've been dragged along behind a speeding car on a dirt road.
  • Unwanted wedding presents and other gifts: if they've never been used and are still in their original packing, you can get very good prices for gift items -- from coffee makers to CDs.

How to display it

Group your items by category (see "What to Offer," above), and make sure the area is neat and clean. (Remember to dot your junk around the other items!) Here are some specific pointers:

  • Pretty paper tablecloths offer an inexpensive and attractive setting for glass and china ornaments
  • A long coat-rack or a temporary clothesline is a good way to display articles of clothing. Group clothes by sex and age of wearer: men's, women's, kids', and infants'
  • Make sure there's an electrical outlet or extension cord near your appliance and electronics table so that customers can "try before they buy"
  • The middle of the driveway is the best place to display furniture. Furniture is a major draw, so make sure it's visible from the road
  • Display your costume jewelry on a table where you can keep an eye on it. If possible, cover the jewelry with a piece of glass or stiff plastic to discourage theft and add to their perceived value.

Promoting your sale

If you want your sale to be a success, you'll have to let as many people as possible know about it. Place a classified ad in your local newspapers on the Thursday and Friday (Saturday too if you can afford it) immediately before your sale. You'll need to book these ads anywhere from one day to one week ahead of time, depending on the paper's schedule. Include directions, hours, and any other pertinent details.

Take advantage of free advertising by placing a notice on local bulletin boards (e.g., the supermarket, community center, or library). Also, some stores in your community may let you place a small poster or flyer in their front door or window for a few days. Try your local variety store, hair salon, hardware store, realtor's office, etc.

Flyers and door-to-door canvassing are inexpensive ways to advertise your sale. Be safety-minded about this, however: take a buddy with you, and insist that your kids do the same if they're helping you out. Place the flyers into the screen door rather than the mailbox if possible -- they're less like to be tossed out as junk mail without ever being read.

Post eye-catching signs on telephone poles (in advance) and sidewalks/street corners (the day of the sale). Use bright or even neon-colored paper, and bold lettering indicating where and when the sale is taking place. Use enticing slogans to help build interest: words such as "Blockbuster," "Giant," "Blowout," or "Crazy" will help attract customers to your sale. You should be able to read the main words -- "Blockbuster Garage Sale!" -- from at least ten feet away.


There's no room for sentimentality when pricing. If you have a garage-sale-savvy friend, ask him or her to help you price your inventory (promise not to get mad when they tell you your $5,000 computer is now worth $50!). You should also visit other garage sales or flea markets to see how comparable items are valued (and to listen to some haggling to get in shape for your sale). Sticker your items the day(s) before the sale so you don't waste valuable selling time on preparation.

On sale day, if you find you've priced items too high (no one's even trying to bargain for it) or too low (five people are fighting over who saw it first), then you have the absolute right to adjust the prices up to the moment you make a deal.

Sale Day

Enroll as many friends and family as possible into helping out the night before -- to help you categorize and sticker items -- and especially on the day itself -- to keep en eye out for thieves, talk up the merchandise, wrap up purchases, etc. Have them wear stickers and/or hats (which will also help guard against sunstroke) that identify them as your "sales staff."

Ideally, one person should sit at a table and handle the cash -- someone with the authority to make "package deals" or lower the price of a specific item (probably you, your ex, or a neutral third party if you don't trust each other). A cash box is very inviting to thieves, so consider wearing your cash in a money belt, carpenter's apron -- anything with pockets. Tuck bigger bills away in an inside pocket immediately to keep them safe from pick-pockets.

Make a list of anything priced at more than $5, and have the "cashier" check it off the list (recording how much it sold for) so that you can divvy up the proceeds fairly at the end of the day. Have snacks and drinks available for your hard-working "staff," and make sure to thank them afterwards. Here are other items you'll need:

  • Newspapers, bags, and boxes to wrap and pack fragile items. n At least $60 in change: four $5 bills (if you have a lot of big-ticket items, you'll need tens and twenties as well); a roll each of loonies and twonies; and two or three rolls of quarters
  • A calculator to add up purchases
  • Pens, markers, pads of paper
  • "Sale" tags or red stickers to mark-down items that haven't sold by mid-afternoon. Your kids can develop their entrepreneurial spirit by selling some of their old possessions (subject to your approval -- you don't want them selling their new "Sunday-best" clothes for $1!) or running a lemonade stand to refresh customers at your sale.

Dealing with dealers

If someone (or two) shows up at your house several hours or even the day before the sale is supposed to start -- they might say they're from out of town and ask to see your merchandise early because they "won't be around later" -- they're probably professional dealers who operate antique or second-hand shops. These folks are expert at talking you out of your best merchandise for less than it's worth, so either ask them to come back during sale hours (when they'll have to compete with other customers for these items), or if you can't resist your first customer, then stand firm on your prices -- no deals before the sale starts!

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By Diana Shepherd| August 15, 2006
Categories:  Coping with Divorce

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