Garage-sale bargaining etiquette: a handy guide


[Image by sleepingplanes on Flickr]

Bargaining is entirely acceptable at garage sales, but civility rules. Or should, anyway. People can get awfully testy when used goods are exchanged for cash. I wonder if it’s because there is no codified bargaining ritual in the United States, no script that everyone knows. The following is my proposal, though it’s probably colored somewhat by the number of garage sales I’ve participated in this summer; I’d love to hear from other garage-sale addicts in the comments.

  1. It’s acceptable to offer a lower price at pretty much any time, but understand that sellers are not going to be receptive on the morning of the first day of their sale, especially if it’s a three-day affair. You’re getting first dibs, after all.
  2. Don’t make absurd offers. If it’s marked $15, don’t offer $3 unless the sale is truly waning (all hell breaks lose after 12 p.m. on the last day). And if the price is dirt cheap already, buy it and be glad. At one sale I participated in this summer, a lovely and never-used picnic basket set was marked $5; one lady offered $2 (one hour into the sale on a Thursday, no less). Garage sales are where you go to get bargains, not gifts or charity. Side note: If you’re carrying a Coach purse or wearing Prada shoes, you’re not in a very good bargaining position to begin with. Not that well-t0-do people don’t deserve bargains, but I will not be selling Coach Purse Lady anything for a dime, no matter how many times she asks.
  3. Don’t insult the item in an attempt to save a few bucks. “$5 for this thing? Why, they sell ’em for two at the thrift stores” (then go pick one up at a thrift store). Or, “These really aren’t that valuable anymore, not many people collect them” (then why are you interested?) or “This looks like it may fall apart at any minute” (ditto). It’s one thing to point out a crack or hole and ask if it affects the price, but quite another to act like one of those douchey guys who work the bizarre angle of insulting women in order to pick them up. Have a little class.
  4. Once you agree to a price, that’s it. No backsies.
  5. My friend Jill swears by the question, “What is your best price?” It’s a considerably less antagonistic way to begin negotiations (and Jill insists it works in more situations than you’d think).
  6. Be aware of what the best bargain items are. Used clothes, shoes, toys, and linens are hard to get rid of at garage sales, so if you find a cache of worn jeans just your size, it’s more than okay to ask for a better deal. Items still in their original packaging, with tags, or obviously unused command a much higher price at garage sales, followed closely by clean things that have been very well taken care of–don’t expect sellers to be as willing to practically give away new or like-new stuff.
  7. Cardinal Bargaining Sin #1: Asking for the third time. If a seller says no to an offer once and there’s an extenuating circumstance involved–a flaw, it’s all the money you have, you’re completely desperate, whatever–okay, fine, ask again. But after that, pursuing it is enormously rude and cretinous. (That’s right: not just rude, but rude and cretinous.) I’ve even had persistent bargainers agree to my price and then hand me the amount they originally proposed. Uh uh.
  8. Cardinal Bargaining Sin #2: Taking it personally. We’ve all done this at one time or another, right? Walked away fuming about that so-and-so who refused a perfectly good offer and doesn’t realize her crap is overpriced and … blabbity blah. Here’s the deal: Ten different people will assign ten different values to the same object. (The Price Is Right thrived for many years off of this phenomenon.) So you value something differently than the seller does. Big deal. It happens. It’s just stuff. Move on without letting it ruin your day.
  9. Understand that there’s are many different schools of thought when it comes to pricing and bargaining at garage sales, and adjust your behavior accordingly. Plenty of people leave “bargaining room” in their prices, but others expect you to pay the amount on the sticker. If a seller acts horrified by your attempts at bargaining, let it go and move on if you don’t wanna pay up. If she’s practically begging you to cart things away for nothing then by all means, bargain freely.
  10. Be human. Compliment a garden, a child, a color of paint; whatever’s appropriate. You never know what sort of odd or oddly revealing conversations you might have if you put forth a little effort. I like reading Queen of Fifty Cents because she reports on the people (and pets) in addition to the bargains, and inspires (slightly socially awkward) me to do the same. Paradoxically, polite and engaging buyers get the very best deals of all.


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5 responses to “Garage-sale bargaining etiquette: a handy guide

  1. Good list! If we can get enough people turned on to thrifting, maybe we will finally get those codified bargaining rituals going. I get great results by asking if they’d consider $x if I give the item a good home. Also helps to be sincerely appreciative of whatever they’ve sold you.

    Of course your best point of all is for everyone to visit that Queen of Fifty Cent person’s blog! ;o}

  2. Emily Christensen

    I get great results by asking if they’d consider $x if I give the item a good home.

    I like that. I couldn’t think of how to word it, but I was going to mention something along those lines. I think a lot of people do want good homes for their stuff, especially if it’s a once-favorite thing that no longer fits into the person’s life anymore. (I should add that it’s not okay to use this tactic when buying something to resell.) But also if it matches a set or it reminds you of your grandma or a trip you once took … people love stories.

  3. Lurve this article 🙂 I am especially fond of your analogy for douchy guys who insult women in an attempt to pick them up – LOVE that.

    And, as the queen said, I like to offer a low price and then follow it up with a sweetener that doesn’t involve money. With garage sales, I’m usually always scouting for classic gaming systems, games, or peripherals. Families usually have no idea what they’re worth in the first place (or they’d sell them on eBay!), but I don’t want them to think I’m taking advantage of them (even though I AM), so I say something like “I can’t really spent $30 to buy alllll of this stuff, but if you’d sell me the whole box for $15, I can promise I’ll take good care of it. I collect and restore this stuff!”

    I’ve also had some great luck pulling the old “If I buy this for full price, will you throw in [item of about half the value of first item]?” trick.

  4. Ron Sylvester

    Loved this post, especially after spending time with you at a yard sale.

  5. Another rule should be that haggling over anything priced at $1 or less is rude and wasting the seller’s time.

    I marked some items for 50c to clear and people would still offer 25c! I said “No, I’d rather donate them than sell them to you at that price.” Even marking them at 50c seemed a waste of my time. I was always thinking that I’d feel better by just donating them so others could benefit.

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