Making Yard Sales Pay
Mike Ruff

One of the easiest ways to make money without funneling it through the IRS lackeys is that old standby, the yard sale. No one but you knows how much you made, it's not likely to tweak the threat radar of the Infernal Revenuers, and it's not hard to do-especially if you are going to do it regularly.

That being said, I have noticed that a lot of folks don't seem to know how to effectively organize and run a yard sale. Now I haven't been supporting myself with yard sales-although I do plan to start doing them much more often in the near future. But I have done enough of them in the past, and have enough of a gift for organization, that I have come up with a few tips.

First I'll deal with the items to sell:

  1. Used TVs don't really sell any more. New ones are too cheap, and people generally are smart enough that they aren't willing to take a chance on buying a used one. I'm not saying don't bother trying to sell used televisions-I'm just saying don't go to any effort to get any for your sale.
  2. Books don't sell well-at least, not substantive books. Sometimes you can sell paperback romance novels for literally a dime a dozen, but that's about it. Again, I'm not saying don't try, just don't expend any effort on acquiring books to sell. Generally books might sell if you charge a quarter for a paperback and fifty cents for a hardback, but don't hesitate to let 'em go much cheaper. If you can't bear to get rid of it, don't put it out for sale.
  3. Clothing does sell, especially women's clothing, believe it or not. Children's clothing sells well too. But men's clothing generally doesn't do well, unless it's a specialty item--e.g. something especially retro or some such. So keep an eye out for decent women's and children's clothing, but don't go out of your way for men's.
  4. Furniture sells. My brother pulled an old dresser out of the trash when our neighbors moved, and sold it for $20 within 5 minutes at our yard sale. So that $20 is all profit.
  5. Dishes generally do not sell. At least, not plates, bowls, flatware, coffee cups, etc. Specialty items, collectibles, novelty items may sell, but price 'em to move.
  6. Jewelry can move if priced correctly. Again, if you can't bear to let it go, don't put it out.
  7. If you've got a large sale going, on a hot day, consider putting out a cooler of drinks for about fifty cents each. Buy 'em cheap by the case, and a decent assortment, and you can make some money selling people the drinks while they look around. But make sure not to try this in cool weather, or in small sales-you'll waste money if you try it then.

Now for pricing tips:

  1. Price everything to move. You want to go for the fast nickel rather than the slow quarter. If you think you could get more for an item on Ebay or at an auction house, then do so. Of course, that means you have to wait for the cash, you have to deal with shipping, you have to pay Ebay their cut, and you have to take a chance on not selling at the price you want. $5 now is better than $25 two weeks from now.
  2. Even if you've posted a price on the item, don't hesitate to let the customer talk you down a bit-in fact, mark the prices up just a little bit for larger items. They feel like they've won if they get it cheaper than the labeled price. This both gets you immediate cash, and encourages them to patronize you in the future. Let 'em think you're a sucker-so long as they keep bringing the money.
  3. Make sure everything is priced. Customers don't like having to ask what something costs-and will just leave rather than ask. I'll give you a better idea than putting tags on everything in the section on organization, so bear with me.

Organization tips:

  1. Have several tables on which to show off your sale items. Put like items with like, and put a sign on each, along the lines of "All items on this table--$1." Have a dime table, a quarter table, a fifty cent table, $1, $3, $5, $10, whatever. Only put price stickers or tags on big items and big ticket items.
  2. Make nice signs, with easy to follow arrows. Do not date the signs! Say "Yard Sale Today" instead-then you can reuse them time after time. Advance advertising is largely a waste of time for yard sales.
  3. Find a good location. Close to roads, accessible and with enough parking. Make sure passers by have a good view of your sale items.
  4. A yard sale doesn't have to be an all day affair. In fact, usually the customers will have finished coming around by 11:00 or noon. So operate accordingly-open up at 7:30 am, and make a big show of marking everything down at 10:00 or 11:00. Close shop at noon. Few people who show up at noon or after are really going to buy anything-and if you priced things low enough, you shouldn't have much left to carry back in anyway.
  5. Do one or two sales a month at most. Have a storage area set aside-one that is dry and clean, and spend the time between sales accumulating stuff to sell. Make it a habit to roll around the neighborhood and scavenge furniture items from the trash. You might try to clean them up, but don't put any real labor into them-it's a waste of time and money.
  6. Solicit donations of salable items from friends and family. Offer to sell them at the yard sale for a percentage. 10% of a sale on someone else's stuff is better than selling your own stuff for much less than you paid for it. And everything they bring you is less work you have to do looking for stuff yourself.
  7. Rather than trying to keep a list of everything you have at the sale, just be familiar with what belongs to whom. Then when you sell something, note the item and the sale on a page for that person. This way you can just tabulate what was sold rather than trying to keep track of every item. When it comes time to close shop, just tell 'em to grab what's left that belongs to them. If they don't want to take it away, tell 'em if they leave it it's yours-then sell it next time and keep all the money-and sell it cheap cheap cheap.
  8. If an item doesn't move by the second or third sale, give it away or throw it away. It does you no good taking up storage space and costing you labor and time to move back and forth.
  9. Always always always be honest about all the items you're selling. Good will is necessary to repeat business-if you cheat or sell shoddy merchandise under false pretenses, you won't make any money.
  10. If you live somewhere that limits your yard sales, find someone else and offer to rent their yard if you're ready for another one. A friend of family member or someone you know-obviously a stranger isn't going to be willing to rent you his yard (or at least, not at a super low price). Failing that, try a flea market.

I'm sure I haven't picked up on all the tricks myself-but I think anyone can do pretty well following this advice. I doubt you're going to be able to live of a couple yard sales a month, but the trick is to have more than one source of income. If you just spend a month or so grabbing things when you see them-don't spend much time actively looking, and don't buy things to resell-and then half a day on Saturday selling, you can make a nice little nut. When combined with other odd jobs, or with the income from a regular "white-market" job, it can make a big difference.

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