All the Ways I Got My Yard Sale Right (and Wrong)
Life + Money

All the Ways I Got My Yard Sale Right (and Wrong)

Janna Herron/The Fiscal Times

This is not the be-all, end-all on how to have a great yard sale. It’s more of a post-mortem on a not-so-wildly successful one.

The goal for our yard sale this year was to clear out stuff before a big renovation this summer. Getting cash was just a bonus, and I promised my six-year-old son that whatever we made from selling his toys and clothes could go toward his Lego Death Star fund. (Big dreams.)

Knowing your goal for the sale — clearing out the clutter, in my case — is a good first start to a successful sale, according to yard sale experts. “The most common mistake is not thinking through the true purpose for their sale,” says Katie O’Connor, an editor at Get Rich Slowly. Your ultimate goal affects how much you negotiate and how much you give away for free.

Our family was optimistic about the desirability of our stuff. “People will try to sell anything and can be successful,” says Chris Heiska, founder of the Yard Sale Queen blog. She recounted the time her mother wanted to sell a foam-padded toilet seat. “It was the first thing to be sold,” she says.

With that in mind, everything except underwear made our sale pile.

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There’s a psychological boost from purging. If an item doesn’t spark joy — as decluttering guru Marie Kondo would say — then it will at least spark some joy to get rid of it, especially in exchange for cash. I imagined a happy neighbor walking off with each item, giving it a new life. It wasn’t just me feeling the purge. My son readily jettisoned well-loved and still-enjoyed toys — albeit for the promise of a new Death Star.

Pricing was next, another area ripe for big mistakes. “You have to understand that even if you have a brand new dress shirt that you paid $40 for, you're not going to get even $20 for it,” says Andrew Schrage, co-owner of Money Crashers Personal Finance. Pricing too high wasn’t our problem, though. There was a disturbingly large amount of stuff priced for 10, 25 and 50 cents and just a handful over $5. Good thing we weren’t doing this for the money.

We broke all the advertising rules due to forces we couldn’t control. The experts say to use all means possible — Craigslist, Patch, Garage Sale Finder, Nextdoor and Facebook — to get the word out. Make easy-to-read signs and place them at major intersections near your house.

We did none of that because our homeowner’s association restricts advertising and access for public sales. Instead, we placed a free online posting on the community website and made an ad for the mailroom. It included the what, when and where of the yard sale plus a sampling of the better items (Boy’s clothes and toys! Tools! Camping gear! A/Cs!).

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On the day of the sale, we started setting up at 6 a.m. so we would be ready for the 8:30 a.m. start. A common mistake, says Heiska, is not being prepared ahead of time. “You go to a yard sale and you want to buy something and the person says, ‘Let me run inside to get some change,’” she says.

Whoops. At about 8:15 a.m., I realized we forgot change. We sent my father-in-law out while we crossed our fingers that we could make change with whatever was in our wallets. Nope. At 8:30 a.m., the first buyers snagged two small tables, two half-filled bottles of lighter fluid (seriously, anything will sell) and some model trains for $11. But I couldn’t make change for their $20. So, they got it all for $10.

By 9 a.m., we had a steady stream of people. An older Russian couple with grandsons bought almost all my son’s clothes for $22 and a tool kit for $3. Their friend, a man in his 60s, took a liking to my black and white hat. He tried it on and modeled it for his friends. No one pointed out that it was a woman’s hat, and he bought it, plus a handful of records, for $4.

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A stack of kid’s DVDs went for $5. Another lady bought a bedside dresser for $10. A public safety official asked about the camping gear we advertised. My husband talked up a propane lantern, stove, backpack and tent, selling it all for $35.  (See, that’s what good advertising can do.)

And this is what bad advertising does: When you say “tools,” people think table saws, drills and sanders, not your dad’s old Allen wrench or Phillips screwdriver, which is what we were selling. We had a lot of disappointed handymen come by.

After the public safety guy left at around 9:30 a.m., the traffic stopped. My son and I played Yahtzee, while my husband considered closing up shop early, another no-no. “It’s also a mistake to invest a ton of resources in setting up a sale if you really aren’t into sticking with it for most of the day,” says O’Connor. If you don’t have the time for a full effort, wait for a big neighborhood sale or donate everything.

Fortunately for my husband, the weather officially ended our day. After a few stragglers took $5 worth of stuff, it started to rain. Our grand total was a measly $92, $33 of which belonged to my son. We took an SUV’s worth of stuff to the Salvation Army that afternoon.

“Have a backup plan in place for your unsold items,” says Schrage. “That way, you won't have to haul your entire inventory back inside and decide what to do with it.”

We also listed the three window air conditioners on Craigslist, and after a steamy week, all three sold for $30 each, nearly doubling our yard sale haul. I’ll call that a minor success.