Written By Cari Pierce

The garage, driveway and yard were strewn with camping equipment, dishes, clothing and furniture that just didn’t make the merge of households.

I had shopped my fair share of yard sales. I had never held one.

We saw 80 percent of our stuff leave with new owners, made $480 and only had only one strange episode: a man visited us, unexpectedly, the night before the sale, asking for a first look at the furniture we were offloading.

At the time, I thought, how desperate. How weird. What kind of person tries to pre-shop a yard sale 16 hours early?

Now I understand. There’s great stuff out there. What is trash to some becomes treasure to others. Rundown becomes repurposed; junky becomes funky.

There’s an art to it all – whether you are buying or selling.

When mounting a yard sale, think about how people shop and how best to show off your items so that buyers will find it easy to connect with your things.

“Staging your yard sale like a retail environment is the absolute way to go,” said Robb Whittlef, a designer who runs Great Estate Sale Company, a unique retail and consignment store in the Midwest and is the “trash to treasure” expert featured on HGTV’s Decorating Cents.

“People don’t shop for stuff that isn’t at eye height. You want to get stuff up off the groundÉ [borrow] folding tables,” said Whittlef in a telephone interview. “[People] just don’t bend down to pick up stuff, nor are they really going to see all the detail on it. Nobody buys dishes off the ground.”
In the past few years, “home staging” has become a cottage industry. Realtors advertise their staging services and lifestyle television channels feature numerous programs on the subject. What is it and how can it help your yard sale profits?

Staging is all about appealing to buyers – giving personality and purpose to some rooms and depersonalizing other spaces. It’s about creating an environment in which buyers can immediately see themselves living. The same strategy applies to your yard sale or flea market booth. You need to help buyers see your junk as hip, funky treasures that can’t be passed up.

Selling old florist vases that you stored under your kitchen sink? An empty, dusty vase tagged at 50 cents may end up selling for a quarter, but the same vase, cleaned up and filled with a few flowers picked – for free – from your garden could bring in two or three times more.

If you present it as junk, it’s junk. If you take the time to stage your yard sale items, your buyers will reward you in dollars and cents.

“Group like items together,” said Whittlef. “Have your sale be easy to shop. Have your antiques in one area. Have your kids’ toys in anotherÉ your leftover clothing in another area. Have it somewhat segmented.”

“You’re going to get two different kinds of buyers,” he said. “You’re going to get one kind that’s coming in to buy and resell, because that’s definitely a huge business nowadays. That group is going to be in and out really quickly, but they have a lot of money and they are willing to spend.

“Then you’re going to get browsers who just come through and are enjoying the day outside. If something hits them, it’s great and wonderful. Both of those camps have one thing that’s working against them and that’s time,” said Whittlef. “Because if they’re out and enjoying the day, they usually want to hit five or six salesÉThey just don’t have the time. So really organizing a sale and making it as easy as possible to shop is the best thing.”

You don’t have to be a professional stager to have a successful yard sale. Just employ the professional yard sale organizers’ tricks. Use color-coded price tags – such as green for books and yellow for dishes- to group like items and keep things organized throughout the day. Price everything. Make sure items are clean, easy to see, and easy to handle. If you’re selling a lamp, screw in a light bulb and plug it in!

Buyers will remove tarnish from old silver pieces and clean the cobwebs off that well-used camp stove, but if you do that work for them, they will likely view the items as being more valuable, which may equate to a higher selling price.

For some sellers, estate sales and auctions may be the best way to find hidden cash in their more collectible items. “It scares some people [to bring] in an appraiser, though,” saidWhittlef. “You are committing to spend from $75 to thousands to have your items appraised and the question is: Do I have something that’s of that much value?”

Whittlef recommends that people take the time to use the Internet first. Search online using criteria like “price guide” and the name or description of any mark or symbol you find on the item. “Most of the time,” he said, “you’re going to be able to pull up some pretty interesting information.”

If an item does appear to have significant value, getting it appraised may be worth the fee to price it accurately for sale. Whittlef cautions that if you sell a high-value item in a yard sale, you should only expect to make about half of what the item could get at an auction.

Even at auction, though, nothing is guaranteed. Whittlef describes an auction as “a random shake.”

“You can have a fantastic item at auction that for some reason doesn’t hit anybody. And you can have the most random item that you think really isn’t that great, but two people absolutely have to have it and it will bring in more money than you could ever imagine,” Whittlef said.

On the buying side, there are many great treasures out there to be used as is, or with a little modification given a new lease on life.

Whether you’re hitting a local yard sale or buying at auction, Whittlef recommends shopping with ideas and a purpose. He determines what item a specific space needs and tears images out of home decorating magazines for shopping inspiration. “With the item in mind,” said Whittlef, “I go out looking and think, okay, É even though [a found object is] a little bit shorter and it’s got a horrible finish on it, I could paint it or I could put bun feet on it and make it into what I want.”

His suggestions for must-buy items? “Anything that has a lot of really great aging to it, I find really interesting,” Whittlef said. “Really good, old light fixtures, I would never pass up, just because lighting is so expensive.”

Then, there’s artwork. At yard sales, Whittlef doesn’t pass up lithographs or paintings. “It’s always going to be a better price than what you’d end up paying at a gallery.”

When you are shopping sales for art, but aren’t finding exactly what you want, Whittlef suggests looking for artwork painted on real canvas with great frames. “You can always paint right over that canvas and then just do some simple swatches of black, make it a great contemporary painting and spray the frame out,” said Whittlef. “You’re getting all
the elements of what you need – the canvas and the frame – for
almost no cost.”

Watching TV design programs and flipping through design magazines can help you identify good stuff among the junk at sales. “You start seeing some design elements that come through pretty consistentlyÉ stuff almost starts to speak to you and says, ÔHey, this could be a this, this could be a that,’” said Whittlef.

According to Patty Keener, the proprietor of Sidetracked Antiques & Design in Westminster, bringing home great finds is as simple as watching trends. “If Art Deco is in right now,” she said, “then look at yard sales for Art Deco inspired things.”

In our disposable society, most of us throw out items that have real value to others. Whether you are buying or selling, it is an art. Stage it for sale. Buy with a purpose. And, according to Whittlef, remember the value of a fresh coat of paint.

A coat of paint is the most the forgiving thing that you could possibly imagine,” said Whittlef, “so never overlook the opportunity [that lies] in something that can be paintedÉ Anything with a fresh coat of paint on it really can be a fantastic changeÉ a $10 can of paint can take you a lot further than I think most people imagine.”

As for me, I’m tempted to participate in the strange act of pre-shopping yard sales. I’m sure I’m missing some trash-to-treasure opportunities.