Garage sale season is upon us so here are some helpful hints and guidelines for your bargain hunting.  Everyone needs a bargain in today’s economy and since most of us are on one income we need to be thrifty with our dwindling after tax dollars.

First off you need to be organized and have a plan so you aren’t driving all over the place.  Once we get more domestic oil production we can afford to drive our SUVs all over town.  Until that happens use the newspaper and craigslist to plan your day.  That being said there is no better rush than pulling a “UHY” when you see that handwritten sign stuck in the ground.  Look for sales that are advertised as “multi-family” since they usually have a larger selection.  My favorites are the neighborhood sales.  These are when entire subdivisions have sales at the same time.  These allow you to park centrally and have a much larger selection of sales within walking distance.

Most sales are on Saturday.  However, there are a larger number of people that are opening their garage doors on Friday or even Thursday.  I recommend you try and hit as many Thursday and Friday sales as possible.  This allows you to get the best selection while all the other poor saps are stuck in their cube auditioning for Dilbert.  This also allows you to have Saturday all to yourself since it is the wife’s day to watch the kids for a change.

Take your kids with you.  This serves two purposes. First people like to give kids free stuff and whenever kids get a present they think it is the best thing on earth and they won’t whine and throw a fit for a toy (at least on that day).  But when they don’t get free stuff, it is a good lesson for your kids to learn the word “No”.  It is good for them to learn that they won’t get a toy on every garage sale trip.

Have your friends with you, make it a playgroup activity.  It helps to have another dad with you to keep the kids from running into the street after the ball they picked up, dropped and is now rolling down the driveway.  It also helps to have your buddy distract the owners by negotiating on the price of the picnic basket while you take your potty training three year old around the corner to pee on the house.

You need to have an idea of what you are looking for when you peruse the classifieds.  Personally I won’t go to a sale that doesn’t list the items they plan on having unless I will be in the neighborhood already.  A plan is important but don’t let it limit you.  Do not be afraid to “buy ahead”:  If your child is wearing 3T, you will always need the 5T sweatpants that are in excellent condition.  Also, as much as I believe in having a plan I am a firm believer in the old adage “I didn’t know I needed it until I saw it” or my wife’s favorite “you didn’t need it, it was just cheap”.

Now down to the important part, Price Guidelines.

Since most of us are looking for clothes because the kids are growing like weeds and destroy their clothes even faster than they outgrow them, garage sales are the perfect place to shop for kids clothes.  Let’s be honest, the kids don’t care what they wear until 5th grade and t-shirts with Cinderella and Thomas are expensive off the rack even if they are produced with exploited labor from Indonesia.  The best part about buying your kids garage sale clothes is that as At Home Dads we aren’t expected to know how to dress our kids anyway so now we have the perfect excuse when you go to the grocery store in plaid skirts and polka dot shirts.

My pricing guidelines are based upon 3 years of undocumented non-scientific research in my geographical area. Storage unit sales in lower Manhattan may have different price points so just use this as a guide.

My price limit for kid’s clothes is $1.  There are exceptions to this and I will probably leave some out so feel free to add your own in the comments section.

Boy’s blue jeans – If I find these in good shape which means no holes I will go up to $2.  Boys are hard on their blue jeans and they are hard to find.

Girl’s dresses – I specifically mean Easter and Christmas type dresses.  Off the rack these start at $20 at the big box retailer.  $5 for something probably only previously worn once is reasonable.

Snow boots and dress shoes – Same rational as girl’s dresses

Winter coats and jackets: You have to do your inspections with care here.  A lot of fleece type jackets pill easily.  If a winter coat has a snap on hood make sure it is with the jacket. You can get a great winter coat and snow pant set for around $7.  Don’t forget to always search the pockets for hidden twenty dollar bills.

Toys are a common item that we like to pick up at garage sales. I am a firm believer in boosting my kids’ immunity systems by exposing them to other people’s germs.  Again I don’t like to pay much more than $1 for toys.  The main reason for this is that most everyone is looking to get rid of them; therefore it is a buyer’s market. Be patient and don’t always buy the first thing you see.  I can’t tell you the number of times I bought a GI Joe only to find a GI Joe with a kung fu grip the next week.  Again with toys there are some exceptions.

Wooden train track – This is like gold due to that cheeky little English train.

This stuff brings a hefty price new so people try and get their money back.  You have to check it closely, though.  A lot of people try and slip in some knockoff track and still charge Thomas prices.  Don’t let them fool you.  Just because they paid too much doesn’t mean that you have to.

Lincoln Logs – These are hard to find as well so I will pay a little more for good quality sets.  Probably because I loved these so much as a kid.

Construction vehicles and fire trucks – I specifically mean the big heavy duty types.  A couple of years ago I paid $5 for a big Tonka crane and then went out of town for the weekend.  My wife still says this is one of the best $5 ever spent.

Kitchens, art easels, workbenches, princess vanities and thrones and all the bigger hands on toys – If you try to buy this stuff via craigslist you will pay through the nose.  You can find good quality big toys for $10 and under.

Everything else is up to you.  What are you willing to pay?  Negotiate, Negotiate, Negotiate.  The garage sale market is a buyer’s market.  Remember you don’t have to buy anything but they have to either load it up and take it to Goodwill or lug it back to the basement.  Most don’t want to do that so they are usually ready to deal.  If not, walk away from the craps table and go to the slot machines on the next block.  Everything in garage sale world is a gamble. Caveat Emptor.  If you buy something electric, test it.  Make sure puzzles have all their pieces, there is nothing worse than an alphabet puzzle missing the “S”.  Last but not least check zippers.  I bought a Lightning McQueen backpack for my boy last spring.  Kept it hidden from him in the car and smuggled it into the house.  I pulled it out for the first day of pre-school, ready to give him his big surprise to calm his fears and make his first day of school a success.  Whammo, the zippers didn’t work.  It is a good thing his favorite color is pink and I had been saving a Hello Kitty backpack for his sister.