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Hunting for treasure: Millions of Americans hit the streets each week in search of bargains and adventure


FEA garage23p A garage sale in Carrington Woods in Perrysburg on Thursday, June 23, 2005. The Blade/Dave Zapotosky

zapotosky / blade Enlarge

Some people play golf. Others knit. Carolyn Altman goes to garage sales.

"It's actually my hobby," the Springfield Township woman said. "I love garage-saling. I usually go out every Thursday and Friday morning."

The mother of 11 is a modern treasure hunter, part of an underground culture in America that has turned going to garage sales into an art form.

An estimated 60 million people go to garage sales each year, and there's a lot that we amateurs can learn from the pros.

Mrs. Altman, who enjoys a good adventure as well as a bargain, takes a serious but low-key approach.

"I don't want to fight people for things. I just go for fun," she said.

That's why she tries to get there early and usually begins at the back of neighborhood sales. She finds herself hitting the streets on Thursdays - as she did last week when she bought a rocking chair for her daughter at a Perrysburg neighborhood sale - because that's often the first day of sales.

To get the best selection, it's wise to be the first there, but it also can be useful to be one of the last, when sellers probably will be more willing to accept a lower offer on what remains just to get rid of it, said John Schroeder, 52, a garage sale guru from Minneapolis who's written the new book Garage Sale Fever! (DeForest Press, $12.95)He's been honing his methods for 30 years. It's not unheard of for him to hit 50 to 100 garage sales in a weekend.

"I'm a very fast walker," Mr. Schroeder said. "I just zip in, look, and then move on."

His garage sale survival kit includes comfortable shoes, an umbrella - rainy days may be bad for sellers, but they're great for buyers because it cuts down on the crowds - a city map, and maybe a can of pop or a snack.

It's easy to find collectibles, toys, and clothing (be sure to bring along family members' measurements) at garage sales. But other hot items that Mr. Schroeder has discovered good deals on, especially in wealthier neighborhoods, include televisions and fitness equipment from "people who have given up trying to get fit during the winter." If you're thinking about buying something electronic, ask to plug it in to make sure it works, he said.

There are all kinds of reasons people are drawn to garage sales. Many shop for bargains or gifts, but there are psychological factors as well, according to Tom DeWitt, assistant professor of marketing at Bowling Green State University.

"It's the thrill of finding the deal," he said, "A lot of people go shopping just to have the social interaction ... It's driving around. It's meeting new people. Even the haggling over prices."

And more and more, there's the hope of making a profit.

"The new trend is to buy stuff at garage sales and then put it on eBay or sell it at your own sale," Mr. Schroeder said. "It's very profitable."

He recently bought a serviceman's World War II scrapbook for a dollar, then turned around and sold it for $50.

Ted Powers, owner of Ancestor House Antiques in West Toledo, said real gems can be found at garage sales if you know what to look for. He had one woman come into his shop who unknowingly bought a pair of Tiffany lamps worth $18,000 and $9,000 each.

(Don't be afraid to haggle on price. Mr. Powers said this woman paid $150 each for the lamps, having talked the owner down from an asking price of $250.)

He said people looking for collectibles at garage sales should bring along a price guide.

"People find things all the time that are valuable at garage sales. They don't take the time to look it up or try and find any information about it," he said.

As for figuring out which sales to check out, there are varying strategies. Mr. Schroeder prefers the adventure of randomness, just driving around looking for something interesting. Others check out the classifieds in the newspaper and plan a route ahead of time.

Sharon Huxford, editor with her husband of the Garage Sale & Flea Market Annual series, a price guide for collectibles, gets the local paper and writes down the sales - even though the content of the ads is not always to be trusted.

"It's really a hit or miss operation," said Mrs. Huxford, 65, of Covington, Ind. "They're mostly misleading. If they say antiques, you might as well stay away. You just stumble on the good ones."

It's a lot of trial and error for her, but there's at least one thing she can count on.

"We leave home about 6:30 and we're never the first ones," she said. "You've got to get out early. It gets picked over. If it's 10 o'clock, you might as well go home."

And once you get started, don't ever, ever stop.

"You don't break for lunch. You just keep going," she said. "Once you get started, you can't stop."

Contact Ryan E. Smith at:

or 419-724-6103.

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