Garage sale secrets: go in with love and low expectations

Alyx Gorman

About 400,000 people are projected to shop during this year’s Garage Sale Trail on 19 and 20 October. But experts on both sides of the garage sale table advise it is fun, not money, that should motivate buyers and sellers.

Guardian Australia interviewed one of the Garage Sale Trail’s “most seasoned” sellers, 67-year-old Chantal Troccaz, and The Collector’s auctioneer Adam Truscott – who’s been in the business of appraising used goods for 25 years – to find out how to have a successful garage sale, whether you’re selling or buying.

Tips for sellers

Embrace the bundle
Though she’s never read anything by Marie Kondo, Troccaz uses her annual garage sale mainly to “sell stuff which I don’t use any more. I don’t sell stuff to make money. I don’t think that’s the idea, really.” Because clearing out is the aim, she tends to bundle smaller items together, then sells them for a low price. She’ll group clothes by season and homewares by category. “And I sell them for between one and five dollars.” Not everyone is a fan of her strategy but she still thinks it’s a good idea. “Sometimes people will say, ‘I don’t like this, can I swap it for this?’ They’d rather pay $1 for one piece of clothing, and I find that quite amusing.”

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Visual merchandising matters
Before she retired, Troccaz was a regular at Sydney’s market in the Rocks where she’d sell handmade goods infused with eucalyptus oil. She takes a market-style approach to organising her garage sale goods. Starting at her front door, she arranges everything by size. “I put the garden stuff on one side, the homewares I stack … with small things at the front, medium sized things in the middle and big things at the back.”

You can make friends with pot plants …
Throughout the year Troccaz saves the planters she gets from garden centres, and reuses them to pot up cuttings and extra plants she has been growing. “I have a little backyard, and my plants are very happy there.” Since shestarted selling plants, she has developed a particular rapport with her customers. “We have nice chit-chat. I explain to people how to care for their plants, and give them tips.”

… especially if they’re affordable
“I think my sale’s popular because it’s very cheap,” Troccaz says. “And something different. I start pricing plants from 50 cents, up to five or 10 dollars. This year I have a Japanese maple which I repotted. It’s really healthy and happy, so I might sell it for more.”

Expect to want less
Troccaz has lived in the same home for more than 35 years. She held her first garage sale eight years ago, after seeing a flyer at a bus shelter. “The funny thing is, I wasn’t able to be there. So I left the things outside and I left a note with them saying, ‘Will you just slide the money under the front door,’ and people did! It was very honest. The following year I did the same thing. Then after I stopped working, I continued doing the garage sales.” She’s found the process of tidying and decluttering for sales has changed her attitude to shopping. “I think I’ll run out of things to sell. Hopefully! It’s the idea that I clear and declutter, but then I make sure I don’t buy new things. When I’m tempted to buy crockery or a dress, I put my foot down and tell myself ‘No, I’ve got plenty’.”

Treat money as a pleasant surprise
On rainy years, Troccaz says the crowd at her sales is more like “a trickle” but she makes hay (and bank) when the sun shines. “On a sunny day I’ll make between two and three hundred dollars, which is a surprise because I tell people to give me coins!”

Tips for buyers

Pick something you’ll actually use …
In the last few years household items like old mixing bowls have become very collectable. “Five years ago no one wanted old pottery and mixing bowls,” Adam Truscott says. But now“you can buy new recreations of old Australian mixing bowls made in the 1930s and 40s. That stuff is sort after because it’s actually practical as well.”

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… or something people might overlook
Truscott says old petrol cans and oil tins are a surprise hit at garage sales. “They’re something that most people dismiss as being not worth anything” but they hold a special place in many hearts: “Men like to have them in their sheds, around their old cars,” he says. “They’re sort of ‘mantiques’.”

Know your stuff
“I’d suggest trying to find an interest and concentrating on that,” Truscott advises would-be browsers. “The blokes that are into their old oil tins, they know what they’re looking for. They know what’s out there and what they’re missing. They look at them online and make lists. They’re dreaming of the ones they want and then they go out on the weekend and find them. This stuff doesn’t just come overnight. It take a long time to develop it and you make lots of mistakes.” Truscott suggests reading widely – design books and auction catalogues, not just online – to come to grips with what it is you’re looking for. “If you know a lot about a lot of stuff, you’ll come out with good stuff.”

Look for the right kind of wear
While picking items in good condition matters, a bit of wear and tear around the base of an object can be a sign it’s old and well loved. “If a glass vase has been around for 100 years, it will have been picked up and put down a lot of times in that 100 years ... Look on the bottom of a piece and you can tell from the marks underneath how long it’s been around for.”

If all else fails, weigh it …
While there are no hard and fast rules for assessing an item’s quality, weight can be a giveaway. “The heavier the better” applies to everything from wrist watches to Papua New Guinean masks. The same goes for metal busts. “Bronze weighs a lot – if you pick up something that looks like it should weigh a lot and it doesn’t, it’s not bronze.”

… or just shop for joy
“If you’re just shopping for love you’ll probably find some really good stuff worth a lot of money, because you’re not trying to,” Truscott says. “It’s why there are so many bad relationships in this world. If people go looking for a partner, they’ll convince themselves they’ve found one, because they want it.” High expectations are the enemy of having a good time browsing. “You can’t expect to go in, find the long lost masterpiece and make a fortune. I know people who’ve been doing this for 50 years and they’ve never stumbled across something like that.”

Do you have any hard-earned tips for would be garage sale shoppers or buyers? Share them in the comments below