How to Salvage a Garage Sale Find

yard sale
Any gems here you would want for your home?
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Garage sales have become a great way to recycle used items and make a little cash. But what do you do when you're on the other end of the transaction? You've just driven past a great-looking garage sale spread out like a buffet across someone's driveway and front lawn, but how do you decide which items are gems and which ones are fodder for the nearest landfill? And after you've made your purchase, how do you rehabilitate your find to transform it from a found object into a useful show piece?

The prospect of finding inexpensive but functional stuff inspires hordes of people to spend their weekends hunting for and fixing up bargains, but the key to making a successful haul is in being able to actually use what you've carted home. That great office chair may only have three working casters, and the table you thought would look fab in the family room may not seem so appealing when you discover that the veneer is peeling off.


Salvaging furniture, fixtures and other objects from garage sales and second-hand stores may be less exciting than finding them in the first place, but rehabilitating them successfully is the first step in turning your finds into money savers or objets d'art.

In tough economic times, when you're furnishing your first place or even if you just enjoy the thrill of the hunt, garage sales offer an opportunity to find hidden treasure -- if you know the ropes. In the next few pages, we'll explore some of the challenges and rewards of salvaging garage sale finds. From dealing with superficial wear and tear to removing years of grime and neglect, a discriminating eye, some elbow grease and a few basic skills will take you a long way.

First up, let's take a look at some ways to get prepared for your garage sale excursion.


Going to Garage Sales

Think of your garage sale excursion as a safari to a new land, the land of discovery. Before you head out the door, pack for the journey. Even if you're impulsive by nature, having a few items on hand will make your efforts more successful in the end.

Nothing spells the death of a fun garage sale outing more than being uncomfortable. To make sure you enjoy your shopping experience, dress for the weather and wear comfortable shoes. Take along water and a snack if you plan on making more than a couple of stops.


You never know what you'll find, but having a wish list doesn't hurt. Keeping a list of things to look for, from bundt pans to bamboo steamers, will help you develop a "no man left behind" strategy.

Don't forget the designer side of things, either. Along with your wish list, keep samples of your paint colors, drapery fabric, upholstery and anything else you may want to match. You might have to paint or reupholster your finds, but then again, you could discover the perfect match, if you have the tools to recognize it when you see it.

Carry a tape measure, and be sure to jot down important measurements before you leave home. If you want to find a nice wooden chest to fill that alcove near your staircase, knowing the maximum width you have to work with will save you from a big disappointment later. If you do find something with potential, keeping a tarp, some plastic sheeting and some painter's tape in your car will help you get your finds home with a minimum of fuss. You should also have some rope or bungee cords on hand in case you find a big-ticket item you need to strap to your roof or hang out of your trunk.

When you're hot on the trail of a fantastic find, get the skinny on it before you buy. Having Internet access to sites like and others, which can give you a good lead on what constitutes a fair price, will give you an advantage and peace of mind. Oh, and when you do pay, make sure to have cash in your pocket. Carrying some small bills and change with you will usually save time and trouble.

On the next page, we'll peruse a few furniture finds.


Finding Furniture at Garage Sales

reupholstering furntire
If reupholstering is the way to go, make it fun and invite some friends to come help you.
Gary Houlder/Lifesize/Getty Images

Finding bargain furniture that's attractive and functional may well be the holy grail of garage sale shopping. But when you're evaluating furniture, keep some things in mind. Refinishing wood can be hard work, and reupholstering furniture isn't a picnic either. Check your potential purchases with a realistic eye, both for their condition and your time and desire to whip them into shape.

Wood furniture can be deceptive. Solid wood furniture can take a beating and still be salvageable, where peeling veneers or pressed wood products with water damage are often beyond help. If you see watermarks on solid wood or dirt buildup from neglect, a little wood soap and a mild abrasive can make a big difference. Even a slightly abused piece can be transformed into a shabby chic find and given a new life with a change of hardware and the right accessories. You could also strip and refinish furniture that's in otherwise good shape. There are products on the market these days that make stripping, sanding and staining furniture easier than it used to be.


When dealing with wood furniture that has more significant damage like loose joints, broken legs, split wood or deep gouges, the problem may or may not need a difficult fix and should be evaluated by a woodworking professional or talented amateur. Wood glue and filler can handle quite a few problems, but if the fix requires special tools that you don't have, you could spend more money repairing your find than it would have cost you to buy new.

If you're interested in a piece of wood furniture that has significant problems but is still structurally sound, you could always cheat. A table that looks OK on top but has a gnawed leg courtesy of someone's teething puppy might benefit from a table skirt held in place with hook-and-loop tape. And if only part of a side table, chair or chest is visible beside another piece of furniture, some creative furniture arranging could take care of the problem too.

This make-do attitude can be extended to upholstered furniture, too. As long as a piece is sturdy, there are steps you can take to make it a good candidate for your room. Having a chair or couch professionally reupholstered can be pricey, but solidly built pieces with wood trim and fine detailing may be worth it.

In the next section, we'll plug in a few garage sale appliances to see how they perform.


Garage Sale Appliances and Electronics

You don't have to limit your explorations to furniture and bric-a-brac. Often, people upgrade their appliances when their old ones have a lot of life left in them. To make sure that you aren't contemplating a clunker, test all appliances to make sure they work. Stick with brand names that you recognize. That way, there's a good chance that the manufacturer will have a Web site you can visit to get an operating manual with care instructions. Be prepared to test battery-operated electronics and personal items by carrying a range of batteries with you. Rechargeable batteries are great for this.

Before you contemplate a purchase, check to make sure that there are no recalls on the product. A quick visit to will help you get information that could potentially save your life. You can also find information about recalls at the Consumer Reports Web site [source: Steele]. This is an area where a handheld device with Internet access will be invaluable.


Evaluate products carefully. If you're shopping for a DVD player, don't buy it unless you can make sure it works. (It's probably a good idea to take DVD with you for testing purposes.) Don't assume that something works because it's for sale or simply accept someone's word for it. Electronics that have been sitting in a basement or garage for months can stop working without the seller even knowing it.

If you like the look of a non-functioning lamp or coffeemaker with a broken carafe, the problem doesn't have to be a deal breaker. Some items have components that are easy to replace. The electric innards of lamps are usually pretty easy to switch out with a generic kit, and replacement carafes for many coffeemakers are available from the manufacturer or as a generic that you can find at your local hardware store. The lesson here is that you can research ways to reinvent or rework some things to your advantage. It just takes a little ingenuity.

On the next page, we'll play with garage sale toys and provide some tips on how to make sure they're safe to use.


Buying Used Toys at Garage Sales

Many children's toys are discarded long before they wear out. This makes them prime candidates for recycling. When buying items like toys, safety is a major factor. You can check with to find information on toy recalls.

The second big concern here is whether or not a toy is clean enough to use., the online auction site, has published guidelines for cleaning used toys. They recommend placing toys that can be exposed to water in a dishwasher for cleaning. Dishwashers use a minimum water temperature of about 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60.0 Celsius), which will help kill any lingering germs. Place stuffed animals in the freezer overnight to kill dust mites, and then wash them in the laundry with your other delicates [source: Ebay].


As with electronics, carry batteries to test battery operated toys. When purchasing games, or multi-part toys, check to make sure that all the parts are in the bag or box. With games, this can be a hassle, but discovering that key components are missing after you get the toy home is very disappointing, particularly if it's a gift.

Just because a toy is gently used doesn't mean you can disregard the manufacturer's age recommendations. Always check the age listings on toys and games to make sure that they're age-appropriate.

In the next section, we'll look at fabric finds and how to handle them.


Used Fabric and Clothing Finds at Garage Sales

rack of clothes
Always inspect clothes at a garage sale carefully. You never know what you'll walk away with.
Rebecca Van Ommen/Lifesize/Getty Images

Whether you call it used or vintage, recycling clothing is a way to extend your wardrobe at a fraction of the cost of buying retail. Your finds could be classics that stay pretty much the same from year to year, like that little black dress, silk tank top or cardigan sweater, or you could be into reworking vintage fabrics using your sewing skills. You could even be into waiting out the trends, watching for bellbottoms, stirrup pants or enormous shoulder pads to come back into style. Whatever your motivation, garage sales offer fertile territory for recycling clothing.

Garage sale clothing finds may be in pristine condition, or they may need some work. Read the label instructions and inspect garments carefully before you contemplate a purchase. Don't assume that a tag listing the size of the garment is enough to ensure that it will fit. Ask to try the garment on, and ask the seller about the sizing. The older a women's garment is, the smaller it's likely to be relative to it's published size. Manufacturers have been slowly changing the dimensions of women's clothes, so a perfect size six is larger now than it was 10 years ago. When in doubt, go larger when you buy. It's much easier to alter a garment to fit a smaller body than the other way around [source: Jackson].


Garage sale clothing may need some rehabilitation, and you won't always know before you buy if a spot will come out or not. If you detect soiling and want to risk it, at least ask for an additional discount. There are a number of clothing deal breakers you should be on the lookout for. Inspect wool items for moth activity. It will show as small worn spots or possibly holes. When shopping for winter weather items like coats and jackets, check for perspiration marks on interior linings around the armholes. It's also a good idea to check for wear on the elbows of shirts and jackets and the knees of slacks. While you're at it, test zippers, and make sure that all the buttons on the garment are accounted for.

When you get your finds home, always wash or dry-clean them before you attempt to wear them. Delicates like lace and fine knits should be laundered by hand or by a professional.

Don't leave yet! On the next page, you can find even resources to help you salvage your garage sale finds.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Being Frugal. "Bargain Shopping at Yard Sales." Undated. 4/25/09.
  • Consumer Guide. "How to Repair Wooden Furniture." Undated. 4/22/09.
  • Consumer Reports. "Finding Deals at Garage and Antique Sales." 7/4/07. 4/26/09.
  • Ebay. "Guide to Used Toddler Toys Cleaning and Safety." Undated. 4/24/09.
  • Fashion Era. "Cleaning Vintage Clothes." Undated. 4/22/09.
  • Fix it Club. "How to Repair Small Appliances." Undated. 4/23/09.
  • Flex Your Power. "Dishwashers." Undated. 4/27/09.
  • HGTV. "Shabby Yet Stylish D├ęcor." Undated. 4/23/09.
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  • Totally "How To Refinish That Garage Sale Furniture Find." Undted. 4/20/09
  • Wallner, Anna and Kristina Matisic. "Where, What to Look for When Shopping for Antiques.", 5/23/07. 4/25/09.
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