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Garage sales proliferate, but buyers should beware

No longer able to take out a second mortgage, many Americans are finding another way to squeeze equity out of their home - selling the junk in it.

Jerry Naunheim Jr./ St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Jerry Naunheim Jr./ St. Louis Post-DispatchRead more

No longer able to take out a second mortgage, many Americans are finding another way to squeeze equity out of their home - selling the junk in it.

Garage sales, yard sales, tag sales - no matter what you call them, such exercises in do-it-yourself retailing have long been a popular way for people to clear out unwanted items around the house. But amid a recession that has left many people jobless and struggling to pay their bills, neighborhood sales are becoming less about spring cleaning and more about earning some quick money.

"There are more and more garage sales because people are looking for ways to get rid of their belongings - they're tired of consumption and they need cash," said Eli Portnoy, a Los Angeles brand strategist and marketing expert. "An area that has been a more pedestrian business is becoming more sophisticated."

Over the last year, garage-sale postings on Craigslist have increased by 80 percent in the United States, company spokeswoman Susan MacTavish Best said.

But running a successful garage sale takes more than tossing your old possessions on the driveway. And for buyers, there are serious pitfalls to avoid.

One major concern at garage sales is the safety and recall status of for-sale items, said Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission.

"We've had a lot of success over the years of getting recalled products off of store shelves. Our challenge has always been having those dangerous products removed from homes," he said. "To pass on a previously recalled product is and continues to be a serious concern."

To avoid buying a potentially harmful product, Wolfson recommends going to the commission's Web site, at, before attending a garage sale to research past recalls. At a sale, stay away from items that have a history of problems, such as children's cribs, playpens, and bassinets, and toys and metal jewelry that could contain high levels of lead.

"There's always that possibility that those toy cars and other games and children's products that made the news in 2007 and 2008 could still be out there in garage sales and yard sales," Wolfson said.

Similarly, vintage cribs, toys, and children's clothing might not have been recalled but could fail to meet today's more stringent safety standards.

If you buy an item at a garage sale that you later learn has been recalled, try taking it back to the seller and asking for your money back, Wolfson said. If the seller refuses, contact the manufacturer for a remedy.

Buyers should also be wary of garage-sale ads that seem too good to be true - sometimes sellers will advertise items they don't have or will fail to mention an item's poor condition.

Melody Mandegar, a Los Angeles resident, says she goes to about 10 garage sales a month but prefers to drive around her neighborhood looking for events instead of trusting ads she sees posted online and in local newspapers.

"Half the things they say they have, they don't," Mandegar said.

Sellers, similarly, should watch out for signs of manipulation. Keep an eye on your merchandise and cash box, which could easily be stolen by a "buyer" left unsupervised.

And be aware of professional dealers who shop garage sales with the intent to resell your items at a higher price. Experts say dealers employ aggressive practices such as showing up before a sale starts and driving hard bargains.

Sal Perera, a Los Angeles resident, recalled a sale he held a few years ago where he caught a dealer pressuring his then-10-year-old daughter to sell her CDs for 50 cents each.

Another warning sign is shoppers who pay for cheap items using large counterfeit bills; the hope is to receive change from the fake money under the guise of buying an item.

Perera, 55, said he had encountered a big-bill problem at a garage sale he held recently.

"There was a lady later in the day that did say to me, 'I only have a $100 note,' " he said. "I immediately said, 'Sorry, I don't have that much change.' I don't know if she was trying to scam me or was a genuine shopper who just happened to be stuck with a large note. I thought it was best not to find out."