DIY Basics Spring Decorating & DIY

How To Shop At A Garage Sale

Last Updated on August 7, 2012 by Kristi Linauer

Garage sale season is upon us (at least here in central Texas), and I couldn’t be happier about that!

Oh gosh, what is it about searching through other people’s junk that I find so absolutely irresistible?  I love wandering around someone’s driveway or front yard, their junk strewn all around, and imagining the possibilities.  It’s like knowing a fabulous secret that nobody else knows.  Everyone else may look at the beat up old wood sideboard and see junk.  I see a potential beauty that just needs some love and attention…and elbow grease

For those of us trying to decorate our homes on tiny budgets, purchasing furniture and accessories at a garage sale, flea market, or estate sale can be a great way to maximize the money we have, and potentially save hundreds–if not thousands–of dollars in the process.

However, if you’re new to D.I.Y. projects and are not accustomed to finding treasures and fixing them up, searching through other people’s cast-off items may seem like a daunting task, and when it comes to fixing them up for your own home, you may feel a bit overwhelmed.

If you’re new to purchasing second-hand items for your home, here are a few things to keep in mind as you’re searching for new treasures.



Pay attention to shape, not color

As you’re shopping for wood furniture, lamp bases, or anything else that can be painted, try not to pay attention to the existing finish on items.  Instead, pay close attention to the shape of the item.  Does the furniture piece have interesting legs?  Does it have a bowed front?  Does it feature beautiful carving?

If the item has a feature that gives it interest or charm, then it definitely has potential, even if the existing finish is peeling, or if it’s just not the right color.  After all, furniture, lamp bases, sculptures, and other hard-surface items can always be sanded and painted.

Yard sale dresser makeover from Vacuuming In High Heels & Pearls



Judge the Lamp Base, Not the Lamp Shade

When shopping garage sales or estate sales, you will generally find lamp bases with lamp shades, and more times than not, the lamp shades will be horribly outdated (in shape or color), or will be bent or otherwise mangled.

Don’t be sidetracked by a terrible lamp shade!  Look at the lamp base instead.  If it has an interesting shape, it’s a keeper!  And don’t forget that a lamp base can always be painted.  Add a new lamp shade (or make your own), and your new lamp will look fantastic!

Yard sale lamp makeover from My Blessed Life



Don’t get distracted by bad upholstery

It’s very easy to get distracted by ugly, dated, or torn upholstery fabrics.  However, keep in mind that these can always be changed, and new fabric will give an upholstered piece of furniture new life.

If you’ve never taken on an upholstery project before, you might want to stay away from fully-upholstered items, like sofas and loveseats.  Instead, opt for items that are mostly wood or metal, and have small upholstered parts, like wood dining chairs with upholstered seats.   These projects can be tackled quite easily, and they make a great project for any beginner.

Painted and reupholstered second hand dining chairs for John & Alice family room makeover.



As you gain more experience with garage sales, estate sales, and flea markets, you will begin to quickly recognize those items that can be easily transformed.  The main key is to remember one thing…

Paint will quickly become your number one friend when purchasing used items for your home.  If you don’t yet fee confident with a paint brush in hand, now is the time to learn and practice!

So here’s a little cheat sheet…the top items I look for at a garage sale:

1.  Any solid wood furniture.

I look at the condition and shape of the piece, and ignore the current finish on the piece.  If it’s solid wood, and the doors and drawers work properly, it’s a keeper, even if it’s currently painted in a purple and green leopard pattern.  Solid wood items can be completely transformed with nothing more than a bit of sanding, priming and painting.

2.  Interesting lamp bases.

As mentioned above, lamp bases can be completely transformed with a can of spray paint.  Brass lamps are my favorite because they’re generally smooth, have interesting shapes, and take paint nicely.  But I don’t limit myself to brass lamps.  Any lamp base with an interesting shape is fair game.  And remember…don’t let an ugly lampshade deter you!  You can pick up a new one at Lowe’s or Target, or you can make a new one yourself out of an old lampshade.

3.  Hard bound books.

I know this is a sensitive topic to some book lovers.  “Books shouldn’t be used as decorations!”  I’ve heard it a thousand times.  Frankly, I think hard bound books are fantastic to decorate with, and they can be found for a dime a dozen at yard sales.  I love to cover them in paper, fabric, or just leave them alone if the cover is a pretty color.  They’re great for adding to bookcases (I’m a firm believer that bookcases should have BOOKS), adding height to vignettes, etc.

4.  Pairs of chairs.

One sturdy chair is a great find at a garage sale, but when you can find a pair of chairs, even better!  A pair of wingback chairs for your living room, or a pair of Parsons chairs to use as captains chairs at your dining table.  I find pairs of chairs to be absolutely irresistible!

5.  Vases, sculptures, etc.

These items are great for filling space in bookcases, shelves, or adding to vignettes.  And here again, they can generally be painted to make them perfect for your home.

6.  Clothing, especially sweaters.

I know this might sound a big strange at first, but I do look through the clothing racks at garage sales.  These are great places to find interesting fabrics at unbelievably low prices that you can use to make pillows, patchwork quilted throws, table runners, etc.  You just might even find enough fabric to cover a couple of dining chairs!  My absolute favorite thing to find?  Cable knit sweaters!  Those make gorgeous pillows!  Unfortunately, they’re a bit difficult to find here in central Texas.


So those are my garage sale tips!  I absolutely love shopping garage sales, even more so than shopping at thrift stores because you can find such amazing bargains at garage sales.  When people are wanting to clear out their junk, they’re often willing to let stuff go at ridiculously low prices.  On the other hand, thrift stores seem to be catching on to what items are popular among us thrifters, and prices at thrift stores seem to be climbing.

Are you a garage sale fanatic like I am?  What are your tips for shopping garage sales and finding the best bargains?  What type of items do you keep an eye out for?

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  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    hye sook kim
    April 3, 2012 at 9:54 am

    I absolutely love your tips, particularly the idea of using clothing as a decorating fabric!
    One question as a novice sewer. How to cut and sew the cable knit ?

    • Reply To This Comment ↓
      April 3, 2012 at 10:33 am

      I cut the fabric and sew it, and then go back and do a zigzag stitch over the edges of the fabric so that it won’t unravel.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    April 3, 2012 at 11:24 am

    Great tips…I love a yard sale too, even got hubby into it~ I also like to find old shutters and picture frames. A little paint and you can create anything!!

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    Kelly @ Eclectically Vintage
    April 3, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    Love this post Kristi! Yard sale season – here I come!

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    April 3, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    I love hunting at garage sales and thrift stores for glassware, vintage toys, old maps, books, etc. However I am afraid to buy wood or upholstered pieces for the ever important fear of bed bugs. Since they can be found on other furniture besides mattresses, I don’t want to chance bringing those into my house.

    • Reply To This Comment ↓
      April 3, 2012 at 3:47 pm

      You do have to be careful with upholstered items, but you can do a visual inspection for bed bugs and their markings. The bugs themselves are visible to the naked eye, and their markings are easily visible upon inspection as well.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    April 3, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    thanks for the tips…. starting the garage sale season this weekend.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    Erin @ How to Nest for Less
    April 3, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    Great tips!! PINNED THIS!

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    April 4, 2012 at 7:09 am

    Kristi, I couldn’t agree more! I get giddy when I see furniture at a garage sale. One other point when look for furniture is making sure the drawers are dove-tailed. Many times I’ve looked at a piece and thought it had great lines only to find out the drawers were stapled together. Happy thrifting!

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    April 4, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    I totally agree with you that thrift stores are going up. I went to the Salvation Army the other day, found a beat-up old dresser, and nearly had a heart attack when the employee told me they were asking $125 for it. At the SA. Whoa. They used to have stuff like that all the time for maybe $35. 🙁

    Ditto on craigslist. Ours is just disappointing these days.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    April 5, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    Do you ever buy clear vases/jars and fill them with something? I’ve seen a few people do that before, and I was wondering if you had any tips on that. I know I’ve seen a few in the past when I’ve gone to garage sales.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    Laura Miles
    October 12, 2012 at 10:12 am

    The funny thing about this is I actually have plenty of yard/garage sales. I typically collect stuff from the neighbors (that they are looking to get rid of) and sell it for them, along with some of my own stuff. I can almost use your tips and advice as a way to attract more people and sell more stuff. Bet you didn’t realize it, but your tips are actually helping ppl putting on these garage sales as well as the ppl purchasing stuff at them 🙂

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    Diane Kukich
    October 26, 2012 at 8:04 am

    Another great thing to look for at yard sales is picture frames. My husband is a photographer, and we have dozens of his photos displayed in our house, all in frames that we bought for less than $5. A can of black spray paint works wonders in bringing old frames back to life and also works to coordinate a collection of different style frames.

  • Reply To This Comment ↓
    October 15, 2016 at 6:14 pm

    Hi Kristi. It’s… Kristi! I frequently meet women with the same name as mine, but I have never met anyone who spells it the same! Anywho… I realize this is an old post but your Garage Sale shopping tips are so good I had to comment if for no other reason than just to say thank you and Kudos. If only someone had taught me years ago to pay attention to shape and quality and not color… I would, ummmm, well… I would have a whole lot more awesome furniture project pieces for one thing! LOL! Seriously great advice. I’m posting and pinning! ( P.S. I subscribed to your newsletter just now, too.)