What to Buy -- and What Not to Buy -- at a Garage Sale

With spring in the air, garage sales are popping up like daffodils. And with the economy still struggling, many people are trying to stretch their dollars by buying things used. Before you head out to tour the neighborhood, take heed: While some garage sale finds are perfectly fine to pick up secondhand, some things are better bought new, regardless of cost. Let's take a look.

With other garage sale finds such as musical instruments, be sure to test any moving parts to make sure they work properly. If they do, you can put off investing in a new instrument until it seems more likely that a stint in the school band will turn into a lasting hobby. Editors at Popular Mechanics say certain used electronics and power tools may be bargains but should be tested before purchase. Their advice: Ask the seller to turn on the device so you can see that it still works. Any refusal should raise a red flag. Of course, if you're mechanically inclined, even a nonworking item could be a good buy. One of Popular Mechanics' experts tells of a $10 Toro snow blower that simply needed a new spark plug and fuel. It's run for 10 more years and counting.

Buy New.

What not to buy at a garage sale generally comes down to two questions: Is it safe? And is it sanitary? The answers put potential garage sale finds including child car seats, cribs, shoes, tires, mattresses, swimsuits, hats, and helmets on a Reader's Digest list of items to avoid. An old crib may not be up to today's safety standards, for example, and a used car seat could have been in an accident without your knowledge, rendering it useless. Shoes, mattresses, and hats may not be too clean -- or worse, carry lice, bedbugs, etc. Helmets fail on both fronts.

It Depends.

There are a few categories where experts have differing opinions. Take clothes, for instance. First of all, no one will tell you it's smart to buy used undergarments of any type (see above). Most research we found indicates that clothes just aren't the best value -- with the exception of formal wear, maternity clothes, and kids clothes, according to US News & World Report. Formal wear is generally taken care of and worn sparingly; maternity wear is worn for only a few months; and children outgrow clothes so fast that often an outfit is worn only a handful of times. Carefully inspect any garage sale finds for stains and signs of wear and tear.

Another debated category is kitchenware. While some say buying used dishes and glasses isn't sanitary, kitchenware should be fine as long as you wash it well (check to see if your dishwasher has a hot/sanitize cycle).

The bottom line here is to follow your instincts and use some common sense. If you buy things like secondhand clothes and dishes, simply examine them with an eye toward whether you can get them sufficiently clean. Likewise, with electronics and other machinery, if you have a hunch something will work with only a minor repair that you're capable of doing, negotiate a good price and go for it.

That brings us to one final point: When you buy used, especially at a garage sale, don't be afraid to negotiate. In general, such sales are set up so that people can get rid of what they don't want. They're not trying to make back what they spent on the item; they're just trying to see if they can earn a little money before dumping the lot at the Salvation Army. So, ask before you shell out for a garage sale find -- you could save even more.

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