"Bought it at a garage sale. Isn't it great?"
That's a common refrain in the cost-conscious 1990s, as American consumers fan out into their neighborhoods each weekend in search of bargain-priced items unloved by their owners.
Whether they're old tools, used electronic gear, toys, glassware, jewelry, furniture or valuable antiques, usable items are awaiting the right offer from a shrewd wheeler-dealer such as yourself.
The more organized cousin of the garage sale, the flea market, is also going strong, though some have been "corrupted" by the sale of new merchandise such as T-shirts and sunglasses.
The best places to learn about regularly scheduled flea markets of various sizes are the classified ad sections of local newspapers or specialized collector and antique publications.
There are potential treasures, if you know what you're doing.
"Two years ago I found a pair of military mittens selling for $2 at a flea market in Florida, where mittens obviously aren't in demand, and bought them for $1," related Harry Rinker Jr., author of the "Price Guide to Flea Market Treasures" (Wallace-Homestead Book Co., $19.95).
They were $100 U.S. Army experimental Arctic weather mittens that Mr. Rinker had heard about. He later sold them for a significant sum.
"It's always a question of what you're willing to pay, so if you have a fixed price in your head, barter toward that amount," counseled Mr. Rinker. "Lately, there's been a bigger push for collectible newer toys, not just the older Barbies and such, with knowledgeable collectors out in full force bidding up prices."
You'll get the best buys if you've done your homework and know what items are worth.
"Every Thursday you see people in neighborhoods tacking up signs about upcoming garage sales, and these days they're much more aware of the value of what they're selling because they follow price guides and appraisal books," said Emyl Jenkins, author of "Emyl Jenkins' Appraisal Book" (Crown Publishing, $15).
"Items from the 1960s are popular," said Cara Greenberg, contributing editor of Arts and Antiques magazine. "Cereal boxes, balloon-tire bicycles, McDonald's giveaways, toy action figures, Pez dispensers and Swatch watches are in demand."
Once an individual masters a category, it's easy to transfer basic criteria to other areas. Condition of an item is most important, as well as how old it is and whether it's an original. Worthless reproductions have been made in all eras, so learn what represents real quality, Mr. Jenkins advised.
Unless you're a professional, use only discretionary income to buy at garage sales and flea markets, and don't believe the hype that you'll be snapping up $10,000 toys each week for pennies.
Should you decide to conduct your own garage sale, be organized and keep track of all items, especially valuables such as silver or linens. Consult a reputable local appraiser to evaluate expensive items. Make a sign explaining pieces are sold "as is." Check to see what's in good working condition and price accordingly. Decide whether you're willing to barter or haggle over prices.
Not just secondhand goods but fine antiques and collectibles as well are featured at many large flea markets held around the country.
"More than 3,000 dealers are represented at our three shows each year in Brimfield, Mass., the world's largest antique and collectible gathering," explained Robert Brown, publisher of the Brimfield Antique Guide, a newspaper that comes out three times a year. (Call 413-245-9329.) People flock to them no matter what the economy."
Those shows, staged at Route 20 in Brimfield, are held in May, July and September. Each runs six days, starting on the Tuesday before the first full weekend of those months.