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Bargains by the Yard


Susan Weitzel stands poised, slim figure alert and eyes bright, like a cat about to pounce on unsuspecting prey.

Her prey is a scruffy little table with long spindly legs. It lurks in the middle of a jumble of well-used toys, old garden tools and some disreputable-looking books, all spilling over a front yard of a small Baltimore County house.

"Expect lots of disappointments and lots of surprises when you shop yard sales," the Annapolis-based interior designer explains as she upends the table, which is priced at a modest $10.

You or I might have passed it by without a second glance, but Weitzel moves this and opens that and voila! Suddenly she's unfolded a sewing machine -- one that if not an antique is pretty darn close.

We're following the designer around on a beautiful Saturday morning to see how an expert, one with an artist's eye, shops yard sales. Enough of this buying other people's junk just because it's cheap and then regretting it. We want to uncover the hidden treasure, the "Antiques Roadshow" find.

"Why go to Home Depot and buy a rake for $30 when you can buy a perfectly good one here for $1?" she asks rhetorically. Of course, the yard sale rake doesn't look as good as a shiny new one, but it has all its parts. Unfortunately it's already in another shopper's hand.

The new owner grabs her rake a little tighter and hurries to her car. Weitzel decides she's uncovered all that she's going to uncover here and heads off to the yard that's next on her list.

(Aside to yard sale shoppers: Keep alert for unadvertised sales on the way to the one you've found in the classifieds. Tim Staab, whose stuff this is, explains that he decided to hold his sale when he saw there would be one around the corner.

"On Stevenson Lane," he adds, "you don't have to advertise. People cruise along here every Saturday looking for yard sales.")

From Weitzel, we want tips.

And she has them.

* Examine things closely before you give up on them. Look underneath. (Remember that sewing machine.)

* "If you walk a block to get to the house and no one you pass is carrying anything away from the sale, that's a problem," she says.

* "Shirts hanging up and fluttering in the breeze are not a good sign." (Clothes don't sell well at yard sales unless they're vintage wear.)

* And most important: "Get there early. If you're a real hunter, drive by the day before, scout out the locations and pick your mark."

All dedicated yard sale shoppers know the posted start time is just a sham unless the ad says "No early birds." Dealers and amateurs alike arrive half an hour or an hour early to get the good stuff. The worst that can happen is that the seller will ask you to come back at the appointed time.

Unfortunately you can only get to one or at the most two sales early, so you need to decide from the ads or addresses which are most likely to yield good results.

Ads, we've learned this Saturday morning, aren't always reliable. Yard sale holders aren't terribly concerned with truth in advertising.

"Antiques" can mean "something my dad owned." "Furniture" could be a couple of lawn chairs. And "jewelry" may be stuff the girls bought at Woolworth's.

Another sale we find in the classifieds promises "Multi," which means multi-family and therefore more potential treasures in one place. That place is Ruxton, no less, a promisingly affluent neighborhood. Alas, the sale holders turn out to be one extended family; and the sale is to benefit St. Johns Chapel, a tiny, historic church. Knowing the sale is for a good cause makes it hard to bargain, one of the pleasures of yard sale shopping. Still, Weitzel picks up a weathered American flag for $5.

Veteran buyers say that most sellers expect you to bargain and price their goods accordingly. You should always offer less and see what happens. But not everyone agrees.

"Don't think you always have to bargain if they seem reasonably priced," says B. J. Berti, a yard sale aficionado and author of the just-published "Flea Market Makeovers" (Clarkson Potter). "But if you want to, ask politely. 'Can you take such-and-such for this?' Most of the time people are asking what's pretty fair. But it's important not to feel you're being taken advantage of."

Berti's best find at a yard sale was two outdoor folding chairs, which she bought for $5 each. "They're probably cedar, from the '20s or '30s. I painted them bright turquoise and use them all the time."

Rather than going early, she recommends going late. "I like to sleep," says Berti, who lives in New York.

"Go when they're ready to close up," she says, when the seller's choice is either to slice his prices or to lug the stuff back in the house. "I've gotten nice china and glassware at better prices, and on bigger pieces of furniture I haven't even had to bargain."

Susan Weitzel happens to be excellent at dickering, never suggesting that the seller has priced his wares too high but simply asking if, say, a Roland Park homeowner will take $10 for a few ancient tools in a toolbox handmade from an old fruit crate. The owner insists on the original price of $15, which she pays with good grace.

Later Weitzel has the tools unofficially appraised at $225; antique tools are a desirable collectible.

She and other yard sale veterans take cash with them. Some sellers will accept checks, but cash is better for bargaining. You might, for instance, wave a $20 bill in front of the seller if the price is $30 and see what happens.

When Weitzel finds a promising yard sale, she also doesn't hesitate to ask if the seller has anything else inside he might want to part with.

"There's stuff they might want to sell but maybe just didn't get out," she explains. "You have nothing to lose by asking."

Weitzel, of course, is a pro at finding treasures among the junk. Most of us aren't so talented.

B. J. Berti recommends looking for furnishings that "have good bones."

"Even if it's not in good condition," she says, "even if it's shabby, some old things are so well constructed they really clean up well. Look again after you've looked once."

And if you're a diehard, says Weitzel, go through every box. "And hope the people selling the stuff don't watch 'Antiques Roadshow.' If you're really a hunter, you have to have patience. ... Don't get discouraged. Like anything else, there's always one place that has something, while most of the others aren't going to be good."

Caveat Emptor -- but have fun as well

Veteran yard sale shoppers, including Beth Wechsler, author of "The Yard Sale Shopper's Companion" (Seak, 1999) offer these suggestions:

* Go early for the best stuff, late for the best bargains.

* Plan your most efficient route the night before.

* Take cash.

* Peruse the classifieds, including community papers, but keep an eye out for unadvertised sales.

* Check items carefully and ask questions, but understand that "as is" is the rule.

* Keep moving. Interior designer Susan Weitzel can take one look; and if she doesn't have a good feeling about the offerings, she heads for the next yard on her list.

* Keep an eye out for beautiful old linens, vintage handbags, old doctor's bags with instruments, good jewelry among the costume jewelry and other potentially valuable collectibles, as well as things you can use.

* Don't buy it just because it's cheap. Remember, the seller is trying to get you to take what he thinks is junk off his hands. If it's not something you love or need, it'll become your junk.

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