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Cleaning up at garage sales

Clocks and socks. Dollies and doilies. Expect the unexpected at America's biggest, ongoing bargain-a-thons -- garage sales, aka yard or tag sales -- where you really can experience serendipity for a song.

Where else can you expect to find treasures for a trifle, neat stuff for nearly nothing and handy-dandies for a dime? Nowhere, of course, which is why it's the rare person who can resist nosing around his neighbor's unwanted wares.

Now, by slight contrast, flea markets are more fertile grounds for "finds," rather than "steals." At these markets, vendors offer the opportunity to buy non-mass-produced merchandise you may not find elsewhere -- e.g., a local craftsperson's jewelry -- or, at the other extreme, super-mass-produced goods at lower-than-retail-shop prices.

Of course, the other big difference between garage sales and flea markets is that the latter offers generally new items, unless, of course they're (duh!) antiques. However, if you don't know a Chippendale chair from a Chippendales dancer -- and the vast majority of us don't -- it's best to confine your "antique" purchases to items that please your eye and your budget.

But even though garage sales and flea markets offer bargains, there are rules for getting the most bang for your buck. As someone who writes the "Shopping Around" column for two New York newspapers, and who spends much of her spare time shopping around, I offer up these tips for smooth "saling."

Read all about it
• Ever wonder what all those notices you ignore on supermarket bulletin boards, lampposts and tree trunks say? Some of them are inviting you to the best bargain bonanzas in your very own neighborhood -- check 'em out.

• Scan the classifieds in your community newspapers, as well as your local "Pennysaver," for sale announcements.

• Do a little homework. If you're in the market for a particular product, there are scads of price listings and guides you can check online or in your local library or bookstore, giving you general parameters.

Dress for success
What you wear -- and what you tote -- can make the difference between fizzling fast or staying the course.

• Wear "second-skin" leotards, tights and/or T-shirts, so you're still modestly covered after peeling off outer layers for clothing try-ons. (What, you expect mirrored dressing rooms?)

• Wear a fanny pack (filled with small bills and change), so you can browse hands-free.

• Sunglasses, a weatherproof hat, an extra sweater, reading glasses and a magnifier are all things that may prove extremely helpful. You already know about the sensible shoes, right?

• Consider bringing shopping bags, as well as empty cartons and rope, for securing large purchases to your car's roof. (Speaking of large, you may be very glad, indeed, that you jotted down the measurements of your doorways and rooms', and also toted a tape measure.)

• Bring a friend -- humans are very handy for help in toting and for giving feedback.

Next: "Skip the 'tween' hours."
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