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Yard sale ethics: Bargain or rip-off?

Getting a good deal at a yard sale is one thing. Taking advantage of the seller's ignorance is another.

By MSN Money Partner Apr 22, 2011 5:00PM

This guest post comes from J. Money at Budgets are Sexy.


I woke up one recent morning feeling pretty bad about something. You're going to laugh when I tell you what it is, but I really can't help what pops in my head. You just never know what you're gonna get with that brain of mine sometimes.


OK, so here's what came to mind when I woke up:

"I think I ripped that girl off at the yard sale last year."

What? Why was I just NOW thinking about that? And why didn't it come to me during that yard sale last year? I have no idea, but let me give you the quick scoop so I can get your thoughts on it.


Last year when we were traveling around Seattle and parts of Victoria, B.C. (where I fell in love with my house boats!) we had a couple hours to kill so we decided to go to yard sales. We've been doing this since I was just a wee little kid, and any chance we have to do it together again as a family we jump on it.

At one of the sales I came across this little bag of weird-looking (fake) coins that had a sticker of 25 cents on it. I don't know why I picked it up in the first place, but the second I put it down I noticed that it had a much heavier, cooler-looking coin hanging out at the bottom of the bag.


So I took it out and, after a few seconds of looking it over, I realized that this was: a) not a fake coin at all, actually, and b) was most DEF worth more than 25 cents! I didn't know exactly how much at the time, but I knew I had my iPhone in the car and could find out in about 2.3 seconds. 


And this is where my feeling bad comes in -- only to fester for eight months apparently, and then have me wake up in the morning to it.


Because these were the next few thoughts out of my head at the yard sale:

  1. Pretend you don't know you just came across something valuable (which would have been a lot easier had I not picked it out and yelled, "Mom! Look at this!")
  2. Hurry up and pay for it so you can hightail it outta there!
  3. And lastly, make sure to pay MORE than 25 cents for it.

That last part was me justifying the sale so I wouldn't feel *as* bad later. I think I ended up giving her a dollar. Which, interestingly enough, was exactly what I had found -- 1 troy ounce of silver, otherwise known as a silver dollar. 


Now, it wasn't worth as much as I had thought it was going to be. (I was hoping for $50 to $80 since it was 25 years old and looked antique-like.) But it is valued anywhere from $13 to $20, depending on what silver’s going for that day. And either way, worth MUCH more than 25 cents.


So the question this brings up is: At what point does a "bargain" become "taking advantage of"? Is there a certain threshold that would change your mind one way or the other? (For example, the difference between the value of the coin and what I paid for it is roughly $14, or 1,400% more. But would it have made a difference if it was worth $1,000 instead?)

And does it really matter anyway since all parties agreed to the deal in the first place?


Obviously for me *something* mattered or else I wouldn't have woken up feeling bad about it. But I'm curious to see what you all think.


I don't know how I would have changed this looking back, other than offering more money since I knew it was worth a lot more, but then again that's why you go to yard sales to begin with, right? To get a steal? And I've been rockin' deals my entire life, so that's surely not going to change. I dunno.


I guess for me it has more to do with the fact that I KNEW it wasn't a silly little coin, and the seller did not -- even though we all walked away happier. Maybe I should have just told her that.


More on Budgets are Sexy and MSN Money:

Jul 12, 2011 8:19AM

There was a case I saw some years ago where a man purchased a rock at an amateur rock show from a young boy for a few dollars.....turns out it was one of the largest star sapphires ever found valued at something like 2.3 million at the time.  The man knew it was quite valuable at the time of the purchase.....maybe not quite that valuable.   There ended up being a lawsuit over the rock.  Not sure what happened in the end but i would think that ignorance of something's value would make no difference. Tough cookie, but the milks still warm.....Something's value is determined by what someone is willing to pay for it, nothing more.  Once a legitimate transaction has occurred, that's it. 

I believe there is a woman truck driver that bought a picture at a garage sale that later was believed to be a Jackson Pollack original....she was trying to get the art world to acknowledge the painting without much you think she was worried about giving more money to the person that sold it to her?

Antiques road show is full of people who paid next to nothing for items that turn out to be worth a lot more...........

How a bout the guy who bought an old blanket for a few bucks only to find out it was a chiefs blanket and was described by the show as a "national treasure" worth many hundreds of thousands?

Jun 26, 2011 3:04PM
I go to a lot of garage sales. My first rule of thumb, both as a buyer or a seller, is that a garage sale item should be priced at about 10% of its original value. If the item is like new, in the box, a collectors item or a tool I stretch it to 20% but that is where I draw the line. If I walk up to a garage sale and see items are priced above these thresholds I quickly turn around and exit.

Secondly, sellers are more likely to bargain with you or sell you an item that they have some emotional attachment to if they can identify with you. Be friendly, greet the seller when you walk up, respect their offerings no matter how old or dirty they appear (I'm talking about the items here) and let them know that you will take care of the item if you suspect an emotional attachment. THEN, make them a fair offer. In my experience this works about 90% of the time.

Third, you may find some of the best items early in the morning but you will get the best deals at the end of the sale especially if it is a very hot or cold day. Nobody wants to drag that stuff back in the garage or end up donating it if they can recover at least a few bucks for it now.

And last but not least, since most of the garage sales that I frequent are close to my neighborhood I found that some of the best treasures are the people that I meet. You get to see the books they have read, the music they've played, the places they've visited and much more without asking a single question. It is a very innocent way to feel people out and a friend may be the ultimate find!  

May 26, 2011 11:04PM

      I am an avid thrift store/ yard sale shopper and I have found some VERY good deals over the years.  I do not feel guilty about my finds.  To me, it depends on this:  If the item is priced and I pay the price then it is a purchase.  The seller had to pick it up and examine it in order to price it and should have known that it was of some greater value.  However, if, for example, I bought a purse and got it home to find a diamond ring in the bottom of one of the pockets, I would then feel some obligation to take it back to the seller and offer to give it back.  I look at it this way:  If I paid top dollar to buy a painting that I thought was valuable and it turned out to be a copy of an original but the seller never claimed it was real, should they be obligated to return my money?  No, it would be my fault, not theirs.  Let the buyer beware.  That goes for the seller, also!  

     The strangest, but not the most valuable, deal I ever made was when going through some junk jewelry priced at 25 cents per item I came across a $2 bill that had been folded to form a ring.  I told the lady in charge but she said it was okay to take it for the 25 cent price.  I could stand deals like that all day long!


Apr 23, 2011 1:02PM

People set their prices for their merchandise. So, when I buy, I don't try to make sure they get the market value. It's a yard sale. I picked up a very nice mink stole and asked the price. The guy said, "$1, it's not even real." Yes, it was. I took it to the car, got my dollar, and paid him. I feel no guilt.


I know antiques and prices. It is not my job to make sure people get more than they are asking. If I wanted to pay top dollar, I would only shop at antique stores.


Sometimes, when I see an item underpriced and I don't want it and the seller is poor, I take it to the homeowner and tell them what to price is more in line. If they have a vase for a quarter and it is worth $20, I tell them to put $5 on it. I refuse to pay antique store prices for merchandise at a yard sale. So do most people.


I bought a male urinal, green enamel with the manufacturer's sticker still on it for a quarter. Less than 24 hours later, I sold it for $8 at a friend's yard sale. I paid the price asked...nothing more and nothing less.


If I bought something and got $10K for it later, I would be inclined to go back and give the person a $100 gift.


I cannot be responsible for how people price their yard sale offerings.

Apr 22, 2011 9:15PM
How many people, in this day and age, really couldn't have looked it up themselves if they felt motivated?  That's just it -- when people hold yard sales, they know that they are not going to get close to the value of a lot of what they're selling, but are not motivated to do other things like listing them online or whatever.  It probably would make a difference if it was worth $1,000.  As it is, $13-20 is barely worth an hour's time.
Apr 22, 2011 8:09PM
When I hold a yard sale, I accept the fact that the items I have for sale are things I have determined I not longer want/need.  It is my responsibility as an adult to make sure what I put out for sale isn't a diamond in the rough (strangely I don't like pricing certain items anyway since folks will generally offer more for it that I would have asked if they value the item).  I don't think you should feel guilty...we all find unexpected treasures on occasion....and on the part of the seller, there's a reason why there are stacks of old sports cards my husband collected when he was little, waiting for us to go through them.  We don't want to sell something for way less than its worth, but at some point our time and space may become more valuable than checking each one before they journey to a new home.  Long and short...sellers responsibility.  You were hoping the coin was worth a lot, it was worth more than you got if for, but really, not thousands of dollars.  Rest easy.
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