First – rummage sales that benefit some organization are the best, along with moving sales. The reason is that people will often donate more to a benefit rummage sale than they would to a thrift shop because they’re doing something good for an identifiable cause or organization they care about by donating. Moving sales are usually triggered by ‘we have to clean out the house’ and ‘we just can’t take that with us’ as motivators, precipitating more energetic tosses on the ‘to sell’ pile. Estate sales can be iffy; if done by a company that handles them professionally, look for prices that are higher and less of the useful ‘stuff’ than at most other sales because they are doing it to make a profit. If done by the family, you might find a lot of things that the kids or whoever didn’t want, and in that case you might find good deals on old tools and the like.
Some things to look for:
Hand tools. Look for quality and good condition; ignore a lack of chrome if there’s also a lack of rust, and check functionality (smooth action, stiffness can often be relieved by cleaning and penetrating oil). Pliers, screwdrivers, socket sets and the like are good finds. Saws may or may not be good; might need sharpening. You might find some hardware, like bolts or containers of nails, as well.
Books. Look for things that interest you (such as your favorite genre for reading later, if they’re cheap) as well as current how-to titles you can put in your library. Encyclopedias may not make the cut; try Freecycle or Craigslist for those, and stick with the late 80’s or 90’s versions to have something (at least geologically speaking) reasonably current. Educational books, as for teaching reading, or books on algebra or scientific topics if you anticipate being in a teaching capacity at some point.
Craft supplies. ‘Nuff said. Well, if you’re a crafter, that is. Otherwise, ask the crafty person in your entourage if they want the bottle of bright pink glitter.
Can openers. The one who dies with the most can openers…wait, that’s fabric. Never mind. You can never have enough can openers, and make sure they aren’t all clustered in one spot.
Sewing supplies. Not craft supplies like glitter and the like, but rather buttons, thread, fabric, and so on. Be careful of fabric, though; you won’t know the contents unless there’s yardage and the selvage states it (not all cottons and blends do) and wooly fabrics can be anything from wool to a crappy blend that won’t hold up to wear. Good place to find fleece remnants, and those tend to be similar in content; sew big squares together to make comforters. Look for heavy-weight fabrics for making tote bags and the like; avoid obviously dated fabric without listed content as it could have a lot of polyester in it and polyester rots faster than cotton.
Flannel and wool shirts, outdoor jackets and similar items. Personally, I don’t usually like buying used clothing but this is an area in which I’ll make an exception. Wool shirts (look for holes in sleeves and the amount of wear in the back collar) can be an excellent cover up in cool weather when a coat’s just too much or when you want to layer for changeable weather. Quality flannel can serve much the same purpose (except in the coldest weather). Outdoor jackets: look for a lack of tears and rips, proper zipper functionality and check to see how it needs to be cleaned and any other pertinent info. If you find overalls or wool pants, those might be good as well, but check the size and remember that wool can be scratchy and you might need something underneath it.
Building toys, like Legos.
Pots, pans, and baking dishes. Look for things that you can use in an emergency and not feel bad about (like you would if you were using your Calphalon cookware over the fire (I have to admit to having one Calphalon pan). Revere Ware often shows up at sales, and it’s stainless with a copper bottom, good for making soup or just boiling water. Check the bottom of the pan or pot to see if it says it’s ‘clad’; that often means it’s an aluminum or copper core clad in stainless, which is easy to clean even after it’s got stuff burned on it (if you don’t get carried away - voice of experience [blush]). Large pots and pans and canning kettles are also good finds; on canning kettles, if they are enameled, check to see that there’s no rust or chips, and with large pots and pans, unless you’re looking for something just to boil water in, try to find the lid. Baking dishes: cookie sheets made from aluminum are raw material as well as something you can use over the fire or in an oven if you have one. Look for bread and other pans without rust.
Ugly potholders. Ones you can use in an emergency to grab a pot off the fire with and not be heartbroken that they got dirty or damaged. Look for old cotton crocheted potholders or ones made from fabric that are fairly new as they probably have insulation in them and never use them when they are damp or wet; the heat can make steam and burn you.
Canning jars. With rings, if the rings aren’t rusted. Pick a size that works for you and stick to that size for ease of use; pick up a bunch of jam jars if you’re in the mood, but a standard size means it’s easier to jar up a batch of whatever, knowing the amount the recipe will make to begin with and helps with getting lids when they’re on sale as you only have to worry about one size. And remember paraffin has a lot of uses around the house, like for easing sticky drawers, but it is NOT recommended for canning or making jam. You can make people sick if you use paraffin.
Gardening tools. Small hand tools and large ones, like shovels; look for solid handles and a lack of rust. Be aware that anything that cuts might need sharpening.
Office supplies. You can pick up labels and photo paper, but I’m thinking more of the basics, such as a stapler and staples, paper clips and all those other little bits and bobs that make dealing with paper and organizing things easier. Erasers. Pencils, crayons, colored pencils, lined paper, etc.
Miscellaneous: keep a mental list of the things you need for your projects and keep an eye out. You might find just the thing you’re looking for, whether the project is a wreath of flowers for décor or some washers in just the right size you’ve been needing. Found two men’s silk ties (for a craft project) once for an exorbitant sum for the pair, but then under another table found medium sized bolt cutters for a buck, which was worth more than the price of the ties combined and something I didn’t have in my tools. Same garage sale, found two configurable sprinkler heads for a quarter each, and those usually run at least $8 new. Three bargains right there because I kept my eye out.
Always look for quality. Don’t buy a project (something that needs fixing) unless you have the materials, time and will end up with a useable, worthwhile item. Exceptions exist, such as furniture that needs recovering or painting, but don’t make work for yourself.
If you see something for $10 and you only have $8 on you, ask if they’ll take less, but don’t insult someone by offering $2 for an item that really is worth the $5 they’re asking and something you need when it was originally $20 new and you plan on keeping and using it for a long time. Some people don’t mind dickering and toward the end of the day just want to get rid of stuff, but be mindful of their stress at having to move or downsize or whatever and don’t add to it. Be especially careful when dickering at an estate sale if done by the family; that’s their parents’ or grandparents’ things, as while they might have taken those things they wanted, they may still have sentimental value to the person. Don’t nickel and dime when you see quality.