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THE GOODS : A Chance to Clean Out--and Clean Up

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

If it’s Saturday morning in Los Angeles, there will be a garage sale nearby. Front yards piled with furniture, books, clothes and toys are as basic to the Southern California weekend landscape as real estate agents’ open houses.

And no matter how junky the front-yard merchandise looks, customers will materialize, on foot, by bicycle and in cars.

It’s part of a national phenomenon, says Monica Rix Paxson, a Chicago writer who has researched garage sales and checked them out all over the country.

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Paxson discovered that when it came to knowing how to put on a garage sale, “People are reinventing the wheel all over the place. Almost everybody attempts a garage sale at one time or the other, but when they try to organize it they start from scratch.”

So Paxson and her sister, Diana Rix, put together “The Complete Garage Sale Kit” (Sourcebooks Inc., 1994). “Our objectives are to make having a garage sale profitable, easy and fun,” Paxson says.

The book deals with every aspect of a garage sale, from setting a date (always a weekend) to getting rid of unsold items (call a charitable group that picks up). And the appendix offers checklists for every phase of the sale.

There also are work sheets, sample maps and flyers, and forms for receipts, bills of sale, and every possible sign and tag. “It’s a workbook,” Paxson says. “We’ve included ideas from marketing, advertising, design and display that work for small businesses, because that’s what a garage sale is.”

Although word of mouth can be effective, a classified ad in the local paper can pay off handsomely, says another expert, Les Schmeltz, who has written “The Backyard Money Machine” (Book World Services, 1993). If the major newspaper is too expensive, he says, check the neighborhood papers.

In addition to date, time and place (don’t include your phone number--dealers may start calling immediately), the ad needs to have a hook that will lure people to the sale. Paxson’s workbook offers tips for ads (“The Mother of All Garage Sales,” “Reformed Pack Rat Cleans Out”) and phrases psychologists have found persuasive (“Do You Love Treasure?”).

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She is also interested in the sociological reasons busy adults devote a perfectly good Saturday morning to poking through someone else’s unwanted dishes and broken TV sets. On one level, she says, garage sales represent “a projection of peoples’ hunting instincts.”

For this reason, one of her basic garage-sale laws is “the more, the better.” Unlike department store shoppers, garage sale customers find their thrill in finding the unexpected treasure, so quantity and variety are essential.

Collecting items for a garage sale is harder than it sounds and most people are too haphazard about it, Paxson says. “If there is one general mistake people make, it’s in waiting until the last minute to throw a garage sale together.”

She suggests ridding the house and its closets of anything you haven’t used in the last year.

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Because you can’t possibly anticipate what people will want (she cites the shopper who bought a half-used tube of ointment), don’t waste energy debating what might sell--just pitch in everything, remembering that garage sales attract collectors of every stripe.

“We were always surprised when we sold out odd things like construction materials, old doors, the odd box of ceiling tiles or the single roll of wallpaper,” she says. In other words, almost anything will sell if it is priced appropriately.

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Paxson sets a benchmark price of 20% to 30% of replacement retail value for most merchandise and much lower for clothing.

Schmeltz recommends asking 25% to 30% of the replacement retail value. Children’s clothing in good condition can bring an even higher price, he says.

But these are only guidelines and the fallback position is to just ask yourself what price seems reasonable. Paxson and Schmeltz recommend items be priced in advance to save time at the sale.

Never guarantee items, Paxson warns, and be careful not to mistakenly sell a valuable antique. Don’t sell limited editions, grandma’s table, Aunt Emily’s costume jewelry or your father’s stamp collection without getting an appraisal, unless you want to offer a bigger bargain than anyone expects. “If you are not an expert, consult someone who is,” Paxson says.

A little caution is important, says Margo Dennis of Consignment Cottage on Larchmont. Having handled estate sales since 1976, she is convinced that Los Angeles is the “garage-sale center of the country,” partly because people are moving continuously.

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Her list of preventive tips includes placing good items in a secure place (theft can be a problem), having enough people to help you and never letting anyone inside your house. “In fact,” she says, “you should keep the shades and draperies pulled so no one can see inside.” With valuable items, she says, have a bottom-line price and be comfortable about saying no if the bid goes lower.

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Other basic garage sale wisdom:

* Involve as many people as possible. Ask your neighbors to participate and think about having a block sale. This means more merchandise, the key way to attract customers.

* Not everyone reads the classifieds. Put advance flyers in grocery stores, churches, Laundromats, libraries, schools, health clubs or gyms and bowling alleys. Tape signs on your car doors for a rolling advertisement, and don’t worry about making a fool of yourself. This is just good marketing.

* A little time spent cleaning up items will pay off in profits. Kitchen utensils are good sellers, but only if they have been scoured. Launder clothes and linens, and polish whatever is supposed to shine. Test electrical appliances and tag them “It Works” or “It Doesn’t Work.” As you arrange displays, keep similar items together.

* Although clothing gets a bad rap as a garage sale item, that’s because it usually isn’t properly displayed. Putting it on hangers on racks or clotheslines can overcome peoples’ reluctance to dig through piles of clothes.

* Get rid of toys by letting your kids run their own toy sale booth. Promote it with signs on playgrounds and recreational centers.

* Even though you have prices on items, understand that dickering is part of a garage sale. If you’re too sensitive for this, post signs that say “Prices Firm as Marked.”

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* Consider a refreshment stand. Offer free coffee, or sell coffee, lemonade or iced tea, along with cookies and brownies. It makes the sale more fun as well as more profitable.

* Bored, fractious children distract parents from looking and buying. To keep their parents browsing, occupy children by setting off an area with colored chalk or crayons and a big roll of paper.

* If there’s any possibility the family dog may cause a problem, board it out for the day. A dog barking or growling in the background does not encourage carefree shopping.

* Name tags that identify your garage sale helpers and cashier make the atmosphere friendlier. If customer traffic is light, move around and straighten the tables. “There is nothing stranger than being the only shopper at a sale where a bunch of people are sitting behind tables, staring at your every move,” Paxson says.

And how much money can you hope to make? “The quality of your stuff can make a difference,” Paxson says, “but it isn’t unusual for a sale to take in between $800 and $1,200.”

There Are Limits

Some people are too good at having garage sales. In recent years they have become a recessionary business with many entrepreneurs whose front lawns and driveways are perpetually stacked with secondhand (and sometimes new) merchandise.

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This has resulted in a surge of ordinances as many cities--including Burbank, Inglewood, Santa Monica and West Hollywood--try to prevent yard sales from becoming ongoing flea markets. Some cities require permits for a nominal fee. Although the City of Los Angeles has drafted an ordinance that would limit residential garage sales to two a year, it has not yet come before the City Council.

In the meantime, Los Angeles code enforcement officers follow informal guidelines for residential zones that allow for “occasional” sales to dispose of items that are legitimate household discards. No permit is necessary.

Three or more garage sales a year is considered a business and can be subject to prosecution on zoning violations, a City Council spokeswoman says. “If you feel your neighbor is not getting rid of discards but is basically running a business, you can register a complaint, and Building and Safety will send out an inspector for a judgment call,” she says.

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