Garage sales are a win-win in this economy

Hoping to earn some extra money to pay her mounting bills, Francesca Nichols posted an ad on Craigslist: “Giant Yard Sale -- Everything Must Go!”

So at 5:30 a.m. last Saturday morning, she and her husband filled their Valencia driveway with purchases made during better times: a wooden dresser, top-of-the-line child car seats, a hand-painted mirror and piles of expensive clothes.

Two hours later, Nichols waved a wad of bills and smiled. “Wow, honey,” she said to her husband.


Unfortunately, their total earnings for the day -- $275 (plus $8 from their son’s lemonade stand) -- won’t go far. Nichols and her husband are both unemployed; he was laid off from Wells Fargo last summer, and she recently took a stress leave from a car sales company after her pay was cut four times in six months. They have more than $30,000 in credit card debt and a $2,400 monthly mortgage payment. But Nichols, 40, said every bit helps.

“I have never been in this situation before,” she said. “I have got to find a way out.”

Garage sale season is getting underway in Southern California, but in yet another sign of the recession, many families are holding sales out of necessity. And some buyers are new to the yard sale circuit, realizing they can no longer afford to shop at the mall.

“I believe that this year will see more garage sales than ever before,” said Bruce Littlefield, author of the 2007 book “Garage Sale America.” “The recession sort of shook us a little bit and made us realize we all have more than we really need. That includes big-ticket items.”

Littlefield, who maintains a blog about garage sales, said they are good for both sides.

“The win for the seller is that they are getting rid of things that they no longer need or want, and they are getting some pocket change,” he said. “For the buyer, they are going to get things for dimes on the dollar, and they are going to discover that spending a little cash money is a lot easier at the end of the month when the credit card bill comes.”

Over the last year, garage sale postings on Craigslist have increased by 50% in the Los Angeles area and 80% nationwide. The site has seen a “strong uptick” in garage sale postings as users “de-clutter their homes and make a few spare dollars to pad their wallets,” said spokeswoman Susan MacTavish Best.

Nichols said that when she and her husband were both doing well, they didn’t think about money -- buying themselves and their 5-year-old son, Noah, anything they wanted. Now, she said, they are selling everything they don’t need, including a turtle tank, sheets, an inflatable pool, a massage chair, a TV stand and an air mattress.

During the sale, a shopper paid $10 and walked away with a T-ball set, stuffed animals, shower curtain rods, a cloth high-chair cover and Spider-Man glasses.

“Mom, I wanted the Spider-Man glasses to keep!” Noah protested.

Another shopper, Maria Ual, who is nine months pregnant, said she bought everything new for her first child but is shopping at garage sales for her second. Though she still has a nursing job, Ual, 33, said she was looking for ways to cut costs.

Ual held up a baby carrier. “How about $10?” Nichols said. “It was only $150 new.” Ual passed, but bought a book, a few toy cars and a rattle, all for $3.

Sean Nichols, 38, said he was optimistic that their situation would improve. He borrowed money from his grandmother to complete a course in medical billing and hoped to find a job soon.

“You can’t sit around and hope when you have children,” he said. “You can’t afford to.”

Several sellers, including Wesley Wong, said that in the past, they donated belongings they no longer wanted to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. But now it’s different.

In February, Wong, 44, lost his six-figure job as a director of warehouse operations. His wife still had her job as a clerk for the city of Alhambra, but Wong said they could use some extra cash.

“We have to be a little more modest about what we do,” he said as he sat in front of his Monterey Park house, waiting for customers to buy shoes, a Disney music box and an old backpack, among other items.

“Don’t you need a typewriter?” he asked customers Alejandro Granados, 42, and his wife, Maria, 48. “With the recession, they’ll be coming back in style.”

The Granadoses laughed. They owned a store in South L.A., but business was down. Worse, a home they purchased two years ago had dropped in value and they had recently stopped paying their mortgage, the first step toward foreclosure.

Wong said that right now he wasn’t feeling too stressed about being unemployed because he still had some savings. Although he felt confident he’d be able to find a job eventually, Wong said he hoped it wouldn’t take longer than expected.

“I don’t need to make as much money as before for us to live comfortably,” he said.


Rhonda Johnson, 50, hasn’t lost her job to the recession. In fact, she has two. But the economic crisis still had her hurriedly arranging years of belongings on a recent Sunday -- Coach bags, books, CDs, designer jeans -- in front of the garage at her Arcadia condominium. Her yard sale was about getting rid of clutter and making extra money during uncertain times, but it was also a recession-induced exorcism of her old self.

“The days of buying things to impress people I don’t know, with money I don’t have, are over,” she said. “I no longer need to make a fashion statement. I’m taking the path of meat and potatoes, and forget trying to be a fashionista. My days of running in high heels are over.”

Johnson recently sold her condominium for $388,000 and escrow had closed for her buyers just days before. But now -- with institutions antsy about lending -- she is struggling to get financing for a home in Duarte she had planned to move to with her three children.

“This whole economic crisis has forced me to get a lot of stuff gone from my life and sold so that I can find a temporary place to stay for now,” said Johnson, who works as a secretary at a lab in Monrovia and does medical transcriptions from home.

Erika Perez, 35, picked up a Coach bag that Johnson had bought for $300. Johnson wanted $40. Perez asked if she would take $30. They agreed on $35.

Perez, a Guatemalan immigrant who works at a bakery, said she stumbled upon a yard sale two weeks ago where the prices were so low that she wondered whether the seller wasn’t being driven by desperation. Perez said she bought two living room tables for $50. “Everything was almost free,” she said. “I got some stuff for my house, for my kitchen, my living room. It was nice.”

Steve Seay, 30, and his fiancee had another reason for their Woodland Hills sale over the weekend -- their upcoming wedding. The recession forced them to abandon plans to marry in Hawaii, but they still needed to raise money to pay for their reception.

Seay said his fiancee works at a home-building company and has seen her hours cut in recent months. And business for Seay, a personal chef, has dropped by half.

In the past, he said, he would cook a family dinner on Friday night. “Now it’s pizza night,” he said. “That’s all Domino’s.”

They are able to pay the bills on their town house, Seay said, but are behind on their homeowners association dues.

When they announced they were having a garage sale, friends and family rallied, donating tables, DVD players, vintage clothes, jewelry and Civil War books. And the couple set out several of their own rugs, a couch, electronics and DVDs. Altogether the couple cleared more than $1,000.

“It’s kind of cool in one way, because we have a lot more space,” he said. “In the other way, it’s depressing. . . . This stuff was from a time when you were doing OK and you could afford to be frivolous. I can’t remember the last time it was like that.”