En español | Leaving that garage sale or yard sale or thrift store with an item you purchased for pennies on the dollar — like, say, a 10-cent electric toothbrush — can feel so empowering. But a real bargain should never leave you with regrets. It should never threaten the well-being of you or your family members. If the item doesn't properly function once you get it home, where's the bargain? And, ick, did someone actually stick that electric toothbrush in their mouth before you?
AARP asked the experts. We reached out to three thrift specialists who have each written books about garage sales and savvy spending on used items, and they shared their thoughts on the 10 used items you should never — under any circumstances — purchase.
1. Medicine — of any kind
This might seem like a five-alarm no-brainer, but that doesn't stop motivated sellers from trying to unload outdated and even used medications of all kinds at yard sales. Bruce Littlefield, author of Garage Sale America, remembers walking into a yard sale near Alexandria, Virginia, and seeing a used tube of Preparation H with a 25-cent price sticker on it. “The idea sends shivers up my spine,” he says. “The fact that someone wouldn't be embarrassed to sell that is shocking enough,” he says. Littlefield has also seen outdated prescription medications sold at garage sales. “That screams danger,” he says. Never, ever purchase any kind of prescription or nonprescription drugs of medications used, he advises. “Just do the right thing and get it at the pharmacy."
2. Anything for a newborn
This includes baby clothes, bottles, bedding, cribs, strollers and car seats, too. The problem: the unknown. You don't know who used them last and how they were potentially misused. You don't know if they were properly sterilized. You don't know if they've been recalled or redesigned for safety reasons. And you don't necessarily know if they are damaged or broken. “When it comes to baby stuff, it's always better to err on the side of caution and buy new,” says Kathy Ozzard Chism, author of Garage Sale Success Secrets: The Definitive Step-by-Step Guide to Turn Your Trash Into CA$H!
3. Mattresses, bedding, pillows and sheets
When you see a used mattress or pillow for sale, all you see is the mattress or pillow and not what you really need to see: its history. You don't know who or what slept on it. You don't know if it has dust mites, mold or bedbugs. This is way too much unknown to risk your health on, says Anita Chagaris, coauthor and publisher of Garage Sale Gourmet: Streetwise Shopping for Fun, Profit, and Home Improvement. Considering that each of us spends about one-third of our lives in bed, we should at least take the basic precaution to make sure the bed and bedding we sleep in do us no harm, she says. The one exception, Chagaris says, is if the bedding is still packaged and clearly has never been used — or if the bedding is going to be repurposed, say, to be washed and donated to a dog rescue.
4. Food items — of any kind
You shouldn't buy food items — even if they are still wrapped — secondhand. At estate sales, in particular, it's not unusual for every single thing to be pulled out of the kitchen cabinets — even the used bowl of sugar — and marked for quick sale, Littlefield says. But he strongly discourages purchasing any “used” food items, since you have no idea about their past. And Chism discourages eating any baked goods, such as chocolate-chip cookies, that might be enticingly placed on a yard-sale table because, once again, you have no idea what's in the food items or how and when they were made.
5. Perfumes, colognes, cosmetics or body lotions
Few things are more personal than those things that we rub or spray on our own bodies — so don't even consider purchasing these things used, Chism says. “Anything you rub or spray on your body is likely to enter your bloodstream within about 10 minutes — so why risk it being contaminated?” she asks. Used cosmetics, in particular, can be breeding grounds for germs and potential infections, add Chagaris.
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6. Upholstered furniture
If you're buying upholstered furniture of any kind — and you don't plan to completely reupholster it after you purchase it — you're making a huge mistake, Chagaris says. “You need to be extra cautious with any fabrics that can transfer bacteria,” she says. Much like used mattresses, she says, since you don't know the history of the furniture, you don't know what kinds of germs, dust mites or bedbugs might be lurking inside. So go crazy for wooden furniture, she says, but pass on upholstered.
7. Helmets for bikers, skiers, boarders or motorcycle riders
When you purchase a used helmet of any kind, you are basically purchasing a wish and a prayer. That's because you don't know if the helmet — typically built for onetime emergency use — already has served that function in a previous emergency and is now, basically, useless. Not only won't you have the full force of its protection, Littlefield says, but you also don't know if this particular helmet has been recalled or replaced by a newer model for safety reasons.
8. Stuffed animals
They can look so darned cute at yard sales or when strategically placed in thrift shops — all but daring you to purchase them for just a buck or two or three. Even if they have been washed and sanitized, you don't know how clean they really are, nor do you know how often the kid who previously owned it stuck the stuffed toy in his or her mouth while teething on it, Chism warns.
9. Pots and pans
These might seem like great bargains at yard sales or in thrift stores when you're asked to pay only a few dollars for items that can often cost $20, $30 or more. But used pots and pans typically come with all kinds of large and small scratches — and therein lies the danger, Chism says. Pots and pans that are rusted, scratched or burned can leak toxic chemicals that you don't want in your body — or the bodies of family members. Only purchase them new.
10. Puzzles and board games
Unless they are sealed — and have clearly never been opened — you are setting yourself up for disappointment if you purchase jigsaw puzzles or board games that are used, Littlefield says. Although he hasn't purchased used jigsaw puzzles himself, he says he has friends who have. After spending hours working on the puzzles, they later were disappointed to find that pieces were missing. It's very difficult at yard sales, garage sales and in thrift shops to verify that all their pieces are there. Used board games can be troublesome, too. Littlefield is still smarting from the vintage Password board game that he purchased used years ago, only to discover down the road that it was missing a critical piece. “You don't want to be fooled later,” he says. His password: “frustration.” Don't make it yours.
Bruce Horovitz is a contributing writer who covers personal finance and caregiving. He previously wrote for The Los Angeles Times and USA TODAY. Horovitz regularly writes for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Investor's Business Daily, AARP Magazine, AARP Bulletin, Kaiser Health News, and PBS Next Avenue.