Spring is that peculiar time of year when we clean out our garages and attics so we can rush out to yard sales, garage sales and thrift stores to land bargains on stuff that others are cleaning out of their own garages and attics.
There’s one savvy way to win this cycle: by purchasing only those items you can feel confident buying secondhand. But how can you tell what’s a really smart used purchase? We’ve got you covered. AARP reached out to four thrift-shopping gurus, who say these 10 items are the very best to buy used.
Books always have been and always will be just about the best thing to buy used. “They are the ultimate good-to-buy-used category,” says Kate Holmes, a resale industry consultant and author of Too Good to Be Threw: The Complete Operations Manual for Resale and Consignment Shops. Even if you don’t plan to read the books, she says, “a little bundle of similar books, tied with a burlap bow or a satin ribbon, makes a wonderful accessory on your bookshelf.”
For shopping expert Trae Bodge, reading a used book can be the most pleasurable of experiences. “There’s something lovely about reading something that you can see was also read by someone else who left a little dog-ear,” she says. In fact, she bought most of her own book collection secondhand from the semiannual college scholarship fundraising book sale at which her husband volunteers. Speaking of college, she strongly recommends that virtually all college textbooks be purchased used, which can save hundreds of dollars.
Children’s books in particular are terrific to purchase used, says Andrea Woroch, a consumer money-saving expert. At a farmers market, her kids recently picked out brand-new “used” editions of Disney’s Bambi for $4 each, which she figures is about a two-thirds discount. And when it comes to coffee-table books, which are meant more for display than reading, she says buying used is by far the most cost-conscious route.
2. Pet items
There may be no savvier way to pick up basic items for your pet than secondhand, says Kathy Ozzard Chism, author of Garage Sale Success Secrets: The Definitive Step-by-Step Guide to Turn Your Trash Into CA$H! She’s still smarting a bit from the $150 dog crate she had for many years that ultimately sold on Craig’s List for $60. Few things sell more quickly at garage and yard sales than pet crates, because they are very costly when purchased new. She also encourages folks to buy feeding bowls, leashes and even collars secondhand, since they can be pricey at the pet store. But she advises against purchasing a used pet bed unless there is a tag still on it that assures you it was never used. Otherwise, it could be an invitation for fleas, ticks and dust mites, she warns.
3. Musical instruments
For parents — or grandparents — of kids who are considering taking up a musical instrument for the first time, used is by far the smartest way to go, says Bodge. This is particularly true for brass or woodwind instruments, though you’ll certainly want to replace the mouthpieces, she adds. Same for guitars and violins, though the strings will often need to be replaced. Some years ago, Bodge purchased a used keyboard for her daughter, who was just showing interest in learning the instrument. By buying it secondhand, she says, she paid about 30 percent less than it would have cost new.
4. Vintage and fashion clothing
It’s way smarter to purchase fashion clothing used instead of new — particularly for those items that you or your kid plan to wear only occasionally, says Woroch. At consignment stores and on websites like Swap.com, she says, you can even find “used” clothing with the original tags that has never been worn. “Why spend $80 for a fashion clothing item that you can buy used for $15?” she asks. Not long ago, Woroch was invited to a 1980s-style prom party, and instead of spending hundreds of dollars on a new prom dress, she bought a like-new one on eBay for $50.
Similarly, Bodge’s all-time favorite secondhand purchase is a faux fur black-and-white houndstooth designer coat she bought 10 years ago for $15. She figures it was actually worth about $300. Bodge adored this coat so much that she made it her go-to, and became known by friends and neighbors as the woman in the houndstooth coat. “I must have worn that coat a thousand times,” she says.
5. Holiday items
America is a nation that often seems to lurch from holiday to holiday, and decorating for all those holidays can get extremely expensive. That’s why decorations are terrific items to purchase used — as long as you’re fully satisfied they are in good condition, says Chism. She particularly enjoys finding “unique” one-of-a-kind ornaments for her Christmas tree at secondhand shops. She encourages folks to pick up secondhand decorations for other holidays, too, including Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Valentine’s Day and Easter.
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Fine glassware can be extremely expensive, but purchasing it used can save you hundreds of dollars, says Chism. She is still gloating over an eight-piece set of designer glassware she purchased years ago at a garage sale for $75. The sets of matching water glasses and wineglasses had elegant gold edging and were probably worth upwards of $500 at the time, she estimates. “I was so excited to get them that I paid the full asking price and didn’t even bargain.” After years of use, she recently sold them at a big profit.
7. Sporting goods
Athletes are the first to learn that new sporting gear can tackle your budget. Items such as bikes, skis and golf clubs can easily cost hundreds of dollars new. So Woroch suggests doing what she does: buying them used. For example, years ago her daughter wanted a pair of skis — which, of course, had to be pink. After some searching, Woroch found a pair on eBay (with bindings) for $100. That’s probably less than one-third the cost of purchasing them new, she says.
Bikes, in particular, are terrific items to purchase used, says Chism. But, she cautions, it’s critical that you (or whoever will be riding) first take the bike for a test spin. That’s why it’s good to bring your driver’s license to garage sales or yard sales. The seller might ask to hold on to your driver’s license while you try out the bike.
8. Fitness equipment
One of the few things pricier than sporting goods is fitness equipment. When purchased new, items like quality treadmills, stationary bikes, stair climbers and weight machines can cost thousands of dollars, which is why Woroch recommends always buying them used. But there’s a bit of an art to this, because you also want assurance that the items are still in good condition. She was looking for a Spinning bike when she noticed a local gym was undergoing a complete renovation. Woroch phoned the gym — which was in the process of replacing all its equipment — and purchased a Spinning bike for $100 that she estimates was probably worth $1,000.
9. Wooden and yard furniture
While upholstered furniture is a no-no to purchase used, Bodge strongly recommends buying wooden furniture as well as most yard furniture secondhand. Of course, you’ll want to inspect it for cracks and damage. If the cushions look old or worn, you can always purchase new ones, she says.
You want to be very savvy about purchasing used electronics, but the savings can be great, says Woroch. The key is to source them properly. Instead of getting these at garage sales or thrift shops, Woroch recommends purchasing certified refurbished electronics (with warranties) from reputable vendors like Best Buy, Walmart, Verizon, Apple and eBay that sell refurbished electronics, from power tools to cell phones, for 20 to 60 percent off the retail price. In some cases, she says, purchasing with your credit card will extend the warranty.
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.