The Mythical Buyer’s Code of Conduct for Garage/Yard Sales

A reader who asked to be identified as “Confused” sent me the following e-mail:

“Recently at a garage sale, a well-dressed woman who drove an SUV was looking at a large box of what appeared to be tarnished silver plate items. When I began looking at a few pieces in the box, the woman asked if I had been to many auctions.


“I replied, ‘no,’ since I have not.

“She apparently meant garage sales instead of auctions, since she began condescendingly telling me how she felt garage sales worked. She said customarily, when someone is looking at a box, everyone else waits until that person is done looking at every item and decides whether she wants any of the items or not.

“Then she dropped a bomb by saying, ‘Apparently, your mother did not live long enough to teach you manners.’

“This confused me greatly. I did not know her. She did not know my mother, who is still very much alive. Further, I have been attending garage sales for decades and have never seen her version of garage sale protocol in practice.

“Does such a custom actually exist?”

The SUV lady can thank her lucky stars that she did not have her conversation with me. With a reputation in the trade for saying what I think with little regard to its consequences, I would have made a quick suggestion or two about long-term storage possibilities for the box of silver plate.

Harry RinkerJust as all is fair in love and war, all is fair at garage/yard sales as well. To the victor belong the spoils. Walter Peters, a crusty old collector, taught me early in my career that “there are no friends at an auction.” The concept applies equally to garage/yard sales. The basic rule that applies is every person for him or herself.

The hunt is a competitive process. On the surface, rules of courtesy and common sense should apply. In reality, the hunt is competitive and cutthroat. There can be only one winner; the successful buyer. All other hunters go home with empty pouches.

I have yet to attend an antiques show, auction, flea market or garage/yard sale where I have found posted or was handed a sheet indicating how I was to conduct myself as a buyer. Bustamante Shows, a west coast promoter, does provide buyers with a buyer’s bill of rights handout, a far cry from a buyer’s code of conduct.

Creating a buyer’s code of conduct upon which everyone in the trade would agree is impossible. First, who would create the code? A code drawn up by buyers would differ radically from a dealers’ version. The trade is filled with deeply entrenched vested interests. Second, each trade sales venue such as auction to flea market would require a separate buyer’s code of conduct. Third, who would enforce the code? “No one is going to tell me how to run my business” is an established business principle. The trade fights every effort to standardize its practices.

It is the seller, whether auctioneer, dealer or private individual, who determines what rules apply during any selling transaction. Like the kid with the bat and ball, the seller is the individual with the merchandise. If the seller decides not to play, he simply walks away. Even if an individual is willing to pay the asking/sticker price, the seller can look him in the eye and say, “I do not like you, and I will not sell to you.” Do not discuss legalities with me. I have seen this happen too many times during my career for anyone to argue with me that the seller must honor the offer to buy.

No sale is complete until money changes hands. Technically, title changes hands at the sound of the hammer at an auction. Yet, if the buyer does not properly secure/defend his purchase(s), he may find otherwise. Early in my career, I attended a catalog auction where items were placed in storage as they were sold. When a successful bidder went to pay for his items at the end of a sale, the auctioneer was unable to locate several of his early purchases. Another individual claiming the bidder’s number as his own paid the cashier for the items two-thirds of the way through the auction. Cash talked. The auction company packed up the items and gave them to whom it believed to be the successful bidder. Many novice auction buyers have fallen victim to this practice.

I differentiate between a garage/yard sale and an estate/tag sale. Some professional estate/tag buyers have a printed sticker which they place on items they intend to buy. This allows them to continue shopping without having to repeatedly checkout and pay for items. Alas, some sticker generously, going back later and removing stickers from items about which they have second thoughts. I have no patience for this practice nor do I honor it. If I see something that I would like to buy, I remove the sticker and go pay for it. Once I pay for it, I own it.

Ask A WorthologistLikewise, some garage/yard sale shoppers create a pile of possible purchases, preferring to go through the entire sale before deciding specifically what they will and will not buy. I do not consider these piles sacred either, nor should the person selling the merchandise. If you want it, you pay for it.

I have seen an individual who wishes to buy something another person is examining walk over to the seller and purchase the item by pointing to it. Once the purchase is made, the buyer goes over to the person looking at the item and says, “Hand that to me. I just bought it and it is mine.” “Please” is never part of the conversation. Possession is not nine-tenths of the law. A bill of sale is.

Returning to the box of silver plate, I have no problem with “Confused” examining the pieces that interested her. Obviously, the SUV lady was unfamiliar with the “share and share alike” concept. Unless she was contemplating buying the entire box, which she obviously was not, the things in the box were fair game to anyone. Had the items been spread out on a table or on the ground, the SUV lady would not have presumed, although I cannot be certain given her arrogance and actions, others were forbidden to examine items on the table or ground until she was through.

Nice people finish last and successful garage/yard sale buyers are generally not nice people. They are aggressive, pushy, and driven. They need to be. Dedicated garage/yard sale buyers visit more than a dozen sales in a day. They do not have time to be nice. They need to mine a sale as quickly as possible, discover hidden treasures that appeal, pay for them and move on to the next lode.

With a few exceptions, garage/yard sale sellers do not care who buys what they have to offer. Their goal is to have nothing left at the end of the day. Making the sale is far more important than to whom the sale is made.

Garage/yard sale sellers do not want hassles nor do they have any desire to play policeman. They rely on buyers to settle things between themselves. Successful buyers have an intimidating presence. The SUV lady counts on this. Smart buyers stand up to these individuals and do not tolerate such abuse. Good manners should not stand in the way of giving them a piece of one’s mind.

As I bring this column to a close, I find myself reflecting upon how I might have written it 15 or 20 years ago. Would I have attempted to create a universal buyer’s code of conduct based on courtesy and common sense? It is the type of challenge I love. Forty-plus-years as a collector and member of the trade has allowed my crusty, cynical side to gain prominence. I leave it to someone else to create such a code. My fear is no one is equal to the task.


Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out his Web site.

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site:

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. You can e-mail your questions to Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2010

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  • Christian Calloway

    What an incredible idiot. You write just to hear yourself talk. You touch a single item in my pile and I will break your finger. Literally. You are like the real stupid ones who come to a yard sale and pay as you go. Spending 80 percent more than the buyer that piles and offers real low. I buy cheap and resell to idiots like you. Collect away my friend, get in my way at a yardsale and pull your crap and you will find your dentures shoved up your arse.

  • Debra

    I am with you it is a good thing I was not the one the suv person was talking to. my response would likly have been to pick the box ask how much and buy the whole box with her standing there. We yard sale for a living and have decided what we are buying in alot of cases before we get out of the truck and when possible tag team the yard sale. we are courteous and polite but we are also swift and decisive. we are not shopping we are buying.

  • At what point does civility stop and mayhem step in? I find Mr Rinkers attitude a bit alarming. But then again, today’s society seems perfectly OK with grafitti, foul language and rude behavior. I for one, refuse to participate. I may miss a “great buy” or “treasure” but at least I can look in the mirror in the morning and worship in my church of choice on the weekend.

  • Blake Blewitt

    I agree with this column…there are no rules nor a formal code of conduct. The same goes for society. Sales are a free for all. After reading this I will be stepping up my game – I will not accept no as an answer. I will out crank the crankiest. I also hereby vow to peel “sold” stickers with impunity at the next sale. I have no second thoughts on the matter and will not give my behavior a second thought while attending church.

  • Despite my seller’s name “Cranky Cowgirl”, I am appalled at Mr. Rinker’s attitude. I have been conducting an estate sale before I need to sale of my lifetime of collecting. The buyers who get the best deal from me are the ones who are courteous, not insulting, and equally so to the other shoppers. One bad apple being an ass to another shopper can ruin your entire shopping atmosphere. I simply do not allow rudeness to me nor to the other customers. While I’m on my soapbox, I have no patience for professional flea market/garage salers or dealers coming up to me and offering me an insulting low ball offer, as if I have no idea what I’m selling. I”m always open to dickering, I am not open to rude behavior and trying to pass yourself off as somehow more informed than myself who has collected the stuff for years and years. I will be so glad to get rid of everything and never have to deal with the too many people who are like Mr. Rinker. And I say that with some dismay as I have always found his columns and his tv show entertaining and interesting. I have a whole new view. Come into my sale and act that way, and I’ll show you to the garden gate. (And that goes double for SUV lady…clearly her mother did not live long enough to slap the crap out of her daughter).

  • Oh, get a grip! I have been in this business for almost 40 years and Harry is a personal friend of mine. In fact, I consider him a mentor. Does he have definite and outspoken ideas about things? You bet! I have always thought it refreshing that he states his highly opinionated opinion!

    I have not seen him be unkind or unfair to sellers. It is a highly personal idea what something is worth. We all have our choice to voice it or stay silent. As sellers we have the right to say Yeah or Nay, end of story. As a buyer I do all that Harry says – I hit many, many sales a day, and have little time to shoot the breeze or wait for someone to decide what they want. I will ask politely if they have something they are mulling over in their hands and ask if they are seriously going to buy it. If the answer is sketchy then I will tell them I want it and wait for them to release it. I don’t tear it from their grasp!

    If you think that historically the people who amassed great wealth in art and antiques did not fight for it, you are mistaken. The term “picker” was created 200 years ago when men walked the countryside, knocking on doors and asking if the inhabitants had anything of value to sell. Some had scruples, some did not. We cannot be our brothers keeper, but we can keep our own countenance. I have learned to be tolerant of others at sales, while I stay the path of asking for what I want and continuing on my way. This is called being a business person rather than a hobbiest. Decide what you are.

  • Tom Scruggs

    I had a yard sale when I was preparing for a move to another city. It was advertised to begin at 8 am. At 6:30 I had already begun setting up and I came up from the basement to find a man in my living room going through my possessions on my shelves as if everything were on sale. He was wearing a raincoat even thought it was a sunny, hot September day. I screamed “What are you doing in here?” and he said he was just hoping for some early bargains. But then I realized he was wearing the coat on and reached around him and pulled it open. I didn’t find anything. He couldn’t have been in the house long or I would have heard him walking around.

    Another time I was helping a friend who was moving out of state. We had certain closets taped shut and hallways blocked, with signs indicating “Nothing in this area is for Sale.” We repeatedly found people pulling the tape off the closets to see what was in them, even climbing over the blockades to the hallways. One man was snooping around so much inside and out and asking so many questions about the house that we called 911. We had told him the house was sold, so he was obviously us to something besides shopping for bargains. We weren’t comfortable asking him to leave. Of course the police couldn’t do anything, but we knew once he knew they had “met” him he wouldn’t be back.

    My point is, there is one huge rule of behavior at garage/yard sales. Stay out of areas that aren’t obviously part of the sale area.

    • Sledge740

      I have had people buy things that I was looking at. They drove up walked to the seller and paid for items that other people were looking at (had in their hand). I have settled disputes with competitors by a flip of a coin, the seller and other customers were amazed at this method of settling who buys. At auctions I have sold items out of boxes I purchased for more than the box cost me and I have had items disappear out of my boxes. There are ethical buyers and unethical buyers.

  • Paul

    Come on Harry is just giving his opinion. We ALL have one, don’t we. BUT try living in San Francisco, CA where little Asian women try to take things out of your hands that you have already picked up! That is RUDE! I usually say, ” Excuse me but this is an item I picked up. Touch it again and I’ll knock you crazy.” They usually just stare at me, frown and don’t say a word! I think they feel if they do what they do that Americans will just give in, sorry not this guy. Oh and another thing because I am a man NO I will not give it up for a woman. I am pleasant and with most women shoppers we have fun and talk about our purchases but those who push, shove, grab or otherwise have opened a door to have it done back to them…Eye for an Eye!

  • Whew! What a tempest!

    Personally, I do try to be polite, but I also a have low tolerance for someone that isn’t. As most have said, SUV lady would have gotten an earful. I liked the one that said they’d buy the whole box out from under her. I’d have probably just ignored her. If she persisted, I’d ask if she owned the items in question, otherwise, shut it.

    I have run into a lot of people that do resent the fact that I’m buying for resale. I’ve seen it pretty much everywhere except auctions. They seem to feel I’m ripping them off because I’m trying to make money, even when I pay whatever they’re asking. When I’m having a sale, I don’t care what you do with it afterward. I made my money.

  • Debra

    As I stated above we yard sale for a living. most of the time I tell the seller that is what I am doing…and I tell them if they can not negotiate the price thats fine…but that I can not buy at that price…wish them luck with their sale and move on. Many times they will ask what I can pay for a item. I tell them and if they can work with that price we deal if not no hard feelings. At times they will ask me what a piece should sell for in the area and I tell them what I can sell it for in my market. Sometimes they reprice to make more money sometimes they sell to me, sometimes they reprice lower, And of course there are those who look at me like I have lost my mind. If I look around at a sale and everything there is way over priced compared to what I am willing to pay I generally dont bother unless there is an item I am especially interested in. Some yard sales we go to we call museums (you can look but you will not be buying from them)I went to a yardsale recently that had a sign on the tree in the yard saying Make offer. 🙂 they did not care for my offers, but there were no hurt feelings. Anyway you look at it people either want to be rid of the stuff and dont care about the money(rare) or they think it is worth as much as they paid for it (it isnt) or they fall in between and those are the ones most common and those are the ones I generally buy from. Happy hunting to all. Debra

  • christine

    No item is worth that much to make me look like a fool. I would of definitely waited till the lady was done and then had a look. Manners anyone?

  • Oh heavens. I loved this article by Harry Rinker and all accompanying comments!
    We live in a small town so we must run the sales with the same folks year after year. So many tricks! It is funny. A mother and daughter team up to go into a sale where there is a line waiting to get in. The mother goes up the stairs so slowly and lingers in the doorway allowing the daughter a nice head start in front of her. A husband drives his wife right up the driveway to the sale if possible then backs out and slowly moves away blocking many a driver and other sale goers from getting to the sale quickly. The same wife will jump out of the moving vehicle if she can’t wait for it to stop. Both of those twosomes are known for getting the best items and beating most of us to the “finds”.

  • Lisa Mull

    I have great manners, and I don’t even have a church to go to. (Don’t like ’em.) I think Harry is a hoot, and that we could all learn a thing or two from him. Otherwise, why are we reading his column? Anyhoo, I, too, have experienced many of the poor manners of people as both buyer and seller. Recently I saw a lady looking at some china I had looked at, put back, and then went back for. I asked her if she was going to buy it. She didn’t know, and I said that I would appreciate it if she would let me know when she decided. I figured that was the end of it. She later came back to me and said she was going to keep it. I ended up buying the other items, which should net me $200, as it turns out. This was not a fancy auction. This was at Goodwill.

    • Cajun Blazer

      I too visit many garage sales every weekend to find items to resale, and I conduct my own garage sales a couple of times a year. However, unlike the author, I manage to do so without being a pompous ass. I don’t know what part of the country the author hails from, but down in south garage sales are a way of life. It is very common for folks at sales to make piles of items they intend to buy. I encourage folks who visit my sale to do so; they can’t pick up other items to buy if their hands of full. As a seller I will not sell someone an item they have pilfered out of someone’s pile and most sellers in these parts won’t either. A word of warning, in the South if you do something a reprehensible as to try to buy an item someone has in their hands, not only is the seller very unlikely to sell it to you, but even if he/she does, you are much more likely to leave with a swollen lip then the item.

  • Kate

    One thing I learned, the hard way, is that even at an estate sale run by someone who is in the estate sale biz, NEVER give them an item to hold for you up at the front table. If a dealer or person comes along who they know better than you, and that person wants to buy what they’re supposed to hold for you while you are still looking around, it’ll be gone. “By Mistake”. Ooopsie! If you really want it, pay for it ASAP, or hold onto it yourself or bring a friend to hold it for you.

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