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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