If you haven’t been to a thrift store or garage sale lately, now’s a great time to explore one. Why? Many families de-clutter after Christmas, so they donate or consign items to local second-hand shops in the spring. As the weather improves, garage sales also start popping up like spring crocuses.

If you’re a little squeamish about buying used clothes, toys, or household items, you’re not alone. However, savvy shoppers know that second-hand shopping is the bargain hunter’s secret weapon. Think about it: Once you buy a crockpot or sweater and use or wear it for a few months, it’s used. But you still like it, right? And pretty much every used item you buy is washable or fixable, so germs, dirt, and simple repairs needn’t be an issue. You’ll pay pennies on the dollar for a good-quality pre-owned item, so why not give it a try?

Here’s what you need to know to be a savvy second-hand or garage sale shopper:

Shop regularly and be open-minded. Unlike shopping for new items, you can’t go to a thrift store or garage sale with a shopping list and expect to walk out with exactly what you were looking for. Second-hand shopping is more serendipitous—you might just find some bargain-priced treasures you weren’t expecting. If you check in at your favorite thrift stores regularly, you’ll eventually check many things off your “need” list (black pants for yourself, a raincoat for your daughter, and so on). Just expect it to take a little time.

Keep a running list. Jot down sizes, favorite colors, gift ideas, and needs for everyone in your family. That way, if you find a great bike for your son at a garage sale, you know what wheel size he needs so you can buy it without worry. Ditto for clothing sizes.

Stick to a budget. It’s easy to get excited about one-of-a-kind finds and overstep your spending boundaries. Know what you can afford. If possible, shop with cash. When your wallet is empty, you’re done shopping.

Know your stores. Over time, you’ll learn which second-hand shops carry items that you and your family like. Store inventories can vary neighborhood by neighborhood. Keep track of which stores carry a nicer inventory of name-brand clothing and good-condition household items. If you can, chat up the store owners. They may be willing to call you when something you really want or need comes in—such as a china pattern you’re collecting or a popular shoe in your child’s size.

Organize your stops. If you’re hitting multiple garage sales, plan your driving strategy the night before. Map out the most promising-sounding sales and visit several in one area. Multi-family sales are often a great way to do a lot of shopping in one stop. And start early: Veteran garage-sale shoppers are often lined up outside the best houses well before the morning start time.

Check condition. Before you fall in love with an item, examine it carefully for holes, tears, nicks, and other problems. If there’s minor damage, decide if the item is worth repairing (it often is). Ask to plug in electrical items, and consider carrying a few spare batteries to test items that might need them.

Carry cash. Some shops are willing to haggle if you offer the green stuff because they can avoid paying merchant credit and debit card fees. If you’re garage sale shopping, take a lot of small bills and change. It’s bad form to haggle the price of a lamp down from $5 to $3 and then hand the seller a Benjamin Franklin and wait for change.

Haggle happily—but know when to stop. Be friendly and respectful when you ask for a price deal rather than stern or combative. If the store owner or garage sale organizer won’t budge any further, know when it’s time to walk away—or when the final price is good enough to say, “You’ve got a deal.”

Teri Cettina is a mom of two daughters and freelance writer who specializes in personal finance and parenting topics. She blogs at Your Family Money. Follow her on Twitter: @TeriCettina

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