It's 7:28 a.m. on a freezing Saturday in January, and you're sitting in your car next to the sign that reads "GARAGE SALE." In two minutes, that garage door will open, revealing whether you'll land yourself a much-needed kitchen table today - and whether this early-morning expedition is nothing but a fool's errand.

Traveling the garage sale route to furnish your home is time-consuming, frustrating, and at times even conniving, as you attempt to arrive earlier than everyone else and offer the best deal for the piece you want. Nevertheless, the high cost of furniture is forcing many people - particularly twentysomethings fresh out of college - to search for less expensive and more creative ways to furnish their homes.

In addition to the aforementioned garage sale or yard sale, some other smart bets you should consider investigating are estate sales and moving sales (both of which can offer good-as-new pieces), as well as thrift shops (which are growing in number and include such places as the Salvation Army and Goodwill). Don't knock any of these. Secondhand sources can offer fantastic bargains. Once you've landed one, you'll be hooked - a bona fide bargain-hunter. One of the most addicting aspects of thrift shopping is that new inventory arrives on an almost constant basis, since items are donated.

You never know what you'll stumble upon, but you've got to maintain patience if you expect to land a deal. You probably won't find a new piece of furniture for your home on your first trip. It might even take you several trips before you make a purchase. You can't be discouraged. Bargain-hunting is exhilarating for precisely that reason: Just when you think you're out of luck, you discover a treasure.

Estate sales, in particular, offer a better-than-average chance of finding a gem. These sales typically occur following the death of a homeowner. For that reason, you're probably going to find furniture and other household accessories that are in good condition. That's in contrast to a garage or yard sales, at which homeowners cast off their unwanted items - an Elvis-themed wall hanging, an olive green macramé pillow -- for rock-bottom prices. Items at estate sales might cost you a bit more than you'd spend at a garage or yard sale, but they'll probably still be an incredible bargain. You're more likely to find quality antiques, China and other fine pieces at estate sales.

One caveat, however: Estate sales are more popular in general among the bargain-hungry public, so arrive early and bring lots of cash. You're going to have some competition. It wouldn't hurt to bring your checkbook along, as well - just in case you encounter a windfall of great buys and run out of cash. If that's the case, the seller probably won't be willing to wait while you run home for more cash. You're a stranger, and the seller has no guarantee that you'll return, so "first come with cash, first served" is the name of the game.

Both garage sales and estate sales are not for those who have exact specifications in mind about what kinds of pieces they want for their home. Now, granted, when your budget is tight, your taste and your bank account probably aren't compatible. But if you're dead-set on a sage-colored chair versus a black one, you're probably going to be searching for a long, long time to find what you want - assuming that you find it at all. So you'll need to go into this search with a flexible, open-minded attitude. Be willing to keep your eyes open for unexpected surprises that perhaps test your notions about what kinds of pieces you want in your home. This doesn't mean that you should abandon all taste in favor of campy furniture and accessories, but broadening your horizons a bit wouldn't hurt. If you can't get that black sofa out of your mind that you saw in a catalog, buy it. You're not going to find its twin on the garage/estate sale circuit for a comparative song.

While you're snapping up bargains, make sure you don't enter the trap of buying something simply because it's on sale. The result is sure to be a mishmash of furniture and a recreation of the garage sale in your living room. There's certainly nothing wrong with defining what style you like (for example, contemporary, traditional, minimalist), then collecting an assortment of pieces that remain within the broad parameters of that style. If you fall into the trap of buying too many items, your house will soon resemble the set from "Sanford & Son." Excessive clutter doesn't take long to plague a house.

Another reason you want to avoid picking up "steals" simply because they're steals is because sometimes there's a good reason why an item is a bargain: It's junk, and sometimes that's not obvious to a novice bargain-hunter. If you're not confident about your ability to weed out the good from the bad, bring along a veteran bargain-hunter to help you.

Do you tend to be a bit wishy-washy when making the decision to buy something? You'll need to leave that hesitation at the door when you go to a garage or estate sale (thrift shops are a bit more leisurely, although you shouldn't dawdle there, either). As the old saying goes, if you snooze, you lose. So if you find something you like and you suspect you have a steal on your hands, snap it up at once. In the world of yard sales, it's every bargain-hunter for himself.

If attending garage and estate sales is a frequent pastime of yours, and you've been relatively successful at it, you're soon going to need to start donating to charity the items that have lost their charm. As stated above, you're going to collect excessive clutter if you don't give away items as often as you introduce new ones into your home. You may even consider holding your own garage sale - a wise strategy, since you'll be earning some cash for your next round of purchases.

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