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Flea Market Tips

Cracking the Code For Scoring the Best Flea Market Finds

If there is one thing I love most in this world, it's a good bargain. OK, yes — a warm piece of chewy sourdough toast drizzled in honey did come close to taking the crown, but for the sake of this article, I'm sticking with good ole bargain finds. And while I am a passionate lover of thrift stores, estate sales, and antique shops, nothing can really compare with experiencing the thrill of "the hunt" when it comes to my forever favorite: flea markets.

Come to think of it, this love of scrambling around flea markets runs deep in my blood, as my grandmother is an avid collector. Over the last couple decades or so, she has spent her free time collecting, well, collectibles. No joke, after retiring from dairy farming (did I mention I'm originally from a really small town?), my grandfather helped her transform his pack barns into new homes for all her cherished keepsakes. While this scenario might sound like an episode of Hoarders (I promise it's not . . . ), she thankfully did her grandmotherly duties of instilling flea-market wisdom into each one of her 11 grandchildren.

But what would wisdom be if we didn't share it, right? So to spread the love even further, I'm excited to share the nine most effective strategies I've found for cracking the bargaining code and scoring the best finds. Whether you're searching for something specific, intrigued by the idea of haggling, or simply yearning for some outdoor fun, these tips will help you tackle any flea market, no matter the size. Let's roll up our sleeves and get started . . .

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1. Fuel up for the day ahead.

Growing up, my mom always made my sisters and me scrambled eggs on days we had any big tests at school. She called it "brain food." And as luck would have it, those were the days I'd find myself most focused.

The same goes for tackling flea markets. Think of these outdoor markets as one big test. In order to ace them — you know, score what you are looking for — you must be fueled up for the challenge. Be sure to eat some "brain food" ahead of time, and pack some hearty snacks to keep your energy levels high. And don't forget water! Some flea markets span acres upon acres, so you'll want to stay hydrated, too.

2. Dress the part.

Flashy rings, chunky necklaces, strappy sandals, bedazzled anything . . . save it! No matter how much of a fashionista you are, save those stylish outfits for another time. Remember, you're heading to a flea market, not hitting up the latest sales at the mall. Therefore, you'll want to wear clothes you don't mind messing up, because some of the best finds are ones you'll have to dig for (more on that later!).

So forgo the fancy-schmancy and instead opt for an old tee and jeans, comfy shoes, and even a ball cap to keep the sun out of your eyes. Speaking of sun, don't forget to lather up with sunscreen, as many outdoor markets aren't covered and you don't want to risk getting sunburned.

One last thing — consider bringing a hands-free bag. I find carrying either a backpack or crossbody to be most convenient. This way, I can keep all of my belongings on me, without having the fear of something getting stolen or lost.

3. Arrive with a plan.

I recently visited the famous Alameda Flea Market in the San Francisco Bay Area for the first time. The friend I went with was an Alameda regular and told me to conduct a full walk-through around the market before diving too deeply into any particular stalls. This way, I would have a broad overview of what treasures were being sold and at what prices. Talk about amazing advice, right!?

Before starting "the hunt," mentally take note of what it is you're looking to bring home. Given the fact that the Alameda Flea Market houses over 800 stands, having a game plan helped me swim my way around the overwhelming sea of choices at my fingertips.

In addition to having a plan, don't forget to come with your game face on. What I mean by this is to not act overly excited when you locate a "must have." Pick up the piece, note the price, and calmly take interest. Now, if you're anything like me, this will be very hard to do, but remember your poker face, my friend.

4. Remember, timing is everything.

We all know the saying "the early bird gets the worm." But when it comes to flea markets, many times this can mean the early bird will get a pricier worm. Yes, you will have a better selection the earlier you arrive. But you will have to pay a higher admission price (if there is one), and vendors will be less likely to bargain with you. Of course, in instances when your heart is set on something specific, these extra costs can be worth it.

However, while the pickings will be slimmer the later you arrive, the sellers will be much more open to haggling, as they want to get rid of their stuff as much as you want to take it home.

5. Leave the cards behind and bring cash.

Always opt for paper over plastic when it comes to flea markets, as it is here that cash is king. While a lot of sellers do use services like PayPal or Square, many of them are more likely to negotiate a better bargain when they see you have cash. Plus, you'll save time by not having to stand in lines for the ATM, and you can avoid fees when using cash. Make sure to have a variety of bills with you, though, because depending on the time of day, some vendors might not yet have the needed change.

6. Bring backup.

When it comes to larger markets, a set of wheels can become your new best friend. Whether it be a folding cart or even a little red wagon, these towing tools will become quite handy. Not only will they save you time from not having to travel back and forth to your car for some of the larger items you find, but they will also save you from an unnecessary backache and will allow you to continue onward with your hands-free journey.

7. Don't be afraid to get dirty.

Remember how I said to dress in old clothes? Well, that's because some of the best finds will be ones you'll have to roll up your sleeves and dig for. If you've seen the ever-so-popular Flea Market Flip show on HGTV, then you know the best items are usually the ones other people aren't willing to take a chance on. So don't be afraid to get low and start rummaging through piles of "junk." Take your time to uncover any and everything your eyes feast on. All that dirt will be worth it when you find your very own buried treasure.

8. Utilize your go-to tool: bargaining.

One of the best parts about shopping at flea markets is that prices are not firmly set; they're negotiable. That said, take advantage of bargaining tactics and ask questions such as, "Is this your best price?" Just remember the power of kindness. While vendors do cushion some haggle room when pricing items, at the end of the day, this is a business for them and they need to make money just as much as you do.

By knowing the maximum amount you're willing to pay for a particular piece before falling madly in love with it, you can haggle with confidence while also accepting when it's time to move on. And if the haggling doesn't sway in your favor this time, that's OK — you still can develop a friendly relationship with the seller for future visits.

9. Have fun and embrace the magic of serendipity.

Above all, have FUN! Flea markets are a time to let your creative soul shine while embracing the magic of serendipity. Because, as in life, you won't always know what it is exactly you're searching for. But you're there for the ride and for the adventure. So let your curiosity lead the way, and tap into your open mind. It is then that you'll experience the thrill and exhilaration!

Image Source: Kathryn McLamb
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