What to Take to Flea Markets, Yard Sales, Estate Sales and More

Find Better Finds with a Treasure Hunting Tool Kit

Whether you're a DIY decorator, an obsessed collector, or a picking pro, you need the right tools to treasure hunt. Depending on what you're looking for, you may not need everything on the list, but you do need the basics. Here's what to take to flea markets, yard sales, thrift stores, estate sales, and more.

  • 01 of 22

    Folding Cart

    flea market shopper with a folding cart
    Folding carts are ideal for flea markets. "Me and My Granny Cart" by Lorena Cupcake / CC BY 2.0

    A folding cart on wheels (aka granny cart) saves your back -- and it keeps your hands free so you can keep shopping.

    Where to Use It

    • outdoor flea markets
    • large indoor flea markets and antique malls, if they allow it
    • car boot sales
    • block and neighborhood garage sales where you park and walk from sale to sale
    • big rummage sales held in churches, schools, or community centers
    • thrift stores without shopping baskets, unless the aisles are too tight

    When to Leave It in the Car

    Tips

    • If your cart has a liner with a closing top flap, leave it open until you pay. A closed container makes some sellers nervous.
    • Put your name somewhere on your cart. The volunteer checkers at fundraising rummage sales may not recognize all of the donated goods. They may think your cart is merchandise and try to charge you. 
    • If you buy breakables, stash some bubble wrap or plain newsprint in your cart to wrap your fragile finds.
  • 02 of 22

    Tote Bags

    Tote bags are ideal for shopping estate sales
    HighImpactPhotography/E+/Getty Images

    When you can't take your granny cart, a tote bag or two will usually do. They're particularly useful at estate sales, where you never have enough hands to carry everything you want.

    Where to Use Them

    • small rummage sales held in spaces too tight for a rolling cart
    • estate sales, both to carry your finds while you shop and to pack purchases after you pay
    • yard sales for packing your paid purchases

    What to Avoid

    • Don't take an armful of tote bags to an estate sale without contacting the hosting...MORE company about its policy. Some encourage totes -- and some won't let you in. 
    • Don't buy tote bags that close at the top. Estate sale companies that prohibit large purses might not allow them.

    Tips

    • At estate sales organized by private sellers, take lightweight mesh or nylon totes that fold up small enough to stash in a pocket. Ask about totes when you enter. If they say no, don't get them out.
    • Pack your tote with some packing material to wrap fragile items. Bubble wrap does a better job, but newsprint takes up less space.
    • Choose tote bags with straps long enough to carry on your shoulder. The point is to keep your hands free while you shop.
  • 03 of 22

    Jeweler's Loupe and Magnifying Glass

    loupe magnifier for finding jewelry, china, and silver marks
    Magnifying loupe. By Adamantios (Own work) [ GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

    No matter how good your vision, you probably can't read the marks on every potential treasure you find. That's why you need both a magnifying glass and a loupe.

    When to Use Them

    • to identify the makers' marks on silver, porcelain, glass, pottery, furniture, and jewelry
    • to spot flaws, damage, and construction details on any of the above
    • to read the stickers and batch codes on the bottoms of vintage commercial perfume bottles.

    Tip

    • A loupe is a lot more powerful, but you have to hold it and...MORE the item you're examining close to your eye.
  • 04 of 22

    Soft Pencil Eraser

    You can field test silver with a pencil eraser
    Field test silver with a pencil eraser. joslex / PixabayCC0 Public Domain

    When you use a pencil eraser on a piece of sterling silver, it rubs away the tarnish.

    When to Use It

    • when you suspect a piece might be made of silver, but you can't find, can't read, or don't trust the hallmarks. 

    Tip

    • It may seem silly to carry a pencil when you can buy a big eraser, but the eraser at the end of a pencil is actually more useful. Because it's so small, it's easier to use on small surfaces, such as the inside of a bangle bracelet or ring.
    Continue to 5 of 22 below.
  • 05 of 22

    Magnet

    magnets won't stick to brass or silver
    A magnet won't stick to silver or brass. By Zureks (Own work) [ CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

    A magnet won't stick to brass and silver. That makes it ideal for identifying those metals.

    When to Use It

    • when you think a piece might be made of sterling silver or solid brass

    What to Avoid

    • Don't rub the magnet across the piece when you test. You might scratch it. Place it gently against the surface instead.

    Tip

    • You don't need a huge magnet to test metals. A powerful button magnet works just fine -- and it takes up less space in your kit.
  • 06 of 22

    Black Light

    use a portable blacklight to identify Vaseline glass (aka uranium glass)
    flashlight-style LED blacklight. © El Grafo / CC-BY-SA-4.0 [ CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

    If Vaseline glass is on your wish list, you need a black light. Under a black light, the glass glows florescent green because of its uranium content. In fact, Vaseline glass is also known as uranium glass.

    What to Avoid

    • Don't demand that a seller turn off the lights so you can test a piece -- or worse, flip the switch yourself. The test still works indoors with the lights on.

    Tips

  • 07 of 22

    Simichrome Polish

    Collecting Bakelite? Or just looking for some to sell?

    Some shoppers can identify Bakelite by rubbing the piece and sniffing. If you can't, Simichrome Polish is a must for your treasure hunting tool kit.

    How to Use It

    1. Apply a tiny amount of Simichrome Polish (it's pink) to the tip of a cotton swab.
    2. Rub the swab gently on a small, inconspicuous part of the piece (underside, back, etc.) for 10 to 15 seconds. 
    3. Look at the swab. It the pink polish turns yellow, you've found Bakelite.
    4. Wipe off...MORE any polish remaining on the piece with a tissue.

    What You'll Need

    • Simichrome Polish
    • cotton swabs
    • tissues
    • a small baggie to dispose of used cotton swabs and tissues (you don't want the polish touching your skin or clothes)

    What to Avoid

    • Don't do a Simichrome test in front of the sellers without permission. It doesn't hurt the piece, but they might not know that.
    • Don't leave any polish residue on the piece after the test. 

    Tip

    • Instead of carrying the whole tube, squirt a small amount (just what you'll need for the day) of Simichrome Polish in a clean, empty lip balm tube or glucose strip canister. 
  • 08 of 22

    Flashlight

    mini flashlight that clips to a shirt pocket or belt
    Miniature flashlight with a belt or shirt pocket clip. PIX1861 / PixabayCC0 Public Domain

    A small, bright flashlight is invaluable at garage sales and estate sales.

    When to Use It

    • when the sale has started but the sun isn't quite up
    • to browse the goods in dim garages, attics, basements, closets, and storage sheds

    What to Avoid

    • Don't show up early at yard sales and use your flashlight to peek in windows, garages, and under tarps. That's a good way to get banned from the sale.

    Tips

    • Make sure your flashlight has a switch that stays on when you're not manually holding down the...MORE button.
    • Don't buy a key chain flashlight. Instead, opt for one you can hold in your mouth, such as a tiny barrel light or one shaped like a credit card. That way you can use both hands to dig through boxes and closets. 
    Continue to 9 of 22 below.
  • 09 of 22

    Measuring Tape

    a measuring tape is a must at flea markets, yard sales, and estate sales
    Photo by pippalou at Morguefile.com

    A measuring tape is a must at flea markets, yard sales, thrift stores, estate sales, and antique malls. It's crucial for measuring everything from the width of an antique sideboard to the waist of a vintage dress.

    What to Avoid

    • You don't need a 50-foot retractable monster in a heavy metal case. Keep it small and light.
  • 10 of 22

    Packing and Padding Materials

    Take bubble wrap to flea markets and yard sales to protect fragile finds.
    Use bubble wrap to protect fragile finds. By Smial (Own work) [ FAL or GFDL 1.2], via Wikimedia Commons

    Don't head out on any treasure hunting trip without padding and packing materials.

    At a minimum you need bubble wrap or white packing paper (aka newsprint). If you tend to buy vintage scarves, purses, or clothing, white tissue paper comes in handy too. 

    Where to Use It

    • in your car for wrapping and packing your finds for the trip home
    • in your cart or tote at flea markets and estate sales to keep fragile items safe and clean while you're still shopping
  • 11 of 22

    Pen and Notepad

    keep a notepad and pen in your flea market bag
    FreeImages.com/Jeff Prieb

    A small notepad and pen usually comes in handy while you shop.

    How You'll Use It

    • jotting down measurements
    • noting booth numbers
    • exchanging contact information with sellers
    • making your own sold tags.

    You certainly can't do that last one with your smartphone.

  • 12 of 22

    Your Wish List

    You can't count on finding everything on your wish list, but you do need one. Otherwise, you might get so overwhelmed that you forget to look for the very things you were hoping to find.

    What to Put on It

    Don't just list the items you want. If applicable, also include:

    • brands or makers
    • style details
    • minimum and maximum dimensions 
    • the maximum you're willing to pay

    What to Avoid

    • Don't focus so hard on your list that you miss everything else. Your favorite finds may turn out to be things...MORE you'd never thought of at all.
    Continue to 13 of 22 below.
  • 13 of 22

    Your Sizes and Measurements

    You'll need your measurements to shop for vintage clothing
    oonal/E+/Getty Images

    ​If you shop for secondhand clothing you need a list of your sizes and those of everyone else you shop for.

    Tips

    • If you shop for vintage clothing, you'll need a complete list of your measurements too.
    • Thanks to vanity sizing, the size you wear today isn't what you'd have worn three or more decades ago. A size conversion chart comes in handy -- especially if you're not able to try things on. 
  • 14 of 22

    Your Decorating Specs and Swatches

    Take paint and fabric samples when you shop for flea market furnishings
    Paint and fabric swatches make it easier to choose complementary furnishings. -Oxford-/E+/Getty Images

    Little grates like buying the perfect piece for your home only to find it doesn't match -- or worse, doesn't fit through the door.

    What You Need

    • measurements of each room, both overall dimensions and the distances from element to element. A floor plan with the measurements written in is ideal.
    • measurements of the furniture you already own
    • paint chips of your walls and trim
    • fabric and leather samples from upholstery and window treatments

    Tips

    • If you don't have swatches of your upholstery,...MORE check under the seat cushion and on the underside of the piece. You may find a small sample of the fabric or leather.
    • If you can't find any upholstery or drapery swatches, match the colors to paint chips -- and be sure to label the chips.
    • When measuring your rooms, don't forget architectural details such as window sizes, door openings, and the space above your fireplace mantel. 
  • 15 of 22

    Health and Emergency Supplies

    pack a small cosmetic bag with emergency supplies when you go to the flea market
    "purple cosmetic bag" by denn / CC BY-SA

    Make treasure hunting safer and more comfortable by packing a small cosmetic bag with health and emergency supplies. You don't want a blister or bug bite to ruin your day at the flea.

    What to Keep in It

    • sunscreen in a small tube or deodorant-style stick
    • lip balm with sunscreen
    • insect bite relief stick
    • over-the-counter painkillers
    • any over-the-counter allergy/sinus medications you use
    • facial blotting papers
    • adhesive bandages for blisters and cuts
    • alcohol wipes and first-aid cream in individual packets
    • m...MOREoist towelettes in individual packets
    • health insurance card
    • auto club card
    • any emergency medications you use, such as an EpiPen®, inhaler, or glucose tablets

    Tip

    • Toss your bag in your folding cart at flea markets where you plan to spend some time. Except for emergency medications, leave it in the car everywhere else.
  • 16 of 22

    Masking Tape

    keep masking tape in your treasure hunting tool kit
    FreeImages.com/H Berends

    Every treasure hunter needs to keep masking tape in her car. You'll wonder how you ever managed without it.

    When to Use It

    • to tape sold tags to pieces you're picking up later in the day
    • to secure bubble-wrapped breakables
    • to tape furniture doors and drawers closed
    • to protect glass doors and shelves with a taped X-shape

    Tip

    • You can even use masking tape to secure tall lamps and vases in short boxes. Stand the piece up in the center of the box, and then make a grid out of tape to hold it upright.
    Continue to 17 of 22 below.
  • 17 of 22

    Tool Box

    Keep basic tools in your car when you go to flea markets and estate sales
    redmal/E+/Getty Images

    It just makes sense to carry a few basic tools in your car. You may need to take the legs off of a garage sale table or unscrew the cornice boards you bought at an estate sale.

    What You'll Need

    • screwdriver with changeable heads
    • adjustable wrench
    • socket set
    • pliers

    If you frequent architectural salvage sales (tear-down houses where shoppers buy and remove everything from the hardwood floors to the garden plants), add these to your toolbox:

    • crowbar
    • mallet
    • wedge
    • saw
    • shovel
  • 18 of 22

    Furniture Blankets

    Protect furniture with moving blankets.
    Protect furniture finds with moving blankets. Siede Preis/Photodisc/Getty Images

    If you shop for furniture, keep a stack of furniture blankets (aka moving pads or moving blankets) in your vehicle.

    How to Use Them

    • When you load a piece of furniture, cover the top and sides with a blanket. It keeps the piece from getting scratched when you pile the rest or your finds (including other furniture) on top.
  • 19 of 22

    Bungee Cords and Rope

    bungee cords for securing furniture finds to your truck
    By The original uploader was Jmb at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [ CC BY 2.5, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

    Once you snag a stunning piece of furniture, you have to get it home. Use bungee cords or rope to tie the piece to your truck bed, partially open trunk, or even to the top of your car.

    Tip

    • Make sure you're not obstructing your view or breaking any traffic laws.
  • 20 of 22

    Empty Boxes

    keep empty boxes in our car to hold your flea market and yard sale finds
    FreeImages.com/Pascal THAUVIN

    It never hurts to toss a few empty boxes in your vehicle. You'll definitely use them.

    When to Use Them

    • Some estate sale companies that don't allow tote bags will let you in with a small box to use as a shopping basket.
    • Corral small finds in boxes to keep them from rolling around in the back of the car.
    Continue to 21 of 22 below.
  • 21 of 22

    Smartphone

    use a smartphone at flea markets to check current prices
    John Lamb/DigitalVision/Getty Images

    Treasure hunting is much easier with a smartphone. It's like having reference books, price guides, and your lists all in the palm of your hand.

    When to Use It

    • to photograph a booth where you bought something or might. The visual reference is easier to remember than a booth number (though you'll need that too)
    • to photograph items you bought but haven't picked up yet and things you're still considering 
    • to check Craigslist and Facebook online yard sale sites for sales that weren't...MORE listed the night before
    • for checking directions if you deviated from your pre-planned yard sale route
    • for saving your route directions if you don't use a printed list
    • for saving your wish list, decorating dimensions, and clothing measurements
    • for saving or checking on makers' marks, current prices, and information about a piece

    What to Avoid

    • Don't get so caught up researching an item that someone else walks away with it.
  • 22 of 22

    Drinks and Snacks

    drink plenty of water while flea market and yard sale shipping during summer
    doram/E+/Getty Images

    It's hard to concentrate on snagging the good stuff while your stomach rumbles -- and water is a safety must during the summer months.

    What to Pack

    • Freeze a few bottles of water the night before so the water stays cool as they melt. Or, pack reusable water bottles in a thermal bag with an ice pack.
    • Energy bars and small packs of peanut butter and crackers are filling and won't spoil in the heat. 
    • When your yard sale route starts in the wee hours, take along a big thermos of coffee or tea.

    Tip

    • S...MORElip your water and snacks into your cart for lengthy flea market shopping trips. Just snack in the car along the way for all other types of sales.