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A Guide to Shopping at the Flea Market

Know how to haggle for the best bargains.

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Photography by: John Dolan

People travel from all over the United States to visit flea markets and search among the booths. You can find fresh produce and meat from local farmers, unique handmade crafts from various artists and crafters, and an array of miscellaneous items that come with plenty of history. "Shopping at the flea market feels a little bit like a treasure hunt," says Nicolas Martin, flea market expert and founder of Flea Market Insiders. You never know what you will find there or if you'll find something interesting, but sometimes you do. Flea market shopping can make a great outing with friends, or you can go with a purpose to mind to find one-of-a-kind items to decorate every room in your house.

 

If you're gearing up to go to market this summer, check out these tips from our two flea market shopping experts. You will know how to navigate this unique shopping experience and come home with some great finds.

 

Related: How to Identify an Antique When You See One

 

Arrive Very Early or Last-Minute

The earlier you arrive, the greater the selection. The later you go, the greater the bargain. The shopping day may start before the sun comes up (as early as 5 a.m. for the most competitive markets), when vendors unload and dedicated collectors rush in. That's when merchants are less inclined to negotiate. Furniture sells first, so go early if that's what you are seeking. By mid-morning (around 9 a.m.), everything is unpacked, the energy picks up, and the bargaining begins. Toward the end of the shopping day, usually noon to 3 p.m., things slow down and vendors start packing up. Dealers may not want to bring everything home with them, so you're bound to get a good price. Sue Whitney, who has authored five books on antique shopping and decorating with repurposed furniture, suggests waiting a few days before heading to the flea market. Why? "The third day of a flea market will have better prices," she says. "Dealers will often start marking down the price of their items because they want to sell them and get them out of inventory. The end of a flea market also has potential for new finds. People will start putting out the things they had hidden." 

 

Have a Plan

As you wander through the market, don't rush. "Have a game plan," Whitney says. "I usually go two to three loops around the flea market, get a plan, then go back to the things I liked." This gives you time to find the best deal on similar items or to mull over the purchase before you shell out the cash for it. Exercise more caution with big items—you can always make room at home for a trinket. But don't be too cautious and don't wait until the end of the day—it might not be there.

 

Shop with an Open Mind

Having a specific item in mind will make it harder to imagine what's possible. It's fine to go in with an idea or a concept for how you want a room to look, but Whitney suggests keeping an open mind. "Don't go in worrying about trends or what's popular now," Whitney says. "Create your own style. You can mix the old with the new, and any space in your home will need accessories that are pretty and practical." You could create a rattan side table from a planter and a wooden tray, or perhaps remaster a small, sturdy dresser into a stenciled dresser using home decor paint and stencils.

 

Know What It's Worth

Unless you don't care whether a Coach handbag is authentic or not, it is best to do your research before purchasing an item. "A re-edition or copy is not worth the same as an original," says Martin. "Clever initiations regularly make their way into the marketplace; therefore, it is important to make sure you get what you pay for." For obvious reasons, you don't want to pay full designer price for an imitation of a designer item. Martin also advises inspecting the item for damages and flaws. Some imperfections can certainly add charm to an item. You may also be able to repurpose the item with some paint or creative adjustments, so a few flaws don't mean that you should not purchase the unique find. An imperfection that can't be fixed or that completely devalues the item, on the other hand, is another matter. And if you are in the business of reselling your finds, inspecting them and knowing their true value could become an even bigger pay-off for you in the future.

 

RELATED: 12 Flea Market Finds You Can Upcycle Into Anything

 

Know When and How to Haggle

Good manners make for good negotiating. When you walk up to a table, offer a friendly greeting. Never say, "What's your best price?" Instead, try, "Would you consider less?" In general, expect five to ten percent to be taken off the asking price, but don't push it. Dealers are there to make a profit. You may insult them if you haggle for that extra dollar off. This is especially true for dealers who also specialize in repairing and restoring antiques, or ones who redesign items into unique pieces of artwork. One other tactic is to play hard to get, even if you are smitten with something. If it's evident that you're excited, the dealer will think you'll buy at any cost. It may even work in your favor to walk away; the vendor might call you back to close the deal. "Remember that you are dealing with real people," Martin emphasizes, "who collect things they love and try to make a living of it." As always, you can choose not to buy that particular item from a vendor and move on to another one who has a price that better suits your budget

 

What to Avoid

Not every deal is golden at the flea market. When you inspect items, make sure to look for things like mold, rot, insect infestations, and the like. The last thing you want is to bring home something that might be more than you bargained for. "Beware of vintage bed linen and garments that can contain pests like moths," Martin says. "You don't want to contaminate your wardrobe with an infected sweater or purse—always clean clothing items you purchased at the flea market before storing it." He also recommends avoiding items that are made from endangered species or need certificates to prove their origin, like ivory, tortoise shell, or coral.

 

Commit to It

Flea market shopping does not have the same rules as department store shopping. You are unlikely to be allowed to return an item after you buy it, so experiencing "buyer's remorse" can mean losing a lot of money. "Don't buy it unless you love it," Whitney says. Go in recognizing that you are making a commitment whenever you purchase something. The item might end up in your house, or it could be one that you sell to others once you repair or repurpose it. What you don't want is for the item to collect dust in the garage or turn into clutter in the spare room.