12 Tips to Navigate the Flea Market Like a Pro

Perusing flea markets is a fun and often fruitful activity that can be overwhelming for novice and veteran collectors alike. These picker-worthy strategies will set you on a course to shopping success as you navigate any and all flea markets like a pro.

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1. Be prepared

Before you go thrifting, explore the flea market's website for a list of vendors and a map or chart that indicates vendors' locations. Set a budget and create a list of objects you want to buy. Jot down measurements of places in your home you want to fill with newly purchased pieces. Compiling this info beforehand allows you to plot a buying route that efficiently gets you to the booths you most want to visit while focusing your acquiring eye.

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2. Think about transportation

Make sure you have a way to get your finds home, which might mean arriving in a truck or knowing the location of the nearest shipping center. Clean out your vehicle to create empty space for toting your loot. Meet up with a friend who loves flea markets as much as you, so you have an extra car and an extra pair of hands available if needed. Check with market organizers or individual vendors about delivery services.

3. Dress for success

Dress in sheddable layers appropriate for a day's worth of weather. Wear sunscreen and a sun hat or ball cap on hot, sunny days; put on comfortable shoes to keep your feet blister-free as you trek down miles of aisles.

4. Fill your wallet

Carry plenty of cash, but bring your checkbook as a backup. Not every vendor takes credit cards and nothing says "let's deal" better than cash in hand. Have singles or small bills in your pocket to make quick deals on inexpensive objects.

5. Gear up

Bring a folding cart to haul your purchased goods as you shop for more. Stock a backpack with hand wipes, water, a tape measure, and plastic bubble packing material or towels for protecting breakables. Bring a cell phone that holds images of the things you're seeking as well as the at-home spaces that you want to furnish. Use your cell phone to tap into websites like eBay to check whether vendors' asking prices are reasonable.

6. Arrive early

Early birds get the tastiest worms! You'll find the best selections when the market opens (but you'll get better prices toward the end of the day). You'll move freely through the aisles before crowds gather, which gives you a chance to quickly peruse vendors' wares. If you're doing a speedy overview, jot down the locations of the booths you want to revisit.

7. Never pass by special stuff

When you see an object that calls your name and sets your heart aflutter, buy it immediately. If you love it, someone else will, too, and that person might be standing right behind you. Replay the mantra "If you snooze, you'll lose" as you shop to prevent regrets at the end of the day.

8. Assess worth

Look for labels that translate into value. Baker, Drexel, Charles Eames, Henredon, William Haines, Kittinger, Verner Panton, and Stickley furniture pieces are beautiful and durable. Silver brands, such as Gorham, Oneida, Towle, and Rogers Brothers, and pottery makers, such as McCoy, Bauer, and Weller, are highly collectible. Check furniture joints to see if they're secure or can be easily fixed; pass by too-rickety items (especially chairs) that are unlikely to support people or things. Look closely for dings, dents, and chips that adversely affect a piece's appearance.

9. Dig deep

Be willing to paw through piles of tarnished trappings and boxes of grimy odds and ends; your reward for doing the dirty work might well be a trove of buried treasure. Keep in mind that even rusty iron hardware, weathered wicker, and slightly bent metal signs can be cleaned, repaired, repurposed, or renewed to create something that is functional and aesthetically pleasing.

10. Meet the dealers

Introduce yourself to dealers specializing in your gotta-have items to build mutually beneficial relationships for future flea market visits. Listen to the stories dealers share about their wares; knowing a piece's history will make you love it more. Ask dealers about specific items you're seeking; if they don't stock them, they are likely to have a friend (who has a friend, who has a friend) who sells what you're looking for.

11. Negotiate nicely

When bartering, do it in a positive manner. Ask dealers for their best price; if you're comfortable with that, then buy. If not, offer them what you're willing to pay. If you can't come to a consensus, thank the dealer and move on to the next vendor. Don't haggle just to haggle; if you're not serious about the purchase, you're wasting time and probably irritating waiting buyers.

12. Stay till closing time

Most vendors don't want to cart their entire inventory home. You can find great deals at the end of the day, especially when you have cash in hand. Head back to check on pieces you bargained for earlier in the day but were ultimately unable to afford to see if the dealer is more willing to negotiate the price. If you can't reach an agreement, ask the dealer if you can leave your name in case she's willing to part with the piece at your price at a later date.

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