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How To Find Bargains At A Flea Market

Updated on April 5, 2012

Where in the world is Mama? If it is the first Sunday of the month and I am not at home, chances are that you will find me hunting for bargains at the Alameda Point Antiques Faire. Commonly just referred to as the Alameda Flea Market, it is the largest antiques show held in Northern California, hosting more than 800 booths of treasures. It is a short drive across the Bay from our house, and when I arrive there, I feel like I have landed in some version of heaven.

'Flea-market-ing' is not for the faint of heart. The gates open from 6:00am to 3:00pm, with entrance fees lowered after 7:30am and again after 9:00am. Parking is free, but leave your furry friend at home. Alameda Flea Market is open year-round and regularly attracts 10,000 shoppers in a single day. The key to arriving early is twofold: the best selection of merchandise as well as ease of parking. You will most definitely be thankful later.

Ready? Grab your coffee and here we go.

Where My Hubs Come To Life

Desk found at the Flea Market for $315
Desk found at the Flea Market for $315 | Source

The Inside Scoop of Flea Markets

  • Arrive early for the best selection of items. Although there is plenty to go around, the best treasures do seem to get snapped up fast.
  • Bring only the essentials (wallet, keys, checkbook, sunscreen, phone and water) in a backpack. Your hands are free to do the bargain hunting.
  • It is okay to bypass vendors that do not appeal to you at first glance. You will develop a sense of what you like over time. And, it is nearly impossible to thoroughly visit all the vendors given the scope of the flea market. Know you'll be back.
  • While some larger vendors accept credit cards, remember to bring plenty of cash. There is an ATM machine on site near the front entrance, but expect to wait in line.
  • Expect to walk roughly 3 miles before you head home. Therefore, dress in comfortable walking shoes. Booths are organized in rows clearly labeled from A to Z, followed by AA to ZZ.
  • Bring a grocery cart, wagon or the like to pull your 'medium-sized' finds. No need to carry the whole load on your back.
  • Remember to dress in layers. Located near the water, it is always cool and windy in the early morning. By mid-morning, you will be thankful for the t-shirt underneath.
  • Large pushcarts are available for loan on a first-come, first served basis. Leave 'big-sized' purchases with the sellers until you get ready to leave, then load them up and wheel them to the loading zone. Here is where being an early bird pays off, as the line for the pushcarts grows with time and hopefully your car is parked nearby.
  • You can pull your vehicle right up to the loading zone. You will save time if you have a flea-market buddy with you who can share the work of watching your loot while the other gets/goes to the car.
  • Try to keep your group to a maximum of 3 people. If you go with more, be prepared to split up and set meeting times/points. It is difficult to stay together as interests differ too much from person to person, and the flea market gets very crowded during the peak time (roughly 9:00am to 1:00pm).
  • Don't forget to get your hand stamped upon entering so you can leave and come back without paying admission again.
  • A huge variety of food and drink is available from the food tents and trucks parked along the sides of the flea market grounds. Definitely build in a break for lunch to sit down, stay hydrated and eat. (Try the bite-size donuts made to order and served in a paper cone. The best!)

The Perfect Find At Last

Old-fashioned cow bell for $35
Old-fashioned cow bell for $35 | Source

How to Decide if you Have Found a Bargain

People love a bargain! But rather than focusing on the individual items, try to work with the bigger picture. Learn to set a budget before you set out on your hunt. Measure the outcome based on your overall goal, and know you did well even if you find just a few bargains among some regular priced items. Like a dear friend likes to say: "consider it a bargain if it works within your budget".

It is equally important to go with a mental list of the items you would like to find. And be patient with your purchases until you have found exactly what you set out to look for. Some may label this as 'picky', but I like to think of it as 'determined'. Case in point is the bell I scored for $35 at the tail end of the flea market. I did not settle for another version that might have been slightly cheaper but neither had the leather strap I had envisioned nor made the sound I had imagined.

Learn to recognize quality. Many items at the flea market may require a little repair or restyling, but are well worth the investment of your time and money. But know how to stay clear of those 'bargains' where the final cost will ultimately outweigh the benefits. If the item does not have good bones, leave it behind.

Beware of booths where you notice that lots of buyers are looking but none are actually buying. Some vendors have a knack for attracting people, but upon closer inspection, their merchandise does not measure up. An oversized safety pin (very cool, I must admit) for $8 will seem overpriced to just about everyone.

Let There Be Light

Light pendant purchased for $25
Light pendant purchased for $25 | Source

How To Decide if you Should Walk Away From "a Bargain"

Every season seems to bring a 'trendy' item to the table. One year it was wooden ducks with name tags around their necks, this year I keep seeing lots of burlap and antique bread baking pans. On the upside, these are usually available in mass, which allows you to compare prices and strike a good deal. On the downside, there is nothing unique about your find and to some it may seem you've missed the point entirely about hunting for that special something.

Give yourself plenty of time if you are not 100% sure about a purchase. You will often see similar items that you like much better or you will find the identical item at a lower price just a few booths away. I am still working on this myself. Every time I am at the flea market, I am overcome with a need to buy early and fast. It's part adrenaline rush, part panic. Repeat visits to the flea market pay off over time as you become familiar with the merchandise and know almost by instinct when to jump on a good deal.

And, let yourself be surprised by the unexpected find. I love the desk, where I sit and 'hub', as much today as I did when I bought it. But I had never made a large purchase like this before at a flea market and I was definitely hesitant to commit. Yes, a desk was on my wish list but my mind was focused on other items. Once I stumbled upon it two rows from the bitter end, I grabbed my checkbook and believed it was meant to be.

Know that vendors are willing to bargain, and you will almost always get better prices at the end of the day. Dealers aren't allowed to leave before 3 p.m. and are eager to sell. It took me a while to become comfortable, but it is almost always appropriate to ask for $5 less (at a minimum). Be ready to walk away if the price does not feel right. Just remember to note the row of the booth before you leave so you can find your way back later if you changed your mind.

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    • lb0628 profile image

      lb0628 5 years ago

      Great article!

    • Robin profile image

      Robin Edmondson 5 years ago from San Francisco

      This is great advice for those wanting to shop at a flea market. I love the saying, it's only a bargain if it's in your budget. I need to try to live by that one! Your perfect find, a cow bell, gave me a giggle. You have that amazing knack for putting it all together, cow bell and all!