by Daniel P. Dern - When I need specific computer hardware, software or accessories, I'm happy to drive over to You-Do-It Electronics, a great local store heir to the Lafayettes stores of my youth, or to Micro Center, Staples, or Radio Shack, or go online to sites like NewEgg.com or Amazon.
But, like many technology users, especially us SOHOs, I try to maintain a modest inventory (mine's more than modest-sized, I confess) of accessories I might use, adapters, cables, and spare parts and tools, plus, of course, the pile(s) of "stuff I want to
try" ... but don't want enough to pony up store prices for.
Yes, there's eBay, CraigsList, FreeCycle and other sites, but these can involve more search time, faith that it works (and that the seller is legit), patience in looking, and the time and cost for shipping.
Fortunately, there are alternate, far less expensive, immediate-gratification sources for this stuff, namely, yard sales, a.k.a. garage sales, tag sales, etc.
[ See also: Sell Your PC (and Other Gadgets) ]
For example, last year I saw my first TiVo at a yard sale -- three bucks! In theory, the RCA cables alone were almost worth it, and there should be a small hard drive, ditto, even if I won't or can't crank it up for its original use. (Granted, I haven't done any of this yet.) More recently, I saw the first flatscreen LCD -- an eight-year-old 17-inch Dell. Five bucks. I bought it; I've used it a number of times. Much more convenient as a testing display than any CRT.
I'm not the only one does this. My friend Howard Karten, a fellow freelance business and technology writer, and also an ardent yard saler and bargainer, reports he recently bought a 17-inch flatscreen TV/computer display, along with a 15-inch LCD, for five bucks each, and a set of Polk audio speakers for a paltry $2... and a working XP machine -- "admittedly a bit slow" -- for $30, which has been put to use.
Here's some advice on what to look for (and avoid), where to look, how to bargain, and what to do and not do.
Good things to get at yard sales
Keyboards and pointing devices - I don't know about you, but my keyboards always go south after 9PM. Having a spare in the closet is essential. If you use a particular type (e.g., an ergonomic keyboard) stock up at two or three dollars each.
Software (original media) with license keys (e.g., Windows XP, Microsoft Office). Bargain savagely. You should be able to pick these up for a few bucks.
Cables - You CAN have too many USB cables, Ethernet cables, power, etc. (at this point, I do), but until then, a buck each helps fill out your kit. In the stores, this stuff is unbelievably expensive.
Adapters - USB has rendered most of these unnecessary, but if you use pre-USB machines and accessories, a half-shoebox of serial, parallel, and other adapters is helpful, ditto whatever-to-USB adapters.
Media (SD and CF cards, etc.) - Store prices keep coming down, but it never hurts to have extras of these. Don't overpay! Also useful: media readers/adapters.
Displays - LCD flatscreens have hit the yard sale scene. At five to ten bucks, it can't hurt to pick up even a 17-incher as a secondary, spare or for a test machine. Don't casually spend more than a few dollars on a CRT, unless it's one you need (and you're sure it works), you should be able to get all the CRTs you want for free.
Stereo gear - Lots of great receivers and tuners often five to ten bucks. CD, DVD and VCR players, one to three bucks each.
Things for parts value - If you DIY at the hardware level, computers and other gear may have parts you want to scavenge. My friend Howard's bigger on this than I am. In theory it's good, but in practice, I'm not getting around to stuff I get for this.
Things to be more selective about buying
Desktop, notebook computers - Make sure it works, check the specs, make sure the OS registration key information is there. The hard drive may be rife with viruses and malware. If you don't know how to wipe and reload, even free may not be a bargain.
Printers - Make sure it works - and will work with whatever OS you're running - and that it's really something you'll want. Remember, you'll be ponying up soon for fresh ink cartridges.
Digital cameras, MP3 and other portable media players, PDAs, etc. - Even where these work, the prices and performance for new gear are so much better that you have to know what you're looking at and what's in the stores. Make sure they work. For five bucks and under, they may make good junker spares, ones to give to young kids (but again, great new ones are almost as cheap).
Where else to look for cheap tech
Technology recycling locations - Many towns have one at the town recycling center (often part of the town dump); some do curbside pickups. The price can't be beat (free!). Just don't leave a mess rooting through for the goodies you want. (And remember, there's often - but not always - a good reason the stuff was thrown out.)
Flea markets, church/temple fundraisers, etc. - Often harder to confirm whether things work, but you never know.
Friends, family and neighbors - The downside of being the tech geek in a crowd is being called on to do free tech support. The upside, occasionally, is getting pick of the (ahem) litter. If you do regular tech recycling, be a good doobie and offer to take stuff in - which, of course, gives you the chance to pick through their stuff.
Employer and organization cast-offs - Companies, religious and other organizations end up with gear and accessories they don't want. You can help them get rid of a few things.
Make sure it's got all the essential parts (e.g., power supply, battery, proprietary cables).
Where appropriate and possible, make sure tech works before you get it. Boot up the computer; try that MP3 player. If that isn't possible, bargain harder, using "who knows if it works?"
Bargain until the price is right. As any experienced yard-sale-goer knows, most yard sales are about getting rid of stuff, not optimizing revenue - and for most of us, bargaining is half the fun. So build a pile and bargain (unless it's a charitable fundraiser). My advice: start with an offer of a third to half of the nominal total price (if things are marked).
If it's cheap enough and you're not sure you want/need it, get it. You'll always remember and rue the things you didn't get.
Sort, and where possible, try things when you get home. At minimum, sort them. Do your best to re-recycle stuff you determine doesn't work or that you're sure you don't want.
And, especially if you don't live alone, try not to overdo it - or demonstrate the benefit of your frugal techno-scavenging by sharing the bounty.