How to Shop for Junk

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Our growing obsession with junk is understandable, given the nation’s current economic woes. But Ki Nassauer, an avid junker who runs the blog, says that, similar to secondhand shopping, dumpster diving (also known as picking) is becoming increasingly popular thanks to cultural shifts toward recycling and sustainable living.

“There’s no stigma attached to [dumpster diving] anymore,” Nassauer says. She explains that folks who grew up after the Great Depression were driven by the idea that everything needed to be new. Now, instead, people are intrigued by the idea that you can find something of value for free. 

“It’s a very green way to live,” she points out.

It also helps that people get a firsthand look at how old items left on the road can actually have financial value on TV shows like American Pickers or Picker Sisters, a practice that many consumers are apt to replicate.

“Most people are looking for something special,” Michael Andreacchi, co-founder of Junk King, a full-service junk removal company that works with collectors and refurbishers to recycle the items it collects. He says that most people who dumpster dive do it to find hidden treasures that can be worth a lot of money to in antique markets, while others may want to find furniture for their house or to add to their hobby collections.

“We work with one individual that really likes light bulbs,” Junk Kings’s other founder Brian Reardon says.

But no matter what may drive a person to dive into the dumpster, Andreacchi and Reardon both say that a lot of the junk they are hired to haul away can, in fact, still be put to good use.

“We recycle approximately 60% of everything we pick up,” Andreacchi says. He adds that there have been times when his company has hauled off items that were brand new to be recycled.

But, while one man’s trash may actually be another man’s treasure, chances are good that pickers still have to sort through a lot of garbage to find the good stuff. MainStreet asked our experts to provide some tips for novice dumpster divers to help them spot great finds among items that people just don’t want anymore.

Learn the laws in your municipality.

“Every state has different laws regarding dumpster diving” Rob Holmes, a private investigator who has had to go through people’s trash when working on a case, tells MainStreet. However, he says, most cities allow residents to pick anything deemed to be abandoned. 

This means that generally, you can take a chair sitting out on the curb but refrain from nabbing a couch that may be simply sitting on a person’s front lawn. It also means that private dumpsters may be off limits, while public ones tend to offer pickers free reign.

But aspiring pickers should double check with local government officials to get the rules, as Holmes cautions that certain cities have ordinances that override state laws and may be much stricter. Beverly Hills, for example, has a “no scavenging” law that prohibits all types of dumpster diving in an attempt to keep out an influx of individuals scouting swanky secondhand goods from the local celebrity population, Holmes says. 

If you are having trouble learning what your city’s ordinance is, you can simply follow Nassauer’s advice.

“Always ask,” she says, before hitting up somebody else’s garbage, especially if it requires that you go onto their property, as technically that can be considered trespassing.

Where to go?

The good news is that most quality items aren’t hidden in dumpsters, “they’re on the streets,” Nassauer says.  This means that new pickers can get started by learning when trash day is in their local neighborhoods.

“Most people put out their trash and good things on the side of the road the evening before trash day,” Teri Gault, CEO and founder of The Grocery Game, a bargain-hunting website, agrees. “So, if you have a pickup truck, a cruise through the neighborhood in the evening can reap some good stuff!”

Nassauer also suggests that novice pickers seek out city clean-ups both within and outside of their own neighborhoods. These are events organized by local governments in which residents are encouraged to throw out large items they no longer want on a specified day and others are given permission to take whatever they can get their hands on.

One thing is for certain, “stay away from dumpsters behind restaurants,” Nassauer says, as you’re be better off checking out construction dumps instead.

Be prepared.

“You will not believe the amount of filth you can find in dumpsters,” Holmes says. He suggests that those willing to brave the mess be sure to take insect repellant, roach killer, Lysol, latex gloves and trash bags along with them.

He also suggests bringing blankets to lie down in your car, in case you do find a particularly messy piece to take home with you.

How to spot a find.

When it comes to scoring some free furniture or some nice decorative pieces for your new apartment, your picks will largely be driven by personal taste. But those looking for antiques to parlay into cold, hard cash, need to develop a careful eye.

“Just because something is old doesn’t mean it is worth anything,” Andreacchi says. He explains collectors are generally looking for originals. As such, “you have to look for some stamp of authenticity.”

This can include actual signatures on discarded paintings, stamps on the bottoms of figurines or other marks that date the piece in question.

Jim Hurrell, an avid dumpster diver who runs a secondhand boutique in Denver, also says that large items with a lot of character –  for instance, doors that have interesting architectural design elements or clocks made from unique materials – can have value as decorative pieces so they are good to snatch up as well.

If you believe you have found something special, Reardon suggests taking it to a professional, such as a local antiques dealer, who can verify its authenticity.

“With any item that looks out of the ordinary, you never know,” he says.

Want to see what some Americans have found in other people’s trash? Check out MainStreet’s roundup of real dumpster finds!

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