Looking for a Yard Sale on Steroids? - Welcome to the UK Car Boot Sale

••• Banham Car Boot Sale. © Brokentaco, Creative Commons Licence

If you can't resist a yard sale and hand-lettered "Garage Sale" signs have you slamming on the brakes and turning out of your way in a flash, then you'll love a good car boot sale.

In the UK, people rarely set out garage or yard sales in front of their own houses. In some communities, doing that may even violate local regulations about blocking the pavements.

Instead, they have giant meets where people who have had a clear out or who need to raise a bit of cash, bring their unwanted goods to sell.

Some spring up almost spontaneously - to raise money for a school project or a church, perhaps, while others are regularly scheduled events where hundreds of sellers show up. They combine the qualities of flea markets, swap meets and yard sales on steroids. If looking for treasures amid other people's junk is your thing, you will love a day at a good car boot sale.

What's the Difference Between a Car Boot Sale and a Flea Market?

The British call the trunk of a car, the boot and that's where the name car boot sale comes from. Unlike flea markets, which are usually populated by professional traders selling antiques and collectibles, the idea behind a car boot sale is that ordinary people pay a small fee - usually £7 to £15 - for a pitch big enough for a car. A higher fee is charged for bringing a van to the sale. They can then spend the day selling whatever they've been able to pack into it.

People usually bring folding tables to set out their wares but originally goods were sold right out of the boot of a car; sometimes they still are. In general, professional dealers and traders are discouraged from attending car boot sales. Some organizations even hold separate flea markets for professional traders on different days than their car boot sales.

But in practice, professional traders do show up. Similarly, some car boot sales ban the sale of new goods.

What Can You Buy at a Car Boot?

Expect pretty much the same sort of goods that you'd see at a yard sale -

  • old books and CDs
  • crockery,cutlery
  • used and vintage clothing and hats
  • costume jewelry
  • vases and china ornaments
  • tools and garden implements
  • textiles - table linens, blankets, small embroideries
  • small furniture - chairs, occasional tables, small chests of drawers
  • Collectibles and some antiques.

Car boots are particularly good for the kinds of collectibles that are treasures to some and rubbish to others - old vinyl records, magazines and comic books for example. If it's the sort of thing your Gran might clear out of the attic without appreciating its value - you might (and I emphasize might) find it at a car boot sale.


How to Find a Treasure at a UK Car Boot Sale

Show up really early. Antique dealers and collectibles traders show up at car boot sales as soon as the gates open, looking for things they can resell for a profit. If they spot a promising looking car being unloaded, they'll be there, buying all the best stuff before the seller has even unpacked her goods.

If you want to have a chance at finding something special, you have to beat them at their game.

Show up early and don't be shy about reaching in to still packed boxes in still loaded car boots. Just be prepared to have your head chopped off if you are too aggressive. Don't be shy about bargaining either. No one expects you to pay the first asking price or the marked price without a bit of a haggle. The best prices can be had at the end of the day when the sellers are packing up to leave.

And one more tip - if you see something you absolutely, positively can't live without, try to strike a deal over it right away. Otherwise, be prepared to lose it because chances are, it won't be there when you come back for a second look.

Five Things to Beware Of

Car boot sales are relatively unregulated. Sellers don't charge or collect sales tax and things change hands in a rather informal fashion. For that reason, you need to be careful of:

  1. Counterfeits and fakes - those never worn or never used brand-labelled goods ("It was a Christmas present that didn't fit me") could very well be fakes. The unopened DVD of a popular movie, at a fraction of the usual price, could be an illegal copy, filmed in the cinema and dubbed in Croatian or might just be a blank. Car boot sales are notorious places for unloading counterfeit goods.
  2. Stolen goods - If the jewelry looks like real gold or real gemstones and it's going for a song, why is it being sold at a car boot sale instead of an antiques fair or to a legitimate dealer? Those elaborate silver candlabra that are heavy enough to be real silver might be holloware filled with lead or stolen. Use your common sense. If it looks and feels too good to be legitimate, it probably is.
  3. Sharp traders Like poker and pool, car boots have their wolves in sheep's clothing. You think you've found a valuable Royal Crown Derby figurine and the sweet housewifely lady who is selling it hasn't a clue about it's value. That's why she's willing to part with it for virtually pennies. "It was just part of some cartons full of junk in my gran's attic," she assures you. Just a dust collector as far as she's concerned. Don't kid yourself. She probably has two dozen knock-offs, exactly the same, in the boot of her car, waiting for more suckers just like you to wander along.
  4. Broken goods Check plugs and wiring. Bring along some batteries so you can see whether the goods you're considering really do work. If a music box has a wind-up mechanism, wind it up and see if it works. If not, adjust your offer accordingly.
  5. Pickpockets and quick change artists All that money changing hands in small quantities is bound to be a temptation. Put your money in a secure place and keep your hand on the catch of your handbag. Be careful, as well, of "the hand is quicker than the eye" conmen when giving or taking change. Bring money in small denominations and bring coins so that you can pay in exact change whenever possible.


Some Recommended Car Boot Sales

There are hundreds - probably thousands - of car boot sales around the UK so I can't pretend that this is a comprehensive list of the best. Nevertheless, these are some car boot sales that meet my personal tests for success - they're big enough to spend the whole day browsing and I've managed to find real bargains that I still treasure:

  • Ford Airfield Car Boot - Gigantic sales every Thursday and Saturday morning, 7:30am to 2pm on a former Naval air base between Arundel and Littlehampton on the A27 in West Sussex. No new goods or weapons are allowed and food sellers are by appointment from the management. Sellers pay £8 per car.Find it.
  • Tetsworth Car Boots - Another big market, just east of Oxford off the M40. Car boot plus antiques market and merchandise clearance sales, from 8am to 1pm every Sunday (usually between June and October, weather permitting) in Tetsworth Fields. Find it.
    If you get tired of car booting, designer discount shopping is about 20 minutes away up the M40 at Bicester Village.
  • "The Big One", Basildon Essex is officially the Nevendon boot sale. It's been running for more than 20 years and is often featured on television programs. Open Sundays, Thursdays, Bank Holiday Mondays and Good Friday, from about Easter through the autumn. Thursdays are best for second hand goods. Located in fields north of the A127 and the A132 in Essex. Find it.
  • Brighton Racecourse - Relatively new but instantly popular, this is one of several carboot sales in the Brighton and Hove area. Open Sundays from 10:30am to 4pm. Buyers admission charge of 80p after 10:30am. But if you want the best chance at the good stuff, spring for an early admission pass that allows entry before 10:30am - in 2016 it cost £2.50. And you don't have to wait for the warm weather. This one is open year round.  Find it.


How to Find More Car Boot Sales

Besides all the regularly scheduled car boot sales, one-off sales and charity sales pop up all the time. The best way to keep up, or to find a sale near where you happen to be when the mood for carbooting strikes, these online directories and calendars can help: