Have you ever been to a car boot? If you can't resist a big yard sale and hand-lettered "Garage Sale" signs have you slamming on the brakes and turning out of your way in a flash, then a British car boot sale should be right up your alley.
In the UK, people rarely set out garage or yard sales in front of their own houses. In some communities, doing that may even be against local bye-laws 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 a 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 to buy. competing with you for the good stuff. 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, DVDs, CDs and - if you're lucky - old vinyl
- 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 we 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 for 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 on the lookout for:
- 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 it might just be blank. Car boot sales are notorious places for unloading counterfeit goods.
- 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 hollow ware filled with lead or stolen. Use your common sense. If it looks and feels too good to be legitimate, it probably is.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 we can't pretend that this is a comprehensive list of the best. Nevertheless, these are some car boot sales that meet our shoppers' tests for success - they're big enough to spend the whole day browsing and we've managed to find real, still treasured bargains:
- Ford Airfield Car Boot - Gigantic sales every Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, year round. The site (on a former Naval air base between Arundel and Littlehampton on the A27 in West Sussex) opens for sellers (and early bird buyers at 7:30 a.m. on Thursday and Saturday, 8:30 a.m. on Sunday) . No new goods or weapons (including knives) are allowed and food sellers are by appointment from the management. Thursday sellers pay £8 per car and £15 per van or car with trailer; for Saturday sellers it's £10 per car and £20 per car/trailer combo and for Sunday sellers it's £6 and £12. There are no books or plants for sale on Sundays and no new goods allowed, ever. .Find it.
- Tetsworth Car Boots - Another big market (actually a set of several markets) just east of Oxford off the M40. In addition to car boot sales, this gathering has a separate area for an antiques market and another for new merchandise clearance sales. It's held from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. (7a.m. to 10a.m. for sellers setups) on selected Sundays, from May through June and July (weather permitting) in Tetsworth Fields. For sellers the fee is £10 for cars and small vans, £14 for large vans. Buyers enter free. The first scheduled boot sale in 2018 was May 20, with four more planned until Sunday July 8. The best way to find out when to go is by visiting the website. 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. By 2018, it had been running in Stevenson's Farm for more than 28 years and is often featured on television programs. It opens Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays from late spring through autumn, weather and field conditions permitting. This one is for very early birds. It opens for both buyers and sellers at 6:30 a.m. Cars cost £8, Transit vans £10 and vans with trailers "more". That more is a bit of a guessing game because they say on their website that they don't answer emails,. So if you are a seller with a trailer, you just have to guess. Parking and entry is free for buyers. Find it.
- Brighton Racecourse - Relatively new but instantly popular, this is one of several car boot sales in the Brighton and Hove area. Open on scheduled Sundays or Bank Holiday Mondays (check the website) from 10:30 a.m. to 4.p.m. for buyers and from 8:30 a.m. for sellers, this is one of the few car boots that charges buyers a small admission fee (80p). But if you want the best chance at the good stuff, spring for an early admission pass that allows entry before 10:30am - in 2018 it cost £2.50. Sellers pay £10 for any size vehicle and any amount of space as long as it lasts. 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, is to check one of these online directories and calendars: