VALRICO — Natalie McCartney decided to move in with her parents. Her landlord had raised her apartment rent by $200, citing the rising costs of doing business. With that, and the cost of gas, she had to get creative to earn money for basic needs. So she threw a garage sale. "I have to give up my couch so I can afford to drive to work," McCartney said. By the end of her sale, she had earned $300. These days, she's not alone. Last weekend, scores showed up for the community garage sale at FishHawk Ranch in Lithia. The number of homes participating with their own garage sale setups has increased in recent years, partly because of the community's growth but also because of the economy, said Sandra Wix, spokeswoman for the community's homeowners association.
"It's really crowded to the point where you can't even get into the streets," she said.
With the cooler weather comes the season for garage sales, romanticized by classified-ad scourers, hobbyists and wheeling, dealing little old ladies. The early morning yard fairs are in full swing, and some say with a greater force than ever.
The sluggish economy has shoved many people out of their homes and their jobs. They need money; hence the marker-scrawled signs on telephone poles and community bulletin boards. They're everywhere — in southeast Hillsborough, in the gated communities of New Tampa, in South Tampa and Seminole Heights.
Joseph DeSalvo, a University of South Florida professor and expert in urban and regional economics, said he's not surprised by the popularity of garage sales these days.
Even when people don't directly feel the effects of a downturn by losing their jobs or homes, they still get cautious about money, he said.
"People simply react to a change in their circumstances," DeSalvo said.
Maria LaLuz, 68, is a retired bank teller who lives on her Social Security check and pension. She also takes care of her 89-year-old mother, a 42-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old grandson. (Her daughter is back in school to finish a business degree and doesn't have a job.)
"It's a hard time, so I look for sales," LaLuz said, foraging through items at a South Tampa garage sale this month. "But by doing all this, we're doing okay."
Jackie and John Holland sat at a for-sale patio set with a cash box and doughnuts watching LaLuz and other potential buyers. The Hollands had not lost their jobs or their home. They actually had the garage sale because they have four houses too many.
Before "For Sale" signs were ominous, John Holland flipped houses. The market was hot, and it was easy money.
Not anymore. The Hollands can't get rid of the houses, turning the couple into reluctant landlords with more furniture and knickknacks than they need. So they staged a garage sale at one of their rentals. The signs said "everything must go."
It was Jackie's first time.
"I was kind of amazed at what people bought," she said. "It felt good to help them out."
Some neighborhoods and gated communities host group sales to attract more buyers.
In FishHawk Ranch, 300 to 500 homes out of 3,500 total typically participate in the spring and fall sales. Homeowners set up offerings in their driveways for a $5 fee, which pays for ads, signs and maps. Church and thrift store trucks haul off whatever browsers didn't buy.
In the northern end of the county, Frank Margarella, president of the New Tampa Community Council, said garbage day was once prime time for treasure seekers to snag secondhand goodies from gated communities.
Nowadays, he said, people are accumulating their stuff for garage sales.
"It doesn't matter what level you're at; everybody's discretionary income is restricted," he said. "You're going to say, 'Hey, I'm going to sell this and this and this, and I'm going to buy the kid the fancy cleats or the fancy gear and it's not going to hurt the household.' "
Emily Hernandez, 26, of Carrollwood had her first sale in September. She and her boyfriend downsized to an apartment because their carpet-cleaning business has slowed down. There won't be room for the dining set they sold for $45 — or the bedroom set no one bought.
"It's my stuff, and it means a lot to me. But by the middle of the sale I was like, 'That'll be for gas. That'll be for the security deposit,' " she said. "We have to pinch pennies every way we can."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3386.