Maria LaLuz picked up a silver cooking pot from a stockpile of utensils and glassware. She turned it over, inspecting it carefully before making her offer — $1.
It's the same routine every week now that the weather has cooled, ushering in garage sale season. LaLuz makes a list before heading out to the sales. A couple of Saturdays ago, it included pots, pans and a new coffeemaker. But like so many others, she isn't scouting bargains for fun. In these dismal days, it's all about a good deal.
Garage sales, romanticized by classified-ad scourers, hobbyists and wheeling, dealing little old ladies, 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 New Tampa, in Lithia, 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, for instance, they still get cautious about money, he said.
"People simply react to a change in their circumstances," DeSalvo said.
LaLuz, 68, of South Tampa is a retired bank teller who lives on her Social Security check and pension.
She also takes care of her 89-year-old mother, her 42-year-old daughter and 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 while foraging through items at a 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 while 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 turning homes meant 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 on W Bay View Avenue in South Tampa. 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."
Neighborhoods and gated communities across the county host group sales to attract more buyers.
FishHawk Ranch, the community in Lithia, had its sale last Saturday. Of about 3,500 homes in FishHawk, 300 to 500 typically participate in the spring and fall sales, and thousands of customers stop by, said Sandra Wix, spokeswoman for the community's homeowners association.
Wix said participation has risen in recent years, because of community growth but also the economy. "It's really crowded to the point where you can't even get into the streets," she said.
Garbage day was once prime time for treasure seekers to snag secondhand goodies from gated communities, said Frank Margarella, president of the New Tampa Community Council.
Nowadays, he said, people are accumulating their stuff for garage sales rather than getting rid of it for free.
"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, 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."
The couple made $118.
Back at the Hollands' sale in South Tampa, an 8-year-old named Kristina sorted through a colored bead set. Kristina's parents, Arnell and Lissa Biglete, joined the Hollands to sell some kids items, mostly old toys and Kristina's hand-me-downs.
As she watched another little girl pluck two of her Barbie dolls from a big pile, Kristina said it's hard to see her stuff go. But there's one thing she learned to like about yard sales.
"Making the money is the most fun," she said.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.