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Secondhand toys make great Christmas gifts

Times are tough, yet soon sleigh bells will ring. The question is this: After your Santa toy shopping is done, will you have any change in your pocket to jingle-jangle? • Forget about door-buster deals and Black Friday frenzies. The real deal on toys is throughout the year at garage sales, consignment shops and thrift stores. If you start when your kids are young enough, you can teach them to be happy with a slew of secondhand toys for pennies on the dollar. • I've supplied the lion's share of toys for four Christmases and a couple of birthdays for my 5-year-old son, Dylan. With yearlong dedication, you can be a thrifty Santa, suited up in a shade of sustainable green. • Here are some of the deals I've found:

Nerf Dart Tag guns: I paid $4 for three identical guns — one at Goodwill and two at a yard sale. All work perfectly. Now my wife, son and I can blast away. The latest version of the guns retail for $12.99 each and include protective goggles. (I bought the darts at Target.)

Transformers Optimus Prime Voice Changer Helmet and Iron Man 2 helmet: I paid $3 for both. Both offer voice and sound effects, and Optimus Prime changes your voice as you speak. Iron Man retails for $34.99, and the newest version of Optimus Prime commands about $29.99.

Disney toy assortment: Boy, what a haul. I got a U-Command Wall-E with infrared remote control, a talking Mr. Incredible figure, a talking Tow-Mater tow truck, and talking Buzz Lightyear with sound, light, pop-out wings and glow-in-the-dark highlights. Total cost was $22. About $15 of that was to order a replacement remote control for Wall-E. All are from yard sales and thrift stores.

Superhero Toy Assortment: Here's another fun bunch of toys. Two large Hulk figures, based on the 2003 movie, were $1 each. Both are rare and out of production. Justice League Unlimited Sonic Zoom Superman makes flying noises with his billowing cape, has arm-smashing sound effects and heat-vision eyes with sound. Wicked cool, and only $5 via Craigslist. A Batman Begins Action Cape Batman came with the Man of Steel in the same deal for an additional $5. You could spend well over $150 chasing these superhero toys on the secondary market.

Hasbro Power Bots Transformers: Jet Power Optimus Prime is the crown jewel of this bargain bonanza. All three, including Bumblebee and the evil Megatron, have voice, sound and light effects. Optimus and Megatron cost a total of $3 at yard sales, and Bumblebee was $5.99 at a consignment shop. Approximate retail price is $22.99 each, if you can find them in stores. Online secondary-market prices could reach $35 each, or much more, transforming your wallet into a sad, empty piece of leather.

Fisher-Price Imaginext Batcave: This is my coup de grace. My price? Free. I met a woman while shopping at her yard sale. She explained she was still cleaning out her son's room. Cha-ching! I gave her my name and number, and she called a week later. She gave me — GAVE ME — two giant plastic yard bags full of toys, including this like-new foldout Batcave. I added the matching Batmobile I had bought earlier for 50 cents and ordered a few missing accessory parts from Fisher-Price for about $7 to complete the set. The brand-new, restyled version of this toy retails for $55.

So there you have it: hundreds of dollars of cool toys for next to nothing. And when Dylan outgrows them, we can pass them along to his younger cousins, donate to a thrift store, consign them or have our own yard sale. Trust me; that one will be a doozy.

Tools of the trade

Secondhand items often need a little TLC — repairs, even a bath. Have these things handy to make toys ready for play.

Disinfecting wipes: Dirt, drool, germs and more can accumulate, especially if toys are stored for long periods. These wipes clean and kill germs.

Hard-surface cleaner:
Clorox makes a version of this in a spray bottle to get disinfecting liquid into hard-to-reach spots. Use carefully on toys with batteries and sound and light components.

Cotton swabs: Use these to press wipes into ridges or to apply hard-surface cleaners where wipes won't reach.

Magic Eraser: Mr. Clean's product is my secret weapon. Colored scrapes and scuffs disappear with a few rubs. Also available in generic versions.

Black permanent markers: Scrapes can remove black from plastic. Sharpies and the like can put it back on for a new look.

A set of small screwdrivers: Sometimes toys have to come apart for cleaning or minor repairs. Have screwdrivers in a variety of sizes.

Glue: I prefer Gorilla Glue for repairing plastic toys.

Toy-shopping tips

Yard sales: If you see one, stop. Luck is key in top finds. Always plan to go to community yard sales, and the earlier you go, the better.

Thrift stores: Visit thrift stores and consignment shops regularly. Inventory cycles through daily, and bargains abound.

Craigslist: Do regular sweeps. Plug in keywords that match your child's favorite toys, characters and brands.

Know your child: Look for what he or she likes. Superheroes, Barbie and Dora the Explorer toys abound.

Check toys: Broken toys and missing pieces — especially projectiles — are common. Rummage to find matching pieces, and don't be shy about asking whether toys and games are complete.

Be aware of recalls: Don't bring home a potential hazard. Check the Consumer Product Safety Commission's list of recalled toys regularly at

Check battery-operated toys: Keep an assortment of batteries and screwdrivers in your car. Open compartments and install fresh batteries to test toys before buying.

Secondhand toys make great Christmas gifts 11/27/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 28, 2011 6:30am]
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