Using Auctions, Goodwill and Second Hand Stores to Stockpile Prepping Supplies at Bargain Prices

I was unexpectedly laid off two years ago. Although I eventually landed another position after months of searching, losing my job was perhaps the most humbling and painful experience I’ve been through in recent years. Truth be told, I was also bitter. The frustrations of hunting for a new job in a tough market, starting up a sideline family business and wondering where in the world my family of six will end up really began to take their toll. I sorely needed a distraction and an excuse get out of the house! On a whim, I started going to auctions.

Auctions have become an avid interest –they’ve taught me new negotiating skills, how to identify bargains and they’re an avenue for extra income to shore up our finances. Surprisingly, I found auctions to be an exceptionally good source of prepping and barter supplies. You can buy many items for pennies on the dollar, and others for bargain price that won’t break your budget!

What types of supplies can be found at auction? Here’s the abbreviated list of items I’ve bought or seen up for bid at even small country auction houses:

  • Military surplus including ammo boxes, clothing, backpacks, boots, helmets, Gortex parkas, rain gear, manuals, and gear components like magazine pouches, radio carriers, etc.
  • Shortwave and CB radios
  • Antique, fully functional fruit and vegetable presses
  • 90% silver coins
  • Firearms (antique and modern), parts, tools and accessories like magazines, scopes, and cleaning kits
  • Archery and fishing equipment
  • Tools, including plenty of quality hand tools
  • Welding Equipment
  • Camping equipment including high quality sleeping bags, lanterns, stoves and cooking accessories
  • Reloading equipment including dies, presses, books, parts and bullets/casings.
  • Navigation: maps, compasses and GPS equipment
  • Communications equipment including old shortwave radios with tubes to modern CB radios, marine radios, and handhelds.
  • Canning equipment and supplies, modern and hundred year old food dehydrators.
  • Freezers
  • General household supplies for stocking a retreat
  • Lockers for storing stuff in your basement
  • Vehicles, campers, tractors and ATVs
  • Cases or personal hygiene items such as soap, shampoo, razors – convenience store stuff
  • Tractors, ATVs, farm equipment and gardening supplies
  • Extra large trailers in new condition selling for more than 50% off bottom line dealership prices.
  • Large heavy duty plastic containers with weather stripping and lockable tops for shipping military stuff overseas – great for storing your preparedness items in quantity!

The list is nearly endless!

Before touching on key topics, remember these important points: There is no risk in attending an auction – absolutely none! If you don’t bid, or if you don’t win, you walk out without having spent a dime. In fact, for your first 1-2 auctions, you should just sit and observe. You can learn a lot by watching people who have been attending auctions for years! However, if you choose to bid before you understand the way auctions work, you can easily overpay and/or blow your budget. Start out slowly!

If you have no experience with auctions, you’ll need a few tips and ground rules to get you started before you give this fun adventure a try.

Locating Good Auctions

My favorite sources of auctions are and I’ve also found estate auctions advertised in local newspapers and on Craigslist. If you’re already visiting yard sales during the day to find prepping supplies at bargain prices, you can work auctions into your routine since many are held in the evenings. Write down the times and dates of auctions you are interested in, so you can map out an efficient route and conserve time and gas money. If you attend a significant number of auctions, you will start to find there are certain auctioneers that know how to run a fast paced and well organized auction. Get on their email list!

Know What’s Being Sold Before You Go

First, you need to locate auctions that are offering the kind of merchandise you want to buy (this is a great time to refer to your list of prepper related needs and wants). If you aren’t careful, you can waste a lot of time and gas money traveling to an auction that won’t be selling items you’re interested in.

Carefully review online auction descriptions and image galleries to understand what is being sold. If details aren’t available, ask the auction house for an inventory list. I specifically look for keywords in the following categories: camping, guns, reloading, surplus military equipment, silver (coins or bars), knives, canning equipment, farming equipment and tools. If these items are present at an auction, chances are there are others that aren’t on the web site.

Auction location is also important. City auctions tend to offer higher priced items such as art work and collectibles. You can also find city auctions that offer tools and building supplies. Rural auctions almost always offer items that are of interest to preppers, including farm and garden tools, workshop supplies, even tractors and trucks. As with any auction, you have to be very careful to verify the items offered meet the general theme of what you are looking for.

If you see one or more of these items listed at an estate auction, chances are the estate will be selling off many items you’ll be interested in. If you see the same items at a combined auction run by a traditional auction house, you may need to be a little more discriminating. Some auction houses combine many unrelated lots of merchandise together and you’ll need to wade through baby items, vinyl records and 1970s clothing to get what you want. I haven’t found anyone that still likes polyester leisure suits.

Here’s the list of items I consider as I choose which auctions to attend:

  • Location – how far are you willing to drive? Gas money adds up, especially at today’s prices.
  • What’s the auction house premium? This is commonly 10% but can be more or less.
  • Does the auction accept debit cards, credit cards, checks and/or cash? Ask in advance!
  • Is there a discount for paying in cash?
  • Is there an extra fee for using a credit card? Some auction houses add a 3% fee for the use of credit cards.
  • Who is calling the auction? Do they have a good reputation for delivering an organized event?
  • Will the auction help you load larger items into your vehicle?
  • How well advertised was the auction? The less advertised, the better.
  • Will food or snacks be served free of charge for a reasonable price? This is an important detail that should not be overlooked, especially if you are bringing children. Some auctions can easily run for 5-6 hours.

Research Merchandise Values.

Okay, let’s assume a few items at a particular auction have caught your eye. How do you know what fair value is, and more importantly, what a good bargain price is? Look at closing prices on online auction sites like eBay (you can use your smart phone for this). You may also let your experience buying at both yard sales and retail locations help guide you to the right price. Ultimately, your goal is to purchase items you can use in your preparedness plan at a bargain price (i.e., a survival knife or a pre-1965 90% silver coins with common dates.)

You can also flip auction items to make a profit. The same valuation research you use to identify items for your supply stash can also be used to recognize bargains that can be sold for a profit now or during TEOTWAWKI event.

My research includes adding specific items to a spreadsheet, adding notes about fair market value, and notes about low and high selling prices. I also set a limit on how much I am willing to spend on a particular item. I bring these notes with me as part of my auction kit.

What should you bring?

  • Your notebook with notes on items that you would like to bid on, and for recording details about your winning bids
  • A predefined budget that you will not exceed
  • A small calculator to keep track of your purchase totals
  • A sturdy bag or two, or a box to carry your items away in
  • A small quantity of 3×5 cards with your name and cell phone number on them. If you win a larger item that cannot be handed to you at your seat, quickly write your bidder’s registration number on the 3×5 card for the auction assistant to tape to the item.
  • Payment in the form of cash, credit card, check or debit card
  • An iPhone, iPad or other smart device to research prices on the fly
  • A good partner (i.e., spouse) to stop you from bidding too much on an item (shin kicking works)
  • A small supply of snacks, bottled water
  • A good sense of humor – you’ll need to laugh it off when the auction-savvy 12 year old kid seated to your right and the white haired great grandmother on your left take turns owning you in the bidding process.
  • Cash – remember to stow it in a safe place on your person.

Where should you sit?

Get a seat close to the front, but at least a few rows back and be in clear view of the auctioneer or their assistants. Why not sit in the front row? I like to watch people who are more savvy than I am. If they stop bidding or shake their head “No”, then they have reached their limit on what they are willing to bid and for very good reason. I use their reactions as a queue to stop or slow down my own bidding if I am not knowledgeable about the item being sold. Once you’ve selected a seat, place a piece of paper on the seat with your name on it. This prevents the seat from being claimed by someone else while you are inspecting merchandise before the auction begins. Experienced auction attendees seem to honor this seat code – many place masking tape on the seat with their name on it so it cannot be blown off.

Inspect Merchandise Before the Auction Begins!

If the auction house is close to your home and allows previews prior to auction day, take advantage of this opportunity. You may find that the auction is not the right one for you and wisely choose to spend your time at another venue.

Plan to arrive at least an hour early on auction day. Review all the merchandise on the floor and go through boxes. It’s time well spent – you’ll see many items that were not included in the online auction gallery.

Carefully review the items you plan to bid on, even if you previewed them the day before or online. Why? Online image galleries don’t always show the true condition of each item. Sometimes items can be damaged when handled in preparation for the auction, more may be added at the last minute, and you want to make sure high value items like coins weren’t switched. Mildew and cigarette smoke odors may also be present on the item. Mechanical items must be checked for functionality and long term serviceability.

When Should You Bid?

Once the auction starts, don’t be the first bidder. Let’s use a common camping lantern in well used but serviceable condition as an example. The auctioneer may start the bidding at $50. Nobody in their right mind would bid that high. He’ll continue to reduce the bid until somebody bites (usually $5 on an item like this). Once the first bid goes in at $5, hold off on bidding yet again until others have bid up the price a little. The strategy is to suppress the price. If you bid too early, the price may run much too high and someone (probably you) will be overpaying. Wait for the bidding to slow down. If the price is still below your target, bid with a pained look on your face. It adds to the drama.

Note: When you’re the winning bidder, remember to write down specifics such as a short description of the item, the winning bid price, and where the item was placed if it wasn’t given to you at your seat. Auction houses occasionally make mistakes and enter a wrong winning bid amount, and items placed outside of your possession have been known to disappear. Most auctions have rules that say once you are the winning bidder, you own that item, even if you haven’t paid for it yet!

Don’t get caught up in the rush of bidding on a particular item.

It’s not worth overpaying for any one item unless you absolutely must have it. If you start attending auctions on a regular basis, you’ll see the same or similar items on the auction block a few weeks later. You can bid again. For instance, let’s say you wanted that camping lantern but your maximum bid of $15 wasn’t enough. Somebody else got it for $17.50. Don’t kick yourself. You may see a top end Dietz lantern a couple of weeks later and get it for your bid limit. I’d rather have the Dietz in my prepping supplies, wouldn’t you?

Occasionally, it’s okay to take a risk on an item when your gut instinct is telling you the winning bid is still a bargain. I recently bought a very ornate and heavy cast aluminum mailbox that was resold for 10 time what I spent on it… and I know nothing about mailboxes! In another round of bidding, a knife nobody wanted turned out to be worth quadruple what I bought it for. A box of coins with a few 90% silver dimes mixed in with other odd coins turned out to have 75 pieces of 90% silver dimes and quarters at the bottom; nobody bothered to dig through the box before bidding started.


Once the auction closes (or you’ve hit your spending limit), proceed to the cashier. You’ll be paying the winning bid price, plus the auction house premium (often 10%), plus a credit card transaction fee if you are not paying in cash, and sales tax. On the topic of sales tax, it’s a good idea to know your state sales tax regulations. In my state, we are not charged sales tax on currency or bullion purchases. I’ve had to educate a cashier on this topic on more than one occasion. I now bring printed copies of the relevant sales tax regulations.

Remember to tip workers who help you load heavy items into your vehicle. Chances are you’ll be seeing these people again if you continue to attend regional auctions.

Using Auctions To Source Items For Profit

A word of warning: BE CAREFUL! It’s very easy to lose money in the resale game. If you are going to do this for profit, it’s wise to pick a few classes of merchandise and build your expertise. You need to possess a solid understanding of how each item is valued and its resale potential. For instance, I’m a fan of antique pocket and survival knives. Early on, I overpaid for knives I thought were worth more than my winning bid. Those mistakes were sometimes painful! I made it a point to understand exactly what I was bidding on, the resale potential, and all costs involved in buying that particular knife and reselling it via other channels. I am far better off not bidding on an item if I don’t know enough about it. 75% of the time, post mortem research proves I would have overpaid. To summarize – don’t buy something to resell for profit unless you are confident in your knowledge of the resale market.

[JWR Adds: I recommend that you assemble a reference library that can serve you both for establishing the authenticity of goods, and for establishing their relative values. Be sure to print out some useful data and weight conversion formulas, and keep those pages in a reference binder. In my estimation, you will need your own copies of the following books:

Buying definitive references is a wise move that will keep you from making some costly mistakes. This preparation fits in with the old saying: “It takes money to make money.”]

Dealing With The Competition

You are going to meet a long list of interesting people. Almost everyone I’ve met has been warm, friendly and polite… until the bidding starts. That nice little old lady that chatted with you politely before the start of the auction? She’s now a stone cold blood sucking vampire zombie glaring at anyone trying to bid on “her” depression glass. I’ve also seen Mr. Friendly lean over and talk to their coin buying neighbor while Mrs. Friendly took advantage of the distraction by offering the winning bid on a few silver half dollars. Stay focused, but remember to have a little fun laughing at the cast of characters!

What About Storage Unit Auctions?

You’ve seen or heard about the popular television show Storage Wars. Bidding on storage units can be fun and frustrating at the same time. If you are looking for TEOTWAWKI supplies, you may find a few units that meet your criteria. Less than 5% of the units contain what I would consider useful to a prepper. For example, one unit was filled with high quality gardening and landscaping supplies and sold for $175, and another unit had a significant quantity of camping and outdoors gear but the winning bidder clearly overpaid.

You don’t really know what you’re getting at these auctions since you are not allowed to actually touch the contents of the unit prior to the end of the auction. Storage units are always a gamble. That said, we have bought a few units and they’ve yielded very interesting items including brand new freezers, complex first aid kits, an expensive portable heart defibrillator, and office equipment. I bid on storage units for profit, not necessarily to source prepper supplies.

Attending storage auctions is not for the faint of heart. I’ve heard more than one high bidder grumble, “I’m paying them for the privilege of clearing out all this worthless garbage!” That’s right – you get to cart everything you don’t want down to Goodwill or the dump. Keep that in mind while bidding!

Don’t rule out GoodWill and Second Hand Stores

With careful shopping, you can pick up extreme bargains at your local second hand stores. Finding bargains is an exciting prospect. I’ve seen plenty of old, sturdy ball jars, canning equipment, flashlights, hand tools (including high quality American made brands), power tools, survival/preparedness books, and even oddball items like gas regulator valves. The items can be quite unexpected – from mosquito netting to binoculars or a (previously) expensive backpack. Favorite finds have been a serviceable Benchmade Knife for $2.85 ($125 new), cold weather famous brand pants for $15 ($150 new), cast iron cookware, and some very expensive clothing for my children at absurdly low prices. I also buy my work clothing at GoodWill stores – $70 unused current style dress shirts for $12 or a pair of expensive khakis for $3 on half price day is nothing to laugh at. One trip to the dry cleaners and they are added to my wardrobe.

My favorite items to shop for at Goodwill include clothing, especially items that can be stored away for future use or charity. In most cases, I am buying these items for 70-90% off the original cost. It’s not difficult to source lightly used boots (including military surplus), name brand quality cold weather gear, top quality gloves and brand new garments with tags.

Shopping at second hand stores can be hit or miss. As with auctions, if you have a plan, you can make the most of your time and money. Here’s a quick list of my “rules”:

  • Know the locations of all the stores you’d like to visit. Stores located in prosperous neighborhoods in larger cities or suburbs are great targets.
  • Call stores in advance to ask about discounts. Some charity based stores will give you a hefty discount if you make even a single item donation when you arrive. One of our local chains offers a 20% discount on that day’s purchases when you donate unwanted items. Hmmm… 20% off items that I’m already getting a 75% discount on? Score! Other stores discount color coded price tags tags by up to 50% but only do so on certain day of the week.
  • Travel to each store in the most efficient manner possible to save fuel and time.
  • Move through quickly. Look at each shelf and rack carefully, but do so with a keen eye for top quality supplies.
  • Bring your list of needs and wants. If the item isn’t on your list, or is not a good addition to your prepping inventory, pass the item by. These items can still add to a large tab when you check out. By the way, this is where it pays to have an extensive list of supplies you want to add to your prepping inventory.
  • Don’t break your budget! If you can’t afford it now, it will show up again later in another store.
  • Finally, before making a purchase, do the look-sniff-try it test. Look all over the items for defects. Sniff clothing for odors. Try all items for functionality – zip zippers, button snaps, even use a local outlet to plug in tools to see if they work as designed.

Ready to have some fun? Get Going!

It’s easy to get caught up in the negativity of preparing for whatever challenging TEOTWAWKI scenarios lay ahead. Go have some fun – attend an auction or two and walk away with a smile on your face!

Final Note: God’s blessings and answers to prayer arrive in some of the least expected ways. Although I lost my job, I learned how to source items to add to our preparedness inventory at very low prices. We were also offered a relocation package as part of my new job that put us within a stone’s throw of the Redoubt, and we’re now hunting for a property to settle our family. To God goes all the thanks, praise and glory!

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Chris M.

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