Scoring free stuff on the curb is a great way to beat the system. You are keeping stuff out of the landfill, finding unusual items, and keeping money in your pocket. In some cases, the found items are better than what you would have purchased in a big box store.
If you are reading this, you probably do not have a psycho-social hangup with taking home something that someone else discarded. People who can go beyond illogical pressures can save some real money. Since you are willing to think for yourself, here are 27 tips for scoring great free stuff on the curb.
Approaches to scoring free stuff on the curb
1) Target affluent neighborhoods and big houses.
This is like how trick-or-treat-ers swarm to the rich side of town. If you go to the rich side of town, you get the best stuff.
People with disposable income dispose of a lot of property. Many will not take the time to post items on craigslist or even to take items to a donation center. Whatever their reasons may be, high-income people put out high-quality curbside finds. Familiarize yourself with the trash schedules in the well-to-do neighborhoods in your area.
In addition, grabbing the good stuff in high-income neighborhoods is easy; it is less likely that someone who lives there wants to be seen trash picking.
It is important to note that some of the best finds come from large, older homes that are continually purging their contents. The larger and older the home, the more likely that the stuff I am interested will end up on the curb.
2) Think seasonally.
Spring is often the best time to find great free stuff on the curb. Many people are moving, spring cleaning is under way, colleges and universities are wrapping up, and the divorce rate reaches its yearly peak. This is a perfect time for you to get your own home organized and upgraded with some free stuff from the curb.
Spring is not the only season to consider. The holiday season, the end of a particular sports seasons, garage cleaning season, yard-sale season, and so on might offer what you seek.
3) Note trash schedules.
Your own trash schedule is not the only one to keep in mind. Think about the neighborhoods that you want to target and get to know their schedules. Taking a different route home on a certain day of the week might double your chances of discovering curbside gold.
4) Cruise colleges and universities.
Here in Philadelphia we celebrate Penn Christmas in May. When the students move away, they toss tons of useful stuff.
Even when the students are not moving away, colleges and universities have great potential for garbage picking. When offices are being renovated or reorganized, schools throw away great furniture, filing cabinets, office supplies, and more. Oftentimes these items are institution quality and built to last.
Drive around the back of the building to see what is there. Just make sure that it really is trash and not waiting to be picked up and moved.
5) Check other institutions and businesses.
Retirement homes, office buildings, factories, libraries, etc. throw away some great stuff. They may not have a plan in place to dispose of, re-purpose, or donate perfectly serviceable items.
Look around these targets, but make sure that you are not trespassing or stealing.
6) Go off the beaten path.
To find the best curbside gold, you may have to travel the road less traveled. Service roads, alley ways, and loading zones are where the curb treasure awaits. The next time you leave a commercial park, shopping center, or school, exit by driving around the back of the buildings.
Do not forget to stay safe. Do not go anywhere where you do not feel comfortable. Pay attention to lighting, entrances and exits, and visibility.
7) Follow yard sales, estate sales, flea markets, etc.
If you want to get the best stuff at a yard sale, go early. If you want free stuff from the yard sale, go late. Many neighborhood yard sales occur before garbage day because they know that many people will trash things that do not sell. Consider hitting the yard sales after everyone has closed up shop.
8) Use apps, websites, and alerts.
There are many apps and websites helping people find free stuff on the curb. This is the best way to go if you are looking for specific items. The drawback of this approach is that you need to be ready to act quickly. Sometimes listings are not kept current or you arrive two seconds too late.
- Craigslist free section
- Nextdoor app
- Facebook (local groups)
9) Travel on foot.
No matter how slowly you drive past, you will never get the best view. You will see more stuff and avoid wasting time on items that are truly garbage by taking the ol’ shoe leather express. Most of the cool things I have found have been while walking my dogs. Get some exercise, check things out, and come back later if something big is worth picking.
Free stuff on the curb best practices
10) Inspect finds.
If thoroughly checking out a trashed item causes you embarrassment, get over it. It is better to spend the time making sure items are what you want than to waste your time and energy. Make sure all of the parts are there, look for irreparable damage, move any moving parts, and look for maker’s marks and labels. Even if something is free, check it thoroughly before investing your time and energy.
11) Avoid bed-bugs and other pests.
Bed bugs and other pests are hard to detect and hard to kill. Bed bugs are resistant to heat, cold, and starvation. They can even hide in the folds of lampshades or inside electronics. Upholstered furniture, pillows, and stuffed animals are out of the question. When in doubt, leave it out.
You can treat large items with pesticides, but it is easier to avoid all upholstered items completely. Any kind of textile that cannot be treated with serious heat easily (washer and dryer heat) is a no go.
12) Be prepared and safe.
There are a few things that you should keep in your vehicle to make sure that your curb surfing is practical and safe.
- Work gloves
- Closed-toe shoes
- Eye protection
- Straps and tie-downs
- Basic tool kit (screw drivers, utility knife, hammer, pliers, etc.)
Be safe with your body. Do not try to manage heavy or awkward items alone, be aware of your surroundings, and carefully secure items for transport.
13) Learn how to disassemble.
Depending on what you are looking for, you may need to do some disassembly. A few well-placed swings of a hatchet or the ability to locate mounting screws makes all the difference.
I have smashed IKEA bookcases to re-purpose the melanin, removed table and desk tops, pulled drawers for new storage, and snatched hinges, casters, and hardware. Just because you do not want the entire item as it sits, doesn’t mean there is nothing of worth.
14) Get handy.
Many people are completely intimidated by minor repairs and modifications. As a result, some quality items with minor defects are free for the taking.
Finding free stuff on the curb gives you a no-risk way to increase your skills. You might be amazed by what you can accomplish with a few screws, a little glue, and some paint.
If you would like to learn more about how I made this cart from discarded pallets, check out my post “Get Started Turning Pallets into Stuff“.
15) Think creatively.
Open your mind to re-purposing. A small dresser can become a bathroom vanity. A shoe rack might help you organize your art supplies. A desktop can become a work bench. Just because an item is no longer serviceable for it’s intended use, doesn’t mean it needs to go to the landfill.
16) Know garbage picking laws.
You do not want to end up paying a hefty fine for trying to save a few bucks. You also want to avoid unpleasant arguments. Check your local regulations so that you do not end up in hot water. Here are some basics for understanding garbage picking laws:
- Pay attention to signs and notices; they have legal bearing.
- You are more likely to get in trouble for trespassing than taking garbage. If the garbage is on private space, it is subject to privacy protection.
- Garbage left on public space is no longer private property (Greenwood vs. California). The contents of garbage bins in public space (the curb) are not protected by law.
- If you are going through garbage on private property, you are trespassing and invading privacy.
- Some cities (like New York) prohibit the taking of items that are intended for recycling. This recycling makes the city or the city’s subcontractor serious money, so they do not want people grabbing it.
- There are no federal laws preventing people from taking other peoples’ trash.
- Some local laws prohibit trash picking. A municipality may decide that people are being inconvenienced or generally put-off by scavenging and establish ordinances and fines.
“My wife is always trying to get rid of me. The other day she told me to put the garbage out. I said to her I already did. She told me to go and keep an eye on it.”
For more in-depth information on this topic, check out my related post: Trash Picking Laws
17) Consider reselling.
I was surprised to learn that many people make real money from what they find in the trash. If you are so inclined, look for items that might be valuable to someone else.
Related website: Garbagefinds.com
Top things to to target
18) Building materials
If you take on little projects from time to time, keep an eye out for free building materials. (Demolition dumpsters are especially good for this.) If you have the storage space, grab extra 2 x 4s, leftover plywood, random boards, etc. whenever you can. Your stash might save you a trip to the home store on your next project or even provide inspiration for an unanticipated project.
19) Wooden Furniture (non-upholstered)
I am shocked at the beautiful pieces of furniture that people throw away. People trash this furniture due to a minor defect or because their tastes have changed. I often find that this furniture is better quality than the particle-board monstrosities that you find in Target or on Way-fair.
Pay special attention to wooden pieces even if they need some TLC. Wood is a very forgiving material to work. With some basic tools and supplies, you might turn a piece of trash into a unique showpiece.
20) Outdoor furniture
During the summer months, home stores offer a wide selection of replacement pillows and pads for outdoor furniture. Nevertheless, many people throw away an entire outdoor set as soon as the cushions have been damaged by the elements.
You are the winner in this situation. Snatch up that patio furniture, take a couple of measurements, and buy replacement cushions that match your style. Now you have a new set for pennies on the dollar.
21) Vintage curios
If you live in an area with some older homes or institutions, you might discover people throwing away unusual, vintage items. I am always on the lookout for strange little curios that add nostalgia to my home office.
Basic shelves are one of those things that you should never buy. Why pay money for something that is only going to hold laundry detergent, winter boots, or sporting goods? If you can exercise a bit of patience, the shelves that you need will show up for free.
23) Bins and containers
Unless you really need all of your containers to be uniform, you can find all of the storage that you need for free. People seem to consider plastic bins disposable even though they are pretty durable, so hose them off and get your stuff organized for free.
If you are not sure if the bins are meant to be trash, leave them be. Your image will not be improved by having retired people chasing you down the block.
24) Plastic coolers
I don’t think that I have ever paid money for a cooler. People are always throwing them away. Maybe some people’s days of picnicking or tailgating are behind them, or maybe they are too lazy to clean them out. Whatever the case may be, a bit of soapy water means a new cooler for you.
25) Picture frames
When people throw away artwork, posters, and framed documents, they also throw away the frame. This is really a waste as many of the frames are really nice.
If a frame is close to the size you need, the framing store can perfect the framing by cutting a new mat. If you are crafty, you can cut the new mat yourself.
26) Kitchen wares
High quality kitchen ware is expensive, yet people toss these durable goods to the curb just because they are dirty. Some steel wool or some Bar Keepers Friend will polish up them up to look like new. You will often discover that the saved item is very high quality.
Note: Avoid damaged non-stick cookware because the chemicals released by the scratches can be harmful.
Tools do have no expiration date. When people clean out their garages and basements, they often throw away hundreds of dollars in tools. Where they see a worthless metal thingy, I see a $100-dollar sawyer’s vice. They may not know what it’s for, but I do.
You do not have to know about obscure tools to benefit. People are always tossing perfectly good hedge clippers, wrenches, hammers, saws, rakes, shovels, etc. A new handle or some time with the sharpening stone can make all the difference. Again, older is sometimes better as grandpa’s band saw is probably better made than what you will find in most stores.
28) Hobby materials
When it comes to hobbies, sometimes we just lose interest. Other times the person who had the hobby has moved or passed away. If you like a particular hobby, you might discover a huge bin of “garbage” that will keep you busy indefinitely.
29) Fitness and sporting goods
As with hobbies, fitness and sporting interests tend to come and go. You will see everything from elliptical machines to fishing poles. If you have a particular interest or keep a home gym, be on the look-out.
“Free Stuff on the Curb” conclusion
You may call it curb surfing, trash picking, dumpster diving, or free-cycling. I call it fun, and I am not afraid to brag about the great stuff I have found. I feel that it signifies an ability to think creatively and scoff at convention.
Although many of these approaches have merit, my approach to finding free stuff on the curb is pretty simple. I do not look for curb alerts, search postings, or do extra driving. I basically adjust where I walk my dogs and the route that I drive if I am on the prowl.
At this point in my life, I pretty much have everything that I need, so I can very selective. Lately I have only been keeping an eye out for cool wooden furniture and project materials.
If you have a fondness for second-hand items, I wrote and in-depth post about shopping in thrift stores: Thrift Store Tips for Becoming a Jedi Master of Resale.
Were my free stuff on the curb tips helpful? Is one of my tips erroneous? Did I miss an important tip? What is your best find ever? Please leave a comment.