9 tips to make the most of a swap meet

Kyle Smith

The internet has changed a lot of things in the automotive world. One exception is the thrill of shopping for a deal at a swap meet. The sight of endless trailers and tables and buckets, each heaping with potential, scratches a special part of a gearhead’s brain. Sometimes, our foot twitches just like a dog getting roughed up behind the ears. (Just me? Moving on.) Rummaging through piles of crusty parts for that one bracket, accessory, or assembly that our project needs is often cathartic—even if, most of the time, what we are picking through is junk.

The search is half the fun, because it means a day spent walking and talking with other like-minded people. While everyone approaches swap meets a little differently, a few tips and reminders hold true for anyone headed to Pomona, Hershey, Chickasha, Barber, or Mid-Ohio to see just what the farmer’s almanac says is going to be a good crop of parts and projects ripe for harvest.


Know what you are buying or selling

motorcycles in swap meet
Kyle Smith

Some people love searching through unidentified parts, but any amount of help given to a potential buyer is likely to work out better in the end. Take a moment to write a brand, model, or year on a piece of tape and stick it to the part. The inverse goes for buyers: Don’t expect every seller to know the exact fitment or specifics of a particular part. If you need a hood latch for the hood on a Dodge Brothers from 1930, know what that looks like.

Organization goes a long way

Considering the number of vendors at most swap meets, few buyers have the time or patience to sort through a giant jumble of parts. Bins with labels encourage buyers because they know their time won’t be wasted on a bunch of radios when all they want is a headlight control. Group similar parts together, and passersby will be more likely to take a look. Some amount of organization provides at least the appearance that you care about the parts you are selling, which makes buyers more likely to make a serious offer.

Price tags open wallets

Model A gas tank with price
Kyle Smith

We all expect to haggle at a swap meet. However, we also know the awkward moment when, after a potential buyer breaks the silence to ask the price of a part, the seller names a price so far from the buyer’s expectations that the two are left staring at each other for a moment before the potential buyer sets the piece down and walks off. Give buyers a clear starting point, and you’ll likely have fewer “tire kickers” asking you random questions, then strolling away.

Cash is king, but consider other options

It is fun to hide a physical fun-money fund from whatever set of eyes or acronyms you fear may threaten it, but making and accepting digital payments has never been easier or more secure. Apps like PayPal or Venmo have precautions in place for both buyer and seller, and either app allows you to easily accept credit cards. In my experience, there is a little less haggling when buyers don’t have to watch the bills leave their hands. That’s a win for any seller.

KE175 in swap meet
Kyle Smith

Consider unconventional negotiations. A beer once tipped a motorcycle purchase for me: Seller wanted $1800 for a vintage Kawasaki, I only wanted to pay $1700. When I noticed his cooler, I said I would pay asking price if the seller included a beer for me and each of my two friends. Are three beers worth $100? Not even close, but we enjoyed hanging out with that guy, and everyone left happy and refreshed.

Bring a bag, backpack, or cart

Kyle looking through Hershey Swap Meet
Kayla Keenan

Since a swap meet is not a store, you never know what you’ll find or, more importantly, what it will weigh. Taking a trip back to your truck with each item is annoying, yet somehow less of a pain than juggling—and inevitably dropping—your latest prized possession. If you are mentally prepared to buy something big, make sure you are physically prepared to deal with it. Otherwise, you will leave disappointed and empty-handed after realizing you can’t get it home.

Be reasonable

You can often cut a deal at a swap meet, but if you can only get a low price by being a pain in the butt, take a moment to remember that we are all in this hobby together. If either party in the transaction burns the other, it is that much more likely that parts, pieces, and experts will just stop showing up to swap meets: The money is no longer worth the stress. Smile, be reasonable, and move on if the two of you cannot meet in the middle.

Just ask

The secret power of a swap meet is the ability to find anything you are looking for, but it’s not always something that will be there in the booth. If I see a few Honda motorcycle or Corvair parts sitting out front of a seller, I will typically skip straight to asking if they have something I am looking for.

If you see it, buy it

Model A body in trailer
Kyle Smith

If there is one hard and fast rule of swap meets, it is this: Never walk away from anything you are interested in, because it will be gone when you circle back. If you want it, buy it at the first opportunity. Few people restock at swap meets; they’re more likely to rearrange, moving the part you wanted to another booth and raising the price.

Take the time to learn

Sellers often have some idea of what they have. If you see something that seems extra strange to you, take a moment to ask the seller what the story is. You never know what you could learn or which friend you might make. That seller is just hanging around—why not engage in a little conversation?

In short, go out and have fun looking for parts and projects among other folks who love the same things you do. The internet has never been more powerful, but the joy of finding a part in a pile alongside other people doing the same is what keeps the swap meet alive.




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    Make a list of what your needs are. Make copies to hand out to some larger vendors. Often they may have it there or at home.

    Also know values. This way you can offer a fair price or you will prevent yourself from over paying.

    Some years ago, I was starting to gather parts for a ’40 Chevy 8cwt CMP army truck. I was fortunate to have found a parts book for it. GM used off-the-shelf parts from all manner of trucks to build these things. I made a complete list of everything I might need, including part numbers. At the end of the Hershey meet I had virtually everything on the list, all NOS.

    Cleary marked prices are a big thing. Wether a part or a whole car, it is annoying to try and buy, or for the seller who does not list the price, to make an honest fair and happy sale. I have seen vendors give different prices depending on the buyers appearance…

    Agreed James, I cannot buy it and sell it for you! Sellers need to post an asking price, even if it’s high to leave room to negotiate.

    Bring buddies….and any way of communicating between all of you….either cell phones or walkie talkies-more eyes are better than one….

    My shop teacher would buy a white shirt and write on the back what parts he was looking for, and at every swap meet he had guys tapping him on the shoulder that they had his parts, or their buddy had the parts or what aisle to find them in!!!

    I used to sell at Swap Meets. Then, it became very easy to by-pass all of that preparation, loading and unloading, then reloading at the end of the Swap–when the Internet became so popular and easy. I recall
    that last Swap Meet . I loved the Swaps but enjoy the freedom which the Internet affords. When I was selling–I NEVER let a potential customer just walk by my tables! I made lots of sales, and friends, that way. I noted that passive sellers did not do as much business as did I! I also knew exactly what I had–no guessing! One story which I have from a Swap is this–I was selling like mad. I literally was stuffing money into the pockets of my shirt and jeans. It was falling from the pockets onto the ground. About that time, our son showed up. He asked why I did not organize the cash for convenience’ sake. I told him that I was too busy selling–I had no time. So, he organized the cash for me! jay

    Love a good swap meet! Like others have mentioned here, the best strategy is to go in knowing what you’re looking for and roughly what price your item(s) sell for. Don’t be afraid to make offers either! On the selling side, I brought it because I’m ready to get rid of it.
    Cheers all!

    Obviously, wear comfortable walking shoes – and bring and extra pair of sox to swap out.
    (I also bring a water bottle or 2 and a few Motrins for my old-ish body aches that sometimes appear).

    Number one: Get there early, it is worth it to have a spot with a few items, so you can get to the other sellers before the vultures, flippers and hoarders suck everything up.

    All good advice. I would add- bring cash! Virtually no one there will have a credit card reader, although it has been a few years since I went in N CA. And bring a cloth bag- even an old pillow case. It leaves at least one hand free, ’cause for sure after you buy a couple of objects, you’ll see something you had no hope of ever finding!

    The “chicken wire enclosed box” sellers are a walk-by. As are most of the “close to entrance” veterans. Usually too expensive.
    We always go to the very back and work our way back to the entrance. The casual sellers, who just want to get rid of stuff, are delegated to the cheap seats.
    Don’t be afraid of shocking a seller with a bottom scraping lowball if his price is a ridiculous high price.
    Frankly, I’m amazed at the “iron museums” on trailers with piles of engine blocks, axles and rearends. They must leave them loaded year to year.

    As a buyer, electrical parts can be a crap-shoot. As a seller, having a way of demonstrating functionality can be helpful – a small 12 volt battery with some wire leads is not that heavy. And you’re more likely to get your price. Things like motors, relays, actuators, etc. come to mind.

    Also, I’m not familiar with Pamona, but there is a big swap meet in Pomona, CA…

    That’s a great tip on the battery. Hadn’t even crossed my mind.

    And thanks for the spelling correction. It’s clear that one is still on my list of swaps I’d like to attend…

    Most DEFINITELY when you see a deal, and it is a part you WANT, grab that mutha.
    I had a booth some years back and a guy kept badgering me on some Fullerton sunvisors. I had a price and even had a package deal for him.
    He claimed he was going to think about it and and as soon as he stepped away, the guy behind him flashed the cash and scooped them up.

    One of the most fun parts of selling – when the ‘be-back’ that was giving you a hard time returns – and the part was sold

    We had all NOS / current take-off parts from a mfg. supported tuning firm. There were boxes of take-off rubber suspension bushings. I recall a few times chucking one of those bushings at a departing be-back. After a few swap meets, we wrote “Scum away” on the box of bushings. Last advice – Beware the empty handed “buyer” who just likes to insult / harass sellers.

    I like the guy who comes back and then also asked how much I sold it for. I usually go about $20 – $30 above where they stopped negotiating. You can see the oh crap look of “damn, I would have paid that”. 😉

    Appropriate timing in that I’m loading my trailer for a meet next weekend. In the category of “knowing what your items are selling for”, a hint: know what they are ACTUALLY SELLING for – not what the online guys are ASKING, or what one sold for six years ago. When looking at items online, you’ll often find outdated info – or worse, some guy with dreams of grandeur, thinking his items is the one and only and is desired by every millionaire out there – thus he’s set an outrageous price. That doesn’t mean anyone is willing to pay that for it! My definition of “setting prices” is directed by one basic tenant = something is worth what someone is willing to pay for it.
    For instance, I have a ’60s soda vending machine on my trailer. I found one online that is similar, listed for $3800. Unfortunately, that listing is from 2017, so I don’t think the buyers have been knocking down his door. I found another for $600. But time are a little tough and money is a little tight. I’m going in at $400, and hoping to get something over $300.
    Good advice, Kyle, and some helpful comments from others, too!

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