It’s the dream of decorators everywhere: Coming across a handwritten “Garage Sale” sign, taking a brief detour and spotting that perfect piece of vintage furniture in the middle of some stranger’s lawn (price tag: $30). Unfortunately, the reality is usually a driveway piled high with the dusty contents of someone’s mother-in-law’s attic. So how do people find those standout bargains hidden in the mess? And given that no right-minded seller would accept returns, how can you guarantee your finds will work with your space? Donna Garlough, style director of home decor flash-sale site Joss & Main, has mastered the art of the quick-yet-savvy buy. Here, she shares these go-to tips for scouring tag sales and leaving with a trunk full of bargains.

1. Arm Yourself With Measurements: Before you head out, jot down the dimensions of spaces you might like to furnish, from full rooms to little hallway nooks and bare kitchen walls. Know your home’s various ceiling heights, as well. It can make all the difference when deciding whether or not to bring home a wall mirror or new chandelier. To make sure your purchases can actually get to their final spot in your home, take note of any spaces that large items will need to fit through, such as front doorways, stairwells and halls. And finally, bring a tape measure with you so you can measure items on-site.

2. Look Under the Small Stuff: It’s easy to get lost perusing someone’s collection of porcelain miniatures or dusty vinyl records. But don’t forget to look at the bookshelves, tables, nightstands and baskets that other items are resting on or inside. Often those items are also for sale, and they’re usually overlooked. Even if bigger items aren’t tagged with prices, don’t hesitate to ask sellers if they’d part with the display pieces. Chances are, they’re in a money-making mood, so it’s possible they’ll be persuaded with a flash of cash.

3. Look Past the Personal Stuff: A decades-old collection of hair-band photos might not strike your fancy, but the frames they’re nestled in could be just right for displaying casual family snapshots. A dresser covered with decals spelling out a child’s name could stripped of its “embellishments” and repurposed for a guest room. A jewelry armoire stuffed with gaudy faux pearls could look stellar filled with your favorite statement necklaces. Try to look past the personal touches a seller has added to pieces and imagine how they’d look with your own belongings on top or inside.

4. Ignore the Finishes: Designers love the concept of “good bones.” That is, the silhouette, size and construction of a piece, independent of its finish. As much as you can, look past paint color or wood finish and focus on the “bones” of the furnishings you see. If a piece has a great shape, feels solidly built and suits the dimensions you need it to, a quick sanding and a coat of paint can transform it into the perfect item for your home. And wood pieces aren’t the only candidates for a makeover: Metal accent tables, shelves and even light fixtures can be sanded and sprayed with gold paint for a fresh, on-trend look.

5. Ignore the Hardware: Like paint color, the hardware on a piece of furniture is no reason to take or not take an item. Rusty, broken or ugly drawer pulls can be removed and replaced fairly inexpensively with pulls and knobs from a home-improvement store, giving the piece a clean new look. You can also dress up a basic piece by going for something ornamental, such as colored glass, cut crystal or porcelain knobs. Keep in mind that replacement knobs and pulls may not fit existing holes exactly, so a little wood filler, touch-up paint and/or careful drilling may be required to get a finished look with the new hardware.

6. Open Coffee Table Books: If you’re in the market for new wall art, keep an eye out for oversized coffee table books, like photography collections, artist biographies and archives of botanical drawings. They’re treasure troves of interesting imagery, and sellers will usually part with them for a few dollars. Cut out pages you like, mat and frame them, and hang them anywhere you please. For bigger visual impact, you can also create a cohesive, one-of-a-kind gallery wall by cutting pages out of a single volume, framing them with or without matting and hanging them up, sprinkling in a few framed family snapshots or travel pics. Instant style, and practically free!

7. Use Your Smartphone: You’d be surprised how few sellers research their pieces before pricing them. If you’re willing to spend a few minutes investigating, you might be able to ID a rare or high-end piece that’s grossly underpriced. Not sure whether that piece is heirloom quality? Turn pieces of furniture and chair cushions over, looking for labels or manufacturers’ markings on the edges and undersides and do an on-the-spot Google search to learn more about the piece’s provenance, followed by an eBay search for similar items. If you do spot a steal, buy it, load it up and hit the gas!

What are your strategies for scoring the best finds at garage sales? Let us know in the comments below!