Breaking Bylaws: The Outlaw Garage Sale

Breaking Bylaws: The Outlaw Garage Sale
By Melissa Wilson
OpenBlog Toronto
May 2, 2012

It seemed like a good idea at the time: The orange porcelain statue of a cat that you picked up at a garage sale last year, gave a regal-sounding name and stuck on your front porch to confuse your friends. It was only a dollar. But a year later, your head is a bit clearer, and it’s time to let Queen Whiskerson go in a garage sale of your own. But be careful what else you sell, because the City of Toronto has some pretty serious bylaws regarding garage sales, and you could be breaking the law.

But no, seriously. We were surprised, too.

According to Chapter 480 of the City of Toronto’s Municipal Code, it’s illegal to have more than two garage sales in one year at one house (regardless of whether the garage sale is hosted by a single person, or a number of people working together), it’s illegal to have a garage sale last more than two consecutive days, and it’s illegal to sell anything other than your own personal belongings. Chapter 480 reads:

“A. No person shall sell personal property at a garage sale other than personal property that has actually been used on…the residential premises… B. No person shall sell personal property at a garage sale that consists, either in whole or in part, of: (1) Personal property left at a garage sale on a consignment basis; or (2) Personal property acquired for the purpose of resale at the garage sale.”

The bylaw applies regardless of the kind of dwelling you’re hosting your garage sale in, as long as the area has been zoned residential.

So if you’ve been making some extra cash as a thrift-happy hipster who picks up vintage ware for resale, or selling homemade jewelry and dishcloths in front of your house, or — technically — running a lemonade stand, you’re actually breaking the law, and can face a fine of up to $5,000. That’s a lot of lemonade and Mad Men–era dresses.

The good news is, the bylaw is largely enforced on a complaint basis, so if you make nice with your neighbours, keep your head down, and maybe give them some lemonade, the bylaw officers might not come a’knocking.

“The reason behind it was that people were starting to operate garage sales like a business,” says Bill Blakes, manager of investigation services, municipal licensing and standards, for the Scarborough district of the City of Toronto. “The neighbours would get pretty upset, calling in saying, ‘This guy’s got a sale every weekend and his garage is stuffed with stereos and VCRs.’ There was a public demand for this sort of bylaw.”

If someone registers a complaint, the bylaw officer will typically issue a warning. If it continues to be a problem, a ticket (for $150 to $200, at the officer’s discretion) is issued, or they can be taken to court under the Provincial Offenses Act, where a judge will set a fine (not to exceed $5,000). It usually doesn’t come to that, though. Last year two people were issued tickets, but no one was charged.

If it sounds ridiculous, it’s probably just because you haven’t seen the kinds of garage sales that inspired the bylaw. Blakes says the most common offender is a homeowner who’s selling items picked up at another garage sale, often stereo equipment or what they claim to be antique furniture. He says the difference between a legit garage sale and an outlaw retailer is usually quite obvious.

He also cited another case where he was called to an apartment complex near the Ontario Science Centre. “It was like a whole different world. The street was packed with people. One guy was selling clothes, right on city property, like it was a bazaar.”

“Where are you from?” Blakes asked him.

“Brampton,” the seller replied.

“Well then what are you doing up here?”

“Well this is a really good spot.”

Blakes says the sellers literally took over the whole area and set up on the lawns of apartment buildings. Superintendents would take a cut of the profit for allowing them to do it, and would often even let them store stock in the apartment’s lockers.

“We’re not out trying to pick up Granny who’s been selling her knitting once or twice a year,” he says. “But these guys were coming from all over the GTA to sell stuff.”

If you frequent a multi-residential neighbourhood like Regent Park or St. James Town, you’ve probably also seen the de facto markets set up where residents sell anything from faded postcards to DVDs to old clothes. While these permanent fixtures of the community are definitely in violation of the bylaw, Blakes says they’re not a huge concern of his, since he rarely gets complaints about it. Most of the complaints come from suburban developments.

Chances are, your lemonade stand is probably safe, too. “If I brought a couple of five years olds into court for selling lemonade,” says Blakes, “I probably wouldn’t get employee of the year.”

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