SOUTH PORTLAND — They are familiar sights on a sunny Saturday morning.

A hodgepodge of furniture, clothes and toys spreads across driveways and lawns, waiting to be found and taken to a new home. Signs on neon poster board hang on trees around intersections, tempting deal seekers to snake their way through neighborhoods in search of the biggest and best sales.

Yard sale season has arrived.

Paul Blaisdell hunts through items at Quatrano's yard sale.

Paul Blaisdell hunts through items at Quatrano’s yard sale. Photos by Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

It’s a short season in New England, but that doesn’t dampen Mainers’ enthusiasm for an American tradition that dates back to the early 19th century. Yard sales – or garage, rummage or lawn sales – generate between $600 million and $1 billion nationwide each year, according to researchers. Nearly everyone, it seems, has a yard sale find to brag about.

“You get hooked on finding good deals on stuff no one else has,” said Jeanne Fiorini, a yard sale enthusiast from South Portland who goes hunting for bargains regularly and counts an oil painting as her best-ever find.

But, unbeknownst to many bargain hunters – and even to many people who hold the yard sales – the tradition is a regulated industry in some southern Maine communities. Such rules often include permits and fees, and limits on signs and parking. Some communities also limit how many sales a homeowner can have during a single season, an attempt to eliminate the summerlong secondhand sales that appear in the vast majority of rural communities that have not yet regulated the businesses.

Every summer, thousands of Maine residents clean out their garages and attics and set up shop on the front lawn. But that desire to sell unwanted items isn’t limited to summer, driving the popularity of virtual yard sales, which allow people to sell their unwanted items even on the snowiest winter days.

Yard sales date back to the early 19th century when charities held sales of discarded goods to raise money. The term “rummage sale” was first used around 1858 and those types of sales became increasingly popular with individuals by the early 20th century. The popularity of rummage sales fell off during the prosperous post-World War II era, but saw a resurgence by the 1970s as Americans embraced environmentalism and recycling, according to the Ultimate History Project.

For more than 25 years, South Portland resident Jim Quatrano has been setting up yard sales on his front lawn to peddle everything from vintage matchbooks to bureaus. He advertises his three-day sales through Facebook and stocks his yard with items he finds while cleaning out estates. He puts a big blue M&M originally used as a store display on the edge of his lawn before each sale to attract attention.

“People know me now,” Quatrano said. “I get people who stop me at the store and ask when my next sale is.”

But Quatrano can hold yard sales only twice during the prime bargain-hunting season.

Jim Quatrano settles up with Jeanne Fiorini, who calls herself "a regular yard saler."

Jim Quatrano settles up with Jeanne Fiorini, who calls herself “a regular yard saler.” Photos by Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

South Portland, like roughly two dozen other communities across the state, limits the number of garage and yard sales residents can hold and requires residents to buy a permit at City Hall. Municipal restrictions like the ones in South Portland typically were implemented to prevent residents from creating permanent businesses in their yards, control traffic and limit the number of signs hung up around town.

GIVE ‘EM A YARD, THEY’LL TAKE A MILE

The small number of communities that have garage/yard sale ordinances typically use them address concerns about parking and signs, said Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association. Most limit residents to two or three yard sales per year.

Yard sale rules aren’t new in most communities that have them – some ordinances date back to the 1970s – but that doesn’t mean everyone knows about them.

In Wells, 56 yard sale permits have been issued so far this year. In 2013, the town handed out 142 yard sale permits at a cost of $5 each. The total number issued dipped to 127 in 2014 and 108 last year, said Town Clerk Jessica Keyes.

“That’s not all the yard sales in the town of Wells, I’ll tell you that,” Keyes said. “A lot of people don’t get them but they should. Some people come into town hall and say they never realized they needed a yard sale permit.”

Keyes said the primary concern about yard sales in Wells is traffic. If there are cars causing a hazard, the police department can shut down the sale. Town officials say that is not a common issue and they see few problems with yard sales.

A Wells yard sale turned tragic in 2010 when a passing motorist made a sudden U-turn on Route 9 as he attempted to stop at the sale. That car, driven by David Hoyt Sr. of Wells, caused a truck pulling a 30-foot travel trailer to jackknife and tumble onto the property where the multi-family yard sale was being held. Jeff Dickerson, one of the yard sale hosts, was killed and his mother-in-law was injured.

Rachel Wortheimer and Kristen Carbone stop by on their bike ride to shop at a yard sale held by Jim Quatrano in South Portland.

Rachel Wortheimer and Kristen Carbone stop by on their bike ride to shop at a yard sale held by Jim Quatrano in South Portland. Photos by Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Lt. Owen Davis of the York Police Department said car and pedestrian traffic is the primary concern about yard sales in York, where residents must obtain a permit from police before hosting a sale. The department will deny permits if there is concern about the traffic impact or provide residents with temporary “no parking” signs to help control where people park.

“We’ve had yard sales that become incredibly popular and we have to go there and deal with the cars,” he said. “When you have parked vehicles, we’re always concerned about people darting out into traffic.”

South Portland’s yard sale ordinance was adopted in 1976. A recent attempt by a city councilor to eliminate the requirement for a yard sale permit failed to gain the support of the council, said City Clerk Emily Carrington. Before holding a yard sale with more than three items, South Portland residents must buy a $5 permit from the city clerk’s office. The permit is good for three consecutive days and residents are limited to two sales within a six-month period.

“This ordinance exists not to prevent or discourage people from holding yard (or) garage sales, but to prevent conflict with the South Portland Zoning Ordinance regarding use of land and secondhand dealer licenses,” Carrington said.

South Portland generates less than $2,000 annually in revenue from the sale of garage sale permits, Carrington said. Last year, the city clerk’s office issued 235 permits, down from 260 in 2014.

The hotbed for yard sales in Maine may be Lewiston, based on the number of yard sale permits issued. City residents must get a $10 permit or face a fine of up to $1,000. Lewiston issues an average of 675 garage sale permits annually and has already given out 225 this year, according to Deputy City Clerk Kelly Brooks.

‘TIS ALWAYS THE SEASON

Yard sales are so popular that Mainers have taken to the internet to find ways to buy and sell year-round. Local yard sale groups on Facebook – usually geared toward a single town or cluster of communities – attract thousands of bargain seekers and sellers. The “Greater Portland Yard Sale Online” on Facebook has more than 15,000 members

Teddy bears sit in a chair waiting for a new home as Jim Quatrano runs a yard sale at his South Portland home.

Teddy bears sit in a chair waiting for a new home as Jim Quatrano runs a yard sale at his South Portland home. Photos by Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Back in 2013, Kathy Russell of Biddeford started noticing virtual yard sale groups popping up on Facebook. She saw some that were geared toward Greater Portland but sensed that many people in Bidddeford wouldn’t – or couldn’t – travel far for deals on clothes, furniture and household items. So she started the “Biddeford Virtual Yardsale” group, which has grown to more than 2,000 members and is especially popular with parents of young children.

“I did it as a community service and to sell a few items,” said Russell, who still frequently stops at traditional outdoor yard sales. “Everybody loves a bargain.”

Facebook yard sales come with a culture all their own. Sellers move their items to the top of the feed by commenting “bump” on the post. People who want to buy items (anything from $1 baby shoes to $9,000 cars) indicate their interest by commenting “Int,” short for interested, on the post. Other potential buyers may get in line by posting a comment, just in case the first sale falls through. Sellers often mark items as sold “PPU,” or pending pickup.

Russell feels the virtual yard sale is safer for people who may feel uncomfortable with people coming to their home for a traditional yard sale. After arranging sales through the Facebook group, Russell encourages people to meet in public parking lots to make the exchange.

“It’s a great way to get rid of some stuff and meet really nice people,” she said.

WORTH THE HASSLES AND HAGGLES

On a recent Friday, Quatrano stood in his yard on Sawyer Street in South Portland as shoppers perused tables of dishes, vintage games, fishing gear and costume jewelry. The sale, his first of the season, had only been on for a few hours and most of the furniture had already sold.

The items at his sales may change, but Quatrano says one thing that’s consistent is the types of shoppers who show up each day. On Fridays, dealers looking to stock antique stores and booths show up early, ready to haggle. Saturdays bring a mix of dealers, families and people who spend lots of time browsing multiple sales.

“Sunday is a tire-kicker day,” Quatrano said. “People are just looking and don’t spend money.”

Quatrano nets as much as $2,000 during the three-day sale and donates whatever items are left over to a local church for its annual yard sale.

Tony Boobphachati, who works in South Portland, makes a point of stopping at Quatrano’s yard sales.

“It’s a huge one with good deals,” he said while holding his finds of the day: a fishing rod for his kids and an antique military jacket.

Quatrano was happy to see those items go home with someone who would use them, he said as he turned to greet more people wandering up his driveway. He also enjoys yard-saling himself, especially when he comes across a great deal. He doesn’t hesitate to describe enthusiastically his favorite find: a stack of 65 1921 Babe Ruth baseball cards, found neatly tied with a string and priced at $1 each. He sold 40 of them for $100 each.

“I enjoy having yard sales,” Quatrano said. “I’ll continue to do it forever and ever.”