Holiday finds at the flea market

With all the competition out there, it would seem you could buy every gift you need at a retail store. But Marsha Bemko, executive producer of PBS's Antiques Roadshow, says there has never been a better time to shop for one-of-a-kind, pre-loved items.

"It's low-hanging fruit," Bemko says. "You pay less than full retail at flea markets, and you'll look like you spent a lot more. There are bargains out there to be had."

For the holidays, vases, colored glassware and handmade items are the obvious gifts for picky loved ones, and they're easy to find at secondhand markets.

Bemko gives us some tips for haggling on price and finding memorable gems that you won't see in stores.

Know your limits

Most of the time you'll be paying cash, so have a finite amount of bills in purse or pocket to keep you from overspending. "Say, 'I'm going to find fill-in-the-blank,' and then set forth a reasonable budget before you go," Bemko advises. Otherwise, you'll tend to overspend. But she also reminds us that part of the fun of antiques is taking little risks. "First-timers who are going out there without a huge budget can really learn from taking risks," she says. "But if you're spending $10,000, you need to worry about authenticity and you need to be cautious."

Take your time

It's a common rule: Prices are higher in the front of the market. Start in the back, and scope out everything before you buy anything.

Take the smartphone

It's not that people will lie about products, but often, people just don't know how old or rare something is. Use the Internet as a resource. It's especially important if you're about to buy something that is marked up because it's "one of a kind."

"With certain one-of-a-kind objects, you'll go online and see hundreds of them," Bemko says, which indicates that they're not unique gifts. "Just because it's old doesn't mean it's rare."

Don't be afraid to ask

Ask for a discount. At antique or flea markets, you are expected to haggle.

"Assume it's overpriced from the start," Bemko says. "It is always worth asking, but be respectful of the fact that people need to stay in business." Bemko recommends starting with, "Can I make you an offer?" before naming a price.

Too good to be true?

There are cases of people finding "flea market Renoirs," but those stories rarely have happy endings. Beware of deals that seem too good to be true.

If you're shopping at the international flea markets of Berlin or Vienna, those silver-dollar coins selling for 5 euros a pop are probably counterfeits made of lead and worth less than 10 cents.

Flipping flea market finds for profit is a tough business. If that's your goal, know that you're gambling, not shopping.