The hunt for the best garage sale bargains isn't in the driveway anymore.

It's on Facebook.

That's where you'll find deal-seeking Minnesotans stretching the summertime ritual of neighbors selling to neighbors into a new year-round tradition.

Craigslist and eBay have long offered online marketplaces for people to hawk their junk. But some expert garage salers have found a more comfortable option in the many Facebook groups that recently began spreading across the massive social network. These group pages, some of which number in thousands of members, resemble online neighborhoods where friends bump into friends in search of sought-after goods. From New Prague to Andover to Alexandria, they sell everything from furniture to children's toys.

"Everybody's looking for a deal and everybody has extra stuff," said Jen Fahrmann, who runs the Dakota County MN Swap & Sale Group, which has more than 1,300 members on Facebook. "If you can sell it at a garage sale, you can sell it on the site."

The real benefit, Facebook users say, is the ability to check out buyers' and sellers' public Facebook profiles, maybe even spot a mutual friend. While there's no guarantee that people are honest on Facebook, that's still reassuring to some, given high-profile crimes that have been linked to Craigs­list transactions.

"You can get a feel for the person," said Amber Lynch of Blaine, a member of about 20 online garage sale groups, mostly in the northern suburbs.

The online sales work like this: Someone sets up a Facebook group, usually aimed at residents of a city and nearby areas, and approves requests from other users to join (joining is free). Once someone is a member of the group, they can post pictures and descriptions of items they want to sell.

People interested in the items contact the seller by commenting on the post. Then, usually by private message on Facebook, the seller and buyer agree on a public place to exchange the items for payment. Once an item is gone, the seller updates or deletes the online post.

Members can also post queries when they are "in search of" particular items.

Lynch recently used that tactic to score a new wardrobe for her 3-year-old daughter. Within 10 minutes, other Facebook users responded to her post, and for about $20 she received a couple of Gap sweaters, some blue jeans, Hello Kitty sweatpants and winter boots.

Sellers and shoppers make such deals at their own risk, but Lynch said she's never had a bad experience.

"If someone is a no-show or they get a bad review, you can tell the [administrator] of the page and they won't be able to sell or buy," she said.

Site administrators are volunteers with limited recourse if transactions fall through, except to banish misbehaving group members.

Michelle Novotny, who runs New Prague Sales and other groups, said it rarely comes to that because people participating in the sales get to know each other. If there is drama, it's usually because someone forgot about a rendezvous or violated a group rule.

"I love the fact that so many of our community members shop on this garage sale site," she said.

Local digital bargain hunting

The community connection is particularly helpful for sites that serve smaller towns like New Prague, which might not have a critical mass of local people posting items to Craigs­list. Facebook garage sale sites in outstate Minnesota cities, such as Alexandria and Virginia, count thousands of members.

"A lot of people don't have the time to set up real garage sales or they don't have enough items for a real garage sale," Novotny said. "This gives them the opportunity, too."

Prices are often a bit higher than they would be at a traditional garage sale, but aficionados say they're willing to pay for convenience — shopping the sites is easier and quicker than cruising random garage sales with kids in tow. People selling items also bump the prices up to cover gas for the meetup.

For example, "Goosebumps" books priced at 25 cents each at a summer garage sale fetched $1 apiece online, said Jamie Hultman of Andover, who runs the Anoka County Online Garage Sale. She's seen everything from purses and clothes to tools and motorcycles posted on the site.

"There are people out there looking for specific items," she said. "You can ask a little more pricewise."

Still, the Facebook groups are growing in popularity. Hultman gets daily requests to join her group, which has more than 1,300 members.

"People love garage-saling," Hultman said. "Especially the way the economy's been and everything, people want stuff for dirt cheap."

Katie Humphrey • 612-673-4758