Estate sales are a fantastic way to score furnishings, tools, and collectibles on the cheap. Most of my living room is furnished with estate sale bargains my husband and I scored over the years.
But buying at an estate sale isn’t a slam-dunk success. It requires shopping chops, time, and patience. If you’re on a deadline, or don’t have an idea of how vintage items should be priced, estate sale adventures can be a bust.
To avoid that sad fate, begin by honing your eye.
“Go to sales in your area year-round,” says Carrie Aulenbacher, an Erie, PA, estate sale aficionado. “You will start to see similar items and gain a sense of what a truly good deal looks like. Also, learn the marks of your favorite collectible so you can spot a fake out in the wild.”
Aulenbacher’s best find in 25 years of estate sale shopping is an authentic, cast-iron Griswold “pup” collectible which retails for around $200 on eBay. She scooped one up for 50 cents.
“The very next week, a different estate sale had another one—but this employee knew the value and had it literally tied to her so it wouldn’t walk off! It proved to me what a deal I had found,” she says.
You, too, can shop the sales and suss out steals like a pro. All you have to do is avoid these mistakes.
A garage sale typically is the result of a homeowner cleaning out his garage or downsizing when the kids go to college. We’ve held several garage sales where we simply piled items on a table, making up prices on the fly as we hauled stuff up from the basement.
On the other hand, an estate sale is often run by a company that knows what things are worth. Workers sort, price, and display items. They’re professionals and don’t like to be confused with yard sale amateurs.
They also don’t like to haggle. Before you offer less than the price tag, ask discreetly, “Is this the best price?” or “Do you negotiate?”
“The estate sale company’s client is the homeowner, and they are working to do their best for the client,” Blue adds.
And if you think prices are too high, think twice before you bicker with employees.
“Don’t be rude to the company. They can ban you from future sales,” Aulenbacher says.
2. Buying electronics without testing them
Estate sales aren’t like brick-and-mortar retail stores. Most have a no-refund, as-is sales policy. If you’re eager to buy anything electric, make sure to test it before beforehand.
“We’re setting up thousands of items and don’t have time to check everything and make sure it works,” says Lisa Kroese, owner of Expert Estates in Palmdale, CA.
So test anything with a plug: Run that vacuum, press “Pulse” on that food processor, and test that hair dryer before you spend even a buck for it.
3. Using the bathroom
Just because an estate sale is held in a sprawling home with multiple bathrooms, don’t expect to use the facilities if you have to go. Often, bathrooms are off-limits. Do your business before starting your rounds, or, in an emergency, ask first if it’s OK. Got it?
4. Bringing folks who need supervision
Estate sales are rarely childproof. Stairs have no gates, fragile items are all over the place, and lots of strangers are milling around. That’s why it’s best to leave young ones—or anyone who doesn’t have sure footing—at home. And don’t even think about bringing the dog.
5. Not paying attention to timing
During a typical, three-day sale, the time and day you attend can determine the goods and prices you’re able to nab.
My husband and I often hit estate sales during the last hour on Sunday, when salespeople practically pay us to take home whatever’s left. That’s how we scored our favorite find of all time: a set of 10 cut-crystal soup bowls that, reportedly, once belonged to the young Queen Noor of Jordan (who grew up near our home). We paid $80 for the set, but the backstory is priceless. Whenever we serve guests soup, we tell them they’re slurping from the queen’s bowls.
Here’s a primer on estate sale timing:
First day: “To get the best stuff, get there early,” Blue says. Any underpriced items will be gone in a flash.
Middle day: By the second day, items have been picked over and a few pieces have had their price slashed. You can put in bids for expensive items still on the shelves and get a little discount. “Our middle days are our slowest, but we’re there and want to make a sale,” Kroese says. You might pay a little more for items you get on the middle day, but you won’t be fighting with hordes of people.
Last day: This is when you’ll find dirt-cheap bargains you’ll crow about for years to come. By the last day, owners who were holding out for a top price will let items go for far less. Sellers during the last hour of the sale often will take bulk bids for everything left in a room. “I’ll sell all the tools left in the garage for $25,” Kroese says. “We want to empty that house.”
6. Relying on a checkbook
Many estate sales run by family members will take only cash. Professionally run sales take cash and credit cards. Only rarely will professionals take checks. (How often do you buy stuff with checks these days, anyway?)
7. Buying on impulse
Estate sales are poison for impulse buyers who don’t know what they’re looking for or how much things cost. Do your research. Otherwise, when you stumble upon a sterling silver Tiffany tea strainer (like I did), you won’t know if the marked price of $75 is a bargain or a rip-off.
8. Forgetting to take measurements
“Certain pieces may look bigger or smaller on the estate sale house than it would in yours,” Kroese says. “If you need something for a certain space, take those measurements. And bring your own measuring tape with you.”
Smartphone apps such as Handy Measure are great to use at estate sales. They can help you measure and take a picture of the space you must fill and the furnishings you must match.
9. Bringing a small car
Most estate sales don’t deliver, though they may have names of movers who will tote your treasures home for a price. It’s easier to bring, borrow, or rent a truck for the day, especially if you’re hoping to score furniture.