Shopping at an estate sale – my 8 tips

An estate sale. There is nothing quite so exhilarating and well, mortifying, at the same time. Exhilarating because: It’s a whole house chockablock for the pickin’. A time capsule maybe even. Mortifying because: It’s someone else’s lifetime of treasures. So I always try to temper my excitement by (1) saying a little prayer of gratitude to the homeowners who made this all possible by taking care of the stuff for sale all these years, and (2) remembering that someday soon enough, a new generation of eager shoppers will be thrashing through my stuff, too, so I’d better approach the whole shopping experience with that karma in mind. With those reality-checks in place, here is my personal method for working an estate sale:

  1. Get there… whenever. Believe it or not, I do not rush to be the first in line at an estate sale. Why? 1 – I don’t “need” anything, and I know there is plenty out there, so I’ll wait for it to come to me. 2 – I feel too pressured and end up with stuff I don’t want if it’s all a rush and hustle. 3 – Getting there after the rush means there’s more room for negotiating. 4 – I’m looking for odd stuff that no one else wants, the odder the better. And, 5 – I like to sleep in. So, I get to the sale in my good ole time, on either Day One or Day Two, and trust that the Retro Decorating Gods will send me what I need.
  2. Do a fast walk-through. Once you’re in — quickly go through all the rooms and scan scan scan. Move fast to see if there’s something that you want to grab right away. There’s nothing worse than watching someone who came in after you, walk out with a treasure that was meant to be yours.
  3. Hotspots: Attic, basement, garage. In your scan, you also will have decided which rooms to scour first. I tend to think that the greatest treasures — MIB, NOS, odd, forgotten — are in the attic, the basement, the garage, and the back of closets. So I tend to go to these places first. Another place I might pounce: vintage clothes, shoes, scarves…and, paper ephemera like photos, scrapbooks and catalogs. Of course, if you are looking for certain pieces like furniture, you’re going to gravitate right toward those rooms.
  4. Check the perimeter. Watch for draperies, rugs, things semi-attached to walls or doors, in the rafters, and out in the garden among the bushes. For some reason, other shoppers (and even the estate sale organizers) seem to “zone” these out and focus on furniture and collectibles. I have bought many a set of gorgeous pinch pleats right off the windows, rugs off the floor, and groovy hanger-thingies screwed to the inside of closet doors or in laundry rooms, almost always at fabulous prices. (I’ve tried to buy the fabulous marbleized Crane toilet seats still attached to the toilets, but have not yet been successful.)
  5. What to pack. Remember to bring your measurements and a measuring tape if you’re looking for a piece of furniture to go in a particular spot, or for draperies. Handiwipes are good to have in your pocket, in case your hands get really dirty. Bring cash.
  6. Don’t be a jerk. Be nice to the folks running the sale. Not only is it the right thing to do, but hey, if you’re in this game, you’re likely going to be seeing them a lot. Regarding prices: I certainly try to negotiate. I usually ask, “Can you tell me, what is your best price on this?” or “Can you do better considering how much I’m buying (or that it’s late in the day, or whatever).” Often, on Day One or at least early in the day, they don’t budge, although if I buy a lot they usually give me a courtesy discount…they round down. Around here, on Day Two, prices are generally cut in half, and even then, I usually do a little better. That’s also because I often buy lots of little stuff that is not priced – ephemera. I pile it into a box, show them the pieces in the box, and usually they just throw a single price out. Again, I’ll get the best deal if I’m not a jerk, and recognize that the sellers are only doing their jobs. If the price is not right, I don’t get huffy, I just figure it’s not meant to be, and move along.
  7. If in doubt, don’t buy it. Or, wait one day and see if you still want it (and can now get it an even better price.) No regrets, please, because never fear: There’s always more.
  8. Finally, take time to enjoy the house…look for all the little touches that made mid-century homes so special. Even if you don’t buy anything — you get a free historic house tour out of the deal.


Estate sale reality check: Cheryl Wheeler kinda sums it up pretty well.

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Comments

  1. TappanTrailerTami says

    Tip 9 – be prepared for anything.

    Estate sales are not always because the homeowners have passed away….sometimes it is because they can no longer live on their own.

    I will never forget attending an “estate” sale for an elderly couple, in which the husband was on site (and who was on board with the sale), but then I had the horror of watching his wife who had semi-advanced Alzheimer’s, but who completely understood that the crowd at her house were taking all of her things from her, and she became extremely agitated. It was more than heartbreaking….the husband started yelling at her to calm down, and the other family members literally had to drag her away.

    I will never forget it, and to this day, do not understand what her family was remotely thinking to have had her present at the “estate sale” of her belongings. Maybe they thought just because she had Alzheimer’s and troubles remembering anything that it would be no big deal because she wouldn’t understand what was going on.

    After that, I couldn’t begin to lay my fingers on even one item and had to leave. Quite upsetting to say the least. I think I was most upset with the family and husband for the cruelty of having the wife/mother on site while dozens of people were milling in her house shopping.

    • Amy says

      It’s amazing how clueless and insensitive some people can be. I would have left empty-handed just like you did. Any item purchased would have instantly brought you back to that upsetting spectacle.

    • jen says

      i’ve had the opposite experience with the woman present – she talked me into buying her corelle spring blossom set :) it was kind definitely a reminder to appreciate the items we introduce into our homes and their past lives. i love knowing where things came from, and i loved hearing her stories. i just had to go through my grandmother’s things, and feel so blessed to introduce all those silly objects into my world to remind me of her.

  2. says

    Great tips! I agree with not rushing yet grabbing things that you are really attracted to. I also agree that people tend to forget about things like curtains. I would add bringing your own cushioning for treasures–I just had a 1930s bud vase chipped by an overly eager seller

  3. gavin hastings says

    I keep a 2 screwdrivers and a pair of pliers in my trunk and I usually only attend sales within a short radius. If I pass up an item at 10am, and it haunts me, I can easily go back. If it is still available, great…if not, I guess I REALLY didn’t want it anyway.

    I try to keep the “Greedies” in check. My favorite sales are the homes of elderly folks that lived very simply. I wish I could be like them: I have multiples of everything . Sometimes I feel like Dickens’ Jacob Marley….dragging chains of mixers, sewing machines and bakeware to the grave.

    • Adrienne says

      Oh Gavin! I’m right there with you! Listen for the clanking of my silverplate and clanging of my china patterns. It’s like I can’t pass up a lovingly polished bit of shiny business! :) ………… And THANK YOU Retro Renov for writing in the article to be SENSITIVE in the house! You never know if some of the family is around, and invariably I hear people saying things like “what a bunch o’ junk” and I just cringe.

  4. says

    oh wow, Tami…..that IS awful. Its especially sad that the family was clearly unaware that material “things” often trigger memories more clearly than spoken words for people with Alzheimers. I recently loaned a vintage wedding gown to an Alzheimer’s Care facility for that very reason, and was happy to be able to help in my own small way.

    I miss going to estate sales!!!! I never get to go anymore, my shop is open on Saturdays. I guess the trade off is that now people just bring stuff to me….but I miss digging into people’s homes and seeing how they decorated.

    The only thing I would add is if you collect anything specific or deal in anything vintage, giving the estate sale company your business card w/ contact info can be a *very* helpful thing. Sometimes they’ll get estates so small they sell only to people they know collect/deal certain items or so MUCH of something that they can’t process it into a sale and will call you!

  5. Vanessa says

    Thanks Pam for posting these tips! I had my own business running estate sales for a few years and another important thing I can stress is realize the people running the sale are running a business too. It’s not a glorified yard sale-it took a lot of time and effort to get that sale up and running and they are truly there to make money for the family that hired them. That was always our bottom line. They are making a commission but the money made for the family will pay for funeral costs, etc.,or possibly even nursing home care for a loved one who can no longer live alone.
    In response to the experience above, it’s very unfortunate a family allowed their loved ones to be present during the sale of their own belongings. That was something we never allowed and was understood when we were hired. That being said, I’d like to state how important it can be to hire a reputable company to clear your loved one’s estate. It’s a tough job and it’s very hard for a family member to be objective during that time. A good estate company will run a very organized sale, make sure fair prices are acheived, treat the home and it’s belongings with the utmost respect, and also maintain a safe environment with little or no theft because they have staff members to run the sale. Too many times I’ve been to sales where clearly the family has attempted the sale and items are practically being given away. It always makes me so sad! They are quite obviously dealing with their grief as well as dealing with the material items and it can really take a toll. I’ve heard so many stories of families being ripped off on valuable paintings and antiques simply because they were unaware of what they had.

  6. kate mckinnon says

    What a great followup post, Pam. I want to go thrift shopping with YOU. Come to Tucson anytime; we are awash in treasure. I’ll put you up at my Atomic Ranch and we can look at all of my salt and pepper shakers!

    • pam kueber says

      Kate, we have some other friends in Tucson — and my husband lived there for a while after he went to college and is wanting to go back sometime soon for a visit. We’ll be sure to look you up if we do and you bet — go thrifting!

      • kate mckinnon says

        I was inspired by you yesterday to go over to an estate sale in my neighborhood, and what do you know, I bought a very cool armchair with matching footstool for $50.

        There were lots of excellent Grandpa jars of screws and nails and bits, you know, with the lids attached to the bottom of a shelf and the jars screwing off. So smart. I love Grandpa tool solutions. I found a little cross-stitched mushroom (!) I made for my Grandma when I was a little kid, and looked on the back to discover that my Grandpa had used an old pop-top to hang it on the wall. (Not a pull-tab, but a pop-top, with two holes. One held a thumbtack into the cardboard backing of the cross-stitch, one stuck up and went on a nail in the wall.)

  7. handyandy says

    Talk about house karma. I attended an estate sale in a house that my grandparents had built and lived in 60 years ago. I had never been in it before. My grandfather was an engineer with the State Highway Department of Oregon, and was transferred within 10 years of building grandma’s dream home. The current owners had lived there at least 40 years and it was their belongings that were being dispersed. I spent HOURS in that house examining every nook and cranny, imagining my family’s daily life. It was a beautiful house and an amazing experience.

  8. says

    Wow. great tips Pam and from everyone else. Thanks.

    I’m more of a Re-Store, Thrift Store shopper because I have always thought “Estate Sales” were for big spenders/dealers. Now I know better.

  9. Happy Daze says

    Thanks for the tips, Pam! You are correct that garages are usually a gold mine, especially if they are really messy/disorganized. Typically, most of the stuff is not priced and you can get some good deals on tools, vintage hardware (often MIB), and garden items. Plus, digging for the stuff is so much more fun that just picking it off of a table! :D

  10. Mich B says

    Here’s an idea for sniffing out estate treasures beforehand. A couple of years ago, I was looking at houses for sale online. The photos of one home showed it to be jam-packed with mid-century furniture and artwork. On a hunch, I called the realtor and asked if this was an estate, and would there be an estate sale any time soon? It was an estate, and he put me in touch with the seller. She let me come in and browse the house days before the estate sale, and put a post-it on anything I wanted a price for. She had an appraiser come in and price those things, then I came back and bought what I wanted. It was like my own private sale! I got some wonderful furniture, including a danish modern dresser, plus light fixtures, a painting, and one of my favorite things- an egg-shaped sculpture that now graces my coffee table.

  11. Alice says

    Gee, Pam! You left out the most important tip that I’ve had to learn the hard way (still learning in fact): Do not gasp, grab your head and shout “Oh my God, do you see that? I’ve been looking for THAT for five years. How much does it cost? I’ll pay anything! I have to have that!”

  12. Susan says

    Love your ideas.
    I have one of those useless ‘hidden’ toothbrush/cup holders in my bathroom!
    Modern toothbrushes, just don’t fit!

    • pam kueber says

      there are toothbrush sources for these in the FAQ (as i recall). or search: toothbrushes. and thank rebecca for the tips!

  13. Becky says

    I’m wondering if the concept of an “Estate Sale” is more of a East/West Coast sort of thing? I’ve honestly NEVER seen one–with tags and prices and the entire house open to visitors–here in the Midwest, despite decades of attending sales, auctions, yard sales, etc. Here, invariable, when the entire “estate” must go, we have auctions, instead. Auctions have their own charm, it is true, but I am envious of your opportunity to tour the home (auctions here are almost always outside on the lawn, or at an auction house) and I wish I could just walk through and pick up what I want, instead of waiting…and waiting…and WAITING on sore feet, for my “lots” to come up for bid.

  14. David says

    I love the tips!!! I think very much as you do when I go to a sale, sometimes I even imagine when and where someone bought an item and how they used it, and I say a little thank you to them for putting it there for me. I also imagine my own estate sale years from now, and how awesome it will be! As for those toilet seats, have you ever thought of buying a few cheap replacement seats at Home Depot and keeping them in your trunk? This way, you have a replacement for the one you want to buy. I think maybe people don’t like the thought of there being no toilet seat, or of having to go buy a new one, but if you offered to replace it for them they just might go for it. Just a thought!

  15. David W. says

    I thought of one more thing that I use. The website zillow.com will allow you to type in an address and see (for most listings) when the last sale of the house was. If there are two or more, estate sales that I want to go to, and let’s face it, aren’t there always? I’ll type in the addresses and start at the one with the oldest sale date. My logic is that it’ll have the most stuff crammed in the back of closets or attics!! It’s pretty common for people to purge when they move into a new place so it just stands to reason the longer they’ve been there the more fun stuff is to be had!

    • pam kueber says

      That’s a great, tip, David… even if it is kind of depressing. I just keep reminding myself: One day it’ll be my estate sale…

    • says

      That’s an interesting tip, I’ve never thought of doing that, but it makes a lot of sense. But I agree with Pam too, it is kind of depressing! Also that can be an interesting thing to do if you don’t know the neighborhood that well and you’re interested to see “what kind” of house it is that is having the sale (as in year built, size, price range etc…)

  16. says

    Here in Central Ohio the estate sales tend to be in the city, and the auctions are out in the country and in the smaller towns. I check estatesales.net, estatesales.org, craigslist, and our newspaper classifieds to find ads for sales. In my family I am the estate sale shopper and my dad is the auction goer – I live in the city (Columbus) and he lives more out in the country. It works out perfectly. :)

    My main estate sale tip is to bring a nice big box with handles to shop with – even if you leave with only 1 item, it is worth having that box for when you do find a bunch of stuff that you want to take home!!

  17. says

    What a timely post! I really appreciate the part about respecting the home, the treasures of the people who have passed. And the part about not hurrying, or rushing to purchase – the idea that there is always more out there is a good one to keep in mind.

  18. Stacy says

    Love this post! I just recently started going to estate sales in St. Louis. I’m a slightly more aggressive shopper. One thing that has helped me is to really study those photos if using estatesale.net. I’ve seen little things tucked away behind the tables and things being photographed and was able to head right for them when I got there. You can also figure out which rooms might be worth skipping on your first pass through. I print them out and label them so I don’t get distracted. I’m easily distracted!

  19. RetroGal says

    Great post Pam (as always!) My boyfriend just got me into going to estate sales in the past three months… and wow, I can’t believe I didn’t get turned on to them sooner… my frequent visits to Sallys (Salvation Army) have been replaced with estate sales on weekends! I do have to say, it took me a few sales to get over the creepiness feeling… felt a little vulture-like, invading people’s privacy…. but then I think about how the items are going on to a new home, for a new lifetime of enjoyment, and then I felt less guilty!

    Totally agree with the whole karma thinking….. I’ll get there whenever…. if it’s meant to be, the items will “wait” for me! And definitely, being nice above all is so key. I was at a sale just last weekend, and found a ton of awesome vintage Better Homes and Gardens series of cookbooks from 1961; it was half off day but when I went to pay, the woman informed me it didn’t apply to books (which were pretty cheap to begin with)… I was a bit bummed, but didn’t complain… well she must of noticed my quiet non-verbal disappointment because she then said, “But if you want to grab two-three more books on your way out, go ahead.” And that allowed me to get the whole set of books… so, it worked out well for both of us!

  20. Pete says

    Great tips for estate sales!

    I can offer a tip if you have the guts (like I do). I make pre-printed sold stickers with my name and telephone number on them. If I walk by something I know I definitely want I just calmly slap a sold sticker on it and continue through the sale. It immediately becomes “off-limits” to other buyers and it allows me to keep my hands free of merchandise. When I am done looking and I am ready to go, I collect all of my items in a box or boxes and pay for my goodies. I have had cases where people have written my name and phone number down and called me immediately after the sale offering me a premium for what I just purchased.

  21. says

    I love your article and perspective on sales. My boyfriend laughed at our similar philosophies on not rushing to be first….I too love to sleep in :)

    New Fan!
    Kristina

  22. says

    Love your Estate Sale tips! I am getting started here after many years of taking consignments. I love doing estate sales for people. I live in a rural area where auctions are the norm, but Estate Sales are finally catching on. I have an Antique Shop in southern Indiana, check out my site & estate sale tips, informing others about estate sales is my goal in my area. Thanks!

  23. mcmsd mike says

    i like go in to the kit desk drawer found org sales brouchure and price list c 1980 owners manuels , paint charts 1960s all for .50c look in the garage for left over 70s wall paper stuff takin down and never tossed out , if you see some thing not sure pick it up if you change your mind take it back to where you picked up

  24. Karen says

    Well, I loved reading all these posts! I own an estate sale company and I was so heartened to read the words “respect” “hard work” and “don’t be a jerk.” My crew and I work very, very hard for our clients and our cutomers to create a “win-win” situation for everyone — including us. But there is always at least one person at every sale who is so rude or unreasonable or arrogant or insulting — that I just want to close the door and find something else to do to pay the bills! All of you who posted here are the type of customers I would like to have — reasonable — that’s all I ask for. One complaint however on Pete’s “tips.” To go into an estate sale and put “sold” stickers on items and then go about your business of shopping and deciding whether you will indeed purchase those items is the worst behavior ever! Our sales run three days from 10am to 4 pm. That gives us a total of 18 hours to sell a house full of items in an organized, pleasent, clean, well-staffed, safe, and profitable manner. We get 30% of what we make — and that’s it. Sometimes we work for 2-3 weeks cleaning, sorting, staging and researching a sale. For someone to come in and arbitrarily place “sold” stickers on items can take an hour or more off of our 18 hour limit on selling things. That’s time we don’t have and can’t get back, so please, don’t take Pete’s tip on how to get what you want at an estate sale. Nothing is sold until it’s paid for. If we see someone doing that at our sales, we ask them to leave — and we take notice of who they are. They won’t be admitted to another of our sales -ever! And we run the best, most up-scale sales in our region. Thank you for letting me vent about my pet peeve.

    • cheryl says

      yes I agree, it seems quite rude and well as worse words I won’t mention, for someone to walk around putting “sold” tags on everything before they’ve paid for anything. As the person running the sale, very glad you put a stop to it.

  25. Neil says

    Being an antique dealer, and therefore having been through around 6000 estate sales in the last twenty years, I have a couple of tips too.
    If your fond of shopping the garage or basement, where the lighting is often inadequate, take a flashlight; it’ll come in hand for the hidden treasures.
    When you see someone coming out of a sale with a great item, do not say, “How much did you pay for that?” Its none of your business!
    Be sure to check the rafters of the garage or basement; often there you’ll find a great stash of house trim that was removed and saved when the regrettable remod occurred decades ago.
    If you see something you are crazy about, buy it right then. It’ll likely be gone on the following, discount day.
    Don’t come shopping the sales in my city; I don’t need more competition (just kidding, but sorta not too).

  26. Carol says

    I agree with Karen. There is an antique/whatever store in the city where I live. They buy the entire contents of houses in Wales. They bring everything over in shipping containers. The owners are from Wales and are charming and very kind. A man from a 3 hr. drive away in a much larger city comes in with a huge enclosed trailer on the first morning a new shipment is placed out for sale. He is there when it opens, and walks around slapping orange stickers on the premium Art Deco and MCM furniture. (90% of what they sale) He buys 20-30+ pieces in 5 minutes. He brings a partner. The owner told me I had to beat him in there on Tuesdays. Problem is, you can’t beat him there. Her prices are rock bottom cheap for excellent quality furnishings. I’ve managed to buy 2 pieces of furniture that I love. This place has an excellent following here and I’m sure more of us would shop there regularly if it were not “picked” by one man. We don’t go there anymore because it is frustrating to compete with him.

  27. Bernard says

    We have a HOLD area. If they aren’t paid for within 15 minutes they are up for sale. Nothing steams us more than someone piling great stuff up, then coming back and saying”I’m still thinking about it”. See if you get any deals THEN…

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