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:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.)
  • 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. An old fashioned flashlight can be useful. Collect a big, flexible bag or carryall to collect as you go. A protein bar and bottle of water. Go to the bathroom before you go. Bring cash. 
  • 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. 
  • If in doubt, don’t buy it. Or, wait one day, go back, and see if you still want it (at an even better price.) No regrets, please, because never fear: There’s always more. You’re gonna “sell it on ebay”? Ummm, but have you already listed and sold everything you’ve ever bought “to sell on ebay”? If not, let the new/old estate sale stuff go to someone who will use it or let it clutter up their house. (I am really trying these days not let my collections take over my life.)
  • 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.

  1. Diana says:

    I always think of the owners of the property and thank them, I know people will drooling over my collections and random objects when I pass. Thanks for the tip on drapes! Love your newsletters

  2. Linda says:

    I have a problem at estate sales. They make me cry. While visiting a sale, I saw the former owner’s work shirts displayed for sale. His name, Chet, was embroidered on them and he worked at a beloved lumberyard, which is now gone. That plus his wife’s LP collection, including Christmas albums brought me to more than tears. So embarrassing. Does anyone else have this reaction? Help!

  3. Carla says:

    In the early ’70s, my family had returned to the U.S. without a stick of furniture to put in the house my parents were having built. No Craig’s List and no estate sale companies, just getting up at the crack of dawn and combing the newspaper classifieds. When it was an estate sale, it was usually the adult children or other relatives running the sale. My parents made it clear to all of us kids (mostly teenagers) that any disrespectful behavior at all and the offender would be banned from all future sales. This was early in our furniture search and we were on our way home from our second, rather horrific estate sale. There were two people at the sale who seemed to go out of their way to disparage anything and everything and then crown their insulting behavior by proclaiming the price to be way too much for such damaged, mistreated items.

    We had a few more sales under our belts when I first saw the “sold” sticker trick. At first, when every piece of furniture I looked at ended up having a sold sticker on it, I thought the family must have had a dealer in before the sale. Until a fellow customer I recognised from our pre-door- opening wait reached around me to put a sticker on the nightstand I was looking at! It was pretty easy to put two and two together after that and I picked up the nightstand, found one of the sellers, showed him the sticker and asked if the piece had indeed been paid for. It hadn’t. To this day, if I see someone slapping stickers on things I immediately let the sellers know. And I am happy to help remove unauthorised stickers.

  4. mike says:

    one can see the life story at the estate sale ,what they liked to do world travel , chief , then the sad part last yrs,I like to buy cleaning supplies $ .10 or free ck the dates 1999 but some stuff still work , also make sure the record inside match the album cover see something pick it up can always put it back

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