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. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. David W. says:

    I thought of one more thing that I use. The website 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!

    1. 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…

    2. 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…)

  4. Mitzi 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,, 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!!

  5. Jen 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.

  6. 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 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!

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. Kristina 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!

  10. 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!

  11. 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

  12. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

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