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. Kathy says:

    I’ve been on all sides of the estate sales business – as an organizer, worker and buyer. It is difficult but rewarding work. Every estate sale company has its own policies, and it’s a good idea to know what they are. Door line-up or numbers? Pre-numbers accepted? What will the discount be the next day at opening? At what point does pricing become flexible? Is there a bid box? If you attend the sale on the first day and see a price that is more than you will pay but you would be willing to pay more than the price it would be the next morning, leave a bid. Leaving a bid is also a good way to make a low ball offer on something you are willing to walk away from.

  2. Penny says:

    Excellent article, Pam! I agree with everything. I haven’t been to too many where you are allowed to put “sold” stickers on stuff. That’s new to me. I don’t think I would allow that if I were running it. I agree with her article about making more work for the people running the sale. Pam, I know what you meant about showing respect for the people who died and kept such great care of all of their treasures. I went to a sale and always look for things I can use–bought 2 brand new pairs of Isotoner gloves with tags still on and a brand new bathrobe from Sears still in the box–both things I love and can use. I said a prayer to God in thanks for the lady who owned them and that he allowed me to now be able to enjoy. God bless all you estate sale goers and most importantly, be thankful for the wonderful finds!!!

  3. 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…

  4. 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.

  5. 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).

  6. 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.

  7. 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

    1. mcmsd mike says:

      i buy records lps for the covers …ck insde to see if the record is the same as the cover

  8. 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!

  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!

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