What is an estate sale?
An estate sale is similar to a garage sale in that it is held at a private home in order to sell unwanted possessions. The sale is usually conducted by an estate-sale company hired by the heirs of a relative who has died.
The relatives may not want anything in the home, may not have the time to clear the possessions out themselves or may live in a distant state.
Estate-sale specialists assume the complex job of liquidating an estate during a time when surviving relatives are still grieving and overwhelmed. Their job is to maximize the return to the family and to clear out the entire contents of the home, from curtains to gardening tools. The company usually receives a percentage of proceeds (typically 20 to 35 percent) or may pay a flat amount for the entire contents of the home.
Buying at an estate sale has several advantages over other budget venues. Sales are usually held rain or shine on a Friday and Saturday, cutting down on the competition with other bargain hunters. If you can get to the sale on a Friday morning you'll get first dibs at items that have never been offered for sale. Most sellers at flea market and garage sales are selling their rejects, whereas estate-sale merchandise is usually in very good condition and of reasonable quality.
Estate-sale holders organize and price every item and place them in the rooms where you'd expect to find them — tools in the garage, dishes in the kitchen — making shopping easier. You can plug things in to see if they work, or try clothing on to see if it fits.
Because sale holders are usually antique experts, or have a team of appraisers and specialists, you're not likely to find an overlooked treasure, but you can still expect to pay 10 to 80 percent of retail.
Auctions are great places to find estate items, but there are some drawbacks. You have to show up early to preview each "lot" and then wait, sometimes for hours, for it to come up to be sold. Often the item you are interested in is mixed in with other items, so you end up with a box full of stuff you don't want. Bidding can be intimidating and emotion-evoking, so it's easy to pay more than you want to, or pass on something you shouldn't have.
There's an additional percentage owed the auction house when you pay for your merchandise. Estate-sale shopping can be competitive, but you'll never have to pay more than what the price tag says.
How to estate-sale shop
Check out the classified section of your local paper under Garage and Estate Sales to find one near you. Or, check the Yellow Pages under "Estate Sales," call up a local company and ask for the date and address of its next sale. The night before the sale, find the address on a map and gather supplies. Take along a handful of change and bills, a list of items you're looking for, with dimensions and color swatches.
If you arrive at the sale before or at the advertised start you are likely to encounter a crowd, will be given a number and have to wait to enter. The sale operators control the number of people in the house to prevent overcrowding and keep the check-out line manageable. Later shoppers won't have to wait, but might miss some unique items.
There's usually no deal-making on the first day of a sale, so expect to pay the sticker price. But, if you shop in the last couple hours of the sale you might be able to wrangle a better price.
If you want to be notified in advance get on the company's mailing list. Some companies send "preview" invitations, allowing you to shop ahead of the crowd. If you are a real collector, it's a good idea to befriend the estate-sale company owner so he/she can call you for a private visit when s/he runs into something you collect.