Tips for Exploring Estate Sales

Want to go selling this weekend? As much as I love being on the water, I’m talking about the kind of adventure where you don’t need a life preserver and a good breeze. I’m always on the lookout for the right piece of furniture or some fun artwork, and there’s no better place to find them than at a good estate sale. With a little luck, you can find what you’re looking for (and just about anything else) at a bargain price. Never been to one? Here are some tips to get you started and ‘selling’ like a pro in no time.
“Estate Sale” is a broad term that applies to the sale of someone’s house or apartment when people are moving, downsizing, or their estate or family is liquidating their assets. Generally, it lasts 2 to 3 days, with items offered at full price the first day, reduced by about 25% on the second day, and 50% on the last day. Your best selection will be at the very beginning of the sale, but it may mean that you have to wait in line to get in. The prices will be best at the end of the sale, but the selection will be smaller.
Plot your course… the best place to find estate sales in your area is Just enter your city or zip code and the site will tell you when sales are happening in your area. Each listing shows where the sale is located and has a description and pictures of some of the items for sale. Take a look at the payment options, so you are prepared ahead. Credit cards may not be accepted or may have an add-on service charge. Cash is always king, especially if you are asking for a price reduction (more on that in a minute.)
Be prepared and stow some provisions… for an interesting-looking sale, people come early, sometimes an hour or more before the doors open. You have to have that mid-century sideboard they’re advertising, you should do the same. If there is a line when you get there, look for a sign-up sheet or a basket with numbers. Sometimes it’s based on who’s in line first, other times it’s whose number is up. Bring a snack or a drink to pass the time, and keep in mind that the bathrooms are usually off-limits.
Pack the right gear… leave any large purses or backpacks in the car, frequently they are not allowed inside, but bring a reusable shopping bag or stuff some plastic bags in your pocket in case you hit the mother lode. Generally, you can leave items you want to purchase near the checkout, but you want to avoid multiple trips in case someone has the same taste you do and snags your vintage pieces that you couldn’t carry in one trip. It’s also handy to bring a measuring tape if you are looking for a specific piece of furniture and show up knowing the size of the space it will be living in. A magnifying glass or a loupe can be really useful if you’re looking at jewelry or artwork.  If I’m feeling competitive, I’ll have a few pieces of masking tape with “SOLD” written on them stuck to a piece of foil or plastic. See a piece you like? Slap SOLD on it next to the price tag and find someone from the sale to write up a ticket for you. (At a competitive sale, take a picture of the piece with the tag so you have proof you got there first.)
Explore… if you are looking for a specific item, walk through quickly to look for it, but after that, slow down and take your time. I generally find my best pieces in unexpected places like the basement, garage, backyard, or outbuildings. It’s always good to show up knowing what you’re looking for but keep an open mind. That teak garden bench may look great in your backyard, or that $5 container of miscellaneous hardware could save you a dozen trips to a hardware store.
Speak the native language… never hesitate to ask for a discount, the people running the sale want everything gone, but your odds are better if you are polite. A great phrase to know is “Is this your best price today?” If you are at a sale an hour or two before it closes, you can always ask if they’ll make an exception and give you tomorrow’s discount.
Last tips… estate sales will have more items and options than a moving sale, or a downsizing sale. Some companies running the sale will price things competitively while others charge more than traditional antiques outlets. Pay attention so you know companies to avoid or look for next time. Looking for clothing?  Wear form-fitting clothing so you can try things on without a changing room. Lastly, bring a friend and have fun. Hopefully, I’ll see you there!

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