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10 Proven Tips For Shopping Estate Sales

10 Tips For Shopping Estate Sales


Spring is almost here and estate sale season will be in full swing again before you know it! I want to help you get the good stuff — unless you live in my shopping area……. Hehehe….. But even if you do, here are my

10 Tips for Shopping Estate Sales

Before we get into the meat of it, let’s first talk about two things I hear all the time. 1) “It’s so sad” and 2) “Estate sales are too expensive.” Both these are – or can be – true. Or not.

  • “It’s so sad. I’m so sorry for the family.” And, to the people conducting the sale, “I’m sorry for your loss.” 
    When I first started going to estate sales, I always felt like I should apologize for buying their loved one’s things. I felt like a vulture, in there scrambling around, grabbing as fast as I could grab. Little did I know then, 30+ years ago, that the family was, in all likelihood, nowhere around. Really, it’s too traumatic. Plus, we’re actually helping the family. Doing them a favor. They have taken what they want out of the house. What we see is all the leftovers they didn’t know what to do with. They were overwhelmed and hired a company to come in and liquidate the rest.  And they’re getting a bit more money from the estate. Money always helps.
  • “Estate sales are too expensive.” Typically, sales run by a company are more expensive. Most companies have employees to pay out of their small percentage of the total sale. However, not all companies price things too high. My friend, Tiffany, and I conduct estate sales and we price things the way we like to buy. We’re long time resellers and know that most of our customers are either resellers or people looking for a bargain. And we know our local economy. It’s your job to figure out which companies are expensive and which are resonable. 

Now, let’s get down to details.

10 Tips For Shopping Estate Sales

1. We’ll begin with reading the ads in the paper.

A quick story here. One of my favorite estate sale stories happened  about 15 years ago. There were two ads in the paper. One was about 4″ long, listing all kinds of really nice things. The other was a two liner saying, “Estate Sale” and giving the address. They both started at the same time, but were about 10 miles apart. I figured everyone would go to the elaborate ad first and so chose the two liner. I was the first and only for a good 20 minutes. They didn’t have much and had it all in the driveway instead of inside the house. But what they had was good. There I was, picking at my leisure, all that Roseville for 25-50¢ and Occupied Japan for 25¢ (back in the day when they were more valuable than now) leaving the hand made $3 ceramics and the $25 prints they had had appraised. After I filled up the car, I headed to the other sale. Turned out they only let about 10 people in at a time. I was number 156 and still had to wait to get in. I watched people come out empty handed, grumbling how high everything was and they were going to try “that other one.” So sorry. That day was my day, not theirs.

The points I want to make with that story are:

  • Want ads are not usually free. If they list a lot of really nice sounding stuff, it’s probably going to be expensive. Also, people list what they think is the most valuable. 
  • Think about where the crowd might go and try to do the opposite. You’ll have less competition. Although that could backfire. You could be at the crappy one while everyone else is getting the good stuff. I’ve experienced it both ways. 

2.  Go early – Some companies give out numbers. You want to go at least an hour early and get your number so you can be among the first to get in. You can actually leave, go get a biscuit or to another sale until closer to opening time. Just don’t stay gone too long in case they open up early. If there are no numbers, hang around and be the first in line. But don’t fret if you’re number 65. Once the crowd gets in and disburses, it pretty much evens out. One person can’t be everywhere getting everything, although I’ve seen some that seem to do just that. It’s an amazing thing to watch.

3.  Take a bag. A big bag. A big, sturdy bag. The last thing you want to do is have to go put your armful of junk… I mean treasures… in the hold area while somebody else is grabbing what you might have wanted. You also run the risk of someone getting your things from the hold area. We like to think people are honest and won’t do it, but unless there’s an eagle eye hovering over the hold area it can easily happen.

4.  Listen to others while standing in line. You can learn so much! If you’re new, do not let on that you don’t know what you’re doing. Don’t ask how it works. Don’t say you’ve never been to one before. The pros will eat you alive once inside. Just stand there and pretend you know what you’re doing. Like you’ve been going to them for years in some other town.

5.  Know what you like to buy. The good glassware, crystal, silver, etc. is generally in the living room and dining room. It’s usually pretty obvious where most things will be. Kitchen stuff in the kitchen, clothes in the bedrooms, more casual decor in the den, etc. Usually, the farther back, or out, or… under… the cheaper. The living room and dining room are almost always the most expensive. The basement and outside buildings? That’s where I head first. But I like offbeat things the sellers don’t appreciate and sell cheaply.

6.  Check behind doors, under beds, in cabinets and drawers, etc. Sometimes things are hidden, missed by the crowd or even missed by the people who did the pricing. Look in the kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Look in all the closets. Look up, look down. You might even ask if anything is in the attic. I did once and was told there were old Christmas decorations up there that they hadn’t got out. I was going to go look, but the ceilings were high, the ladder not high enough and I’m afraid of heights. I had to pass on that. I still wonder what I missed.

7.  No one knows it all. There will be something there, no matter who did the pricing, that will be under priced. Granted, there might have been only one thing and the first person in the door grabbed it, but there is always something. It’s your job to spot it. 

8.  Ask if you can leave a bid on higher priced items. Most companies will take bids of greater than half price on furniture and higher priced items. You write your name, number and amount you are willing to pay for the item and give it to the person handling the money. If no one else placed a bid higher than yours, they’ll call you at the end of the day. Please stand by your decision! Don’t say yes, I want it then back out the next day, not show up, etc. The sellers will probably have some kind of policy in place for those situations.

9. Go on half price day. Sellers generally do not negotiate on the first day of an estate sale because it’s standard practice to go half price the second day. If you went the first day, great! You know what you want to go back for. If it didn’t sell, it might not be in the same place you left it. You might have to hunt for it. Things get moved around. If you didn’t go the first day, then it’s all a surprise. A half price surprise.

10. Go at the end of the sale. Often, the sellers will let you pile things up and give you a great deal just to get rid of it. Being on the selling end, I can tell you that there are usually some surprisingly good things left. ‘Nough said on that.

All the above points apply to sales conducted by estate liquidators and some apply to family run sales. Here are a couple of things to note about those family run sales:

  • They’re usually either very cheap (We like!) or they think everything is worth a mint. You won’t know until you get there. However, the ones who think they have a gold mine, almost always devalue the chippy, rusty and crusty. Too often, they’ve thrown it away. Unless it’s someone who is both a trendy and an antique snob. But remember the point above. No one knows it all.
  • They are more likely to negotiate the first day. 

Those are my tips for sniffing out the deals at estate sales. What are yours?

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Hi! I'm Wanda, the owner of Just Vintage and this is my blog where I talk about buying, selling, and decorating with all things vintage. I want to help you learn what to buy for resale and maybe give you inspiration in decorating, even if it's what NOT to do.

11 thoughts on “10 Proven Tips For Shopping Estate Sales

  1. Ahh, you’re making me miss my old estate sale days…getting to 9am a sale by 5am in hopes of getting a number in the first 10 (and rarely did!). But there’s nothing like the thrill of finding something really wonderful – everything was a surprise!

    1. You should get out and go sometimes! It’s still fun even if you’re not looking for anything to sell. 🙂

  2. Those are all great points, Wanda, especially the one about going to the least advertised sale. I did that this past Saturday, but sales are always more crowded on Saturdays, so it evens out. Hate those sales where they only let in a little at a time…feel so cheated. You can just imagine what you’re missing!

  3. These are some wonderful tips. I don’t go to estate sales as often as I used to because I already have too much in my stash. But I do love them and still go occasionally. Thank for the insider tips!!

    1. Angie, are you not reselling yet? That’s what a lot of us have done when our stash got too big and we still loved to go to the sales. 😀

  4. Thanks for the great information. I haven’t been to many estate sales for reason #2. I always thought they were too expensive. I knew nothing about bidding on items either.

    Also, great write up on Etsy 🙂

    1. Thanks Rheta! And don’t give up on estate sales. You just never know what’s around the corner.

  5. Fun to find this information. I have lots of family stuff and will try Etsy to begin my selling. I’d like to send you a pic of my laundry room wall. At 73 years old, I want others to enjoy having and decorating with “my stuff” from back in Pennsylvania.

    1. Hi Lois. Thanks for the comment. I’d love to see your laundry room!

      I often hear people say they don’t want their kids to have an estate sale when it’s time. They don’t want people rummaging through their stuff. But I hope that my stuff can provide enjoyment for other people and they’ll have as much fun finding it at my sale as I did finding it at other sales. 🙂

  6. I’ve never been to an estate sale, but it is something that I would love to check out because I love to collect antiques. It didn’t even cross my mind that I could check in cabinets and under beds for items. That’s also good to know that I can check for items in the attic. Sometimes great things are hidden.

  7. I love your second tip about getting to an estate sale at least an hour early to get a good number so you can get in first. My husband and I have been wanting to find some unique decor items for our house. Attending an estate sale might be a great way of finding a good item that’s one of a kind.

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