All About Estate Sales: A Crash Course & Tips for Newbies

Estate sales have always intimidated me. I assumed they were the exclusive domain of antique dealers and collectors—a world of prohibitively pricey Spode china and gilt framed artwork. So last weekend I decided to educate myself.

I consulted with two friends who are self-proclaimed estate sale junkies and as well as the owner of a local estate sale company to find out more about what appears to be a bizarre and fruitful subculture. Most importantly, I actually attended two local Washington, DC estate sales, which were advertised both online and on the street. It was eye-opening, to say the least. Here is what my crash course taught me:

Why do people have estate sales? According to Daniel Sanders of Four Sales, Ltd., which operates throughout the mid-Atlantic, about half of estate sales are held when a homeowner decides to downsize to a smaller home (following divorce or retirement or to pay off debt). The other half occur when someone dies. Because the sales are designed to sell off a large portion of a home’s contents quickly, you can expect prices to be lower than what one would find at a retail store or antique shop (and sometimes even on eBay).

What can you buy at an estate sale? Most estate sales sell an all-encompassing range of possessions, from the cheapest (used board games and towels) to the most expensive (antique sterling silver and high-end furniture). But what is junk to one person may be a gem to another (outsider or folk art, obscure collectibles, a vintage 60s miniskirt, out-of-date travel guide books, etc.).

Who can you expect to see at an estate sale? Estate sales draw collectors, interior designers, antique dealers, and people like me who love hunting for furniture and knick knacks at bargain prices. You will know the dealers and collectors when you see them. They are there before the doors open. They are typically very savvy, competitive, efficient and driven. But don’t let that intimidate you. According to Sanders, most dealers are only interested in narrow band of what is being offered at a sale, such as jewelry, silver, or rare coins. "Most of the dealers are in and out fast because they are trying to hit as many sales as possible in one day," he explained.

What surprised me most was the someone frantic atmosphere of the two sales I visited. Some shoppers (probably dealers) were on a mission; they were cutthroat, darting through rooms without making eye contact with each other. Others took a calmer approach, leisurely sifting through rows of books or baskets of vintage hankerchiefs. I also encountered staff from the estate sale company, who are in charge of organizing and executing the sale. I appreciated this. I would find it too awkward and intimate to be face to face with the person whose possessions I was so ruthlessly rummaging through.

Tips for the newbie:


• If you go to sales run by professional firms you are more likely to find higher quality stuff at a higher price (after all, these firms do take a commission). But reputable companies will price things fairly and competitively so as to secure a following of loyal customers. Because companies are likely to use certified appraisers you are less likely to walk away with some overlooked original Saarinen tulip table for $50. But by the same token, the professional stamp means you are less likely to find yourself at a house full of absolute junk. And all the stuff will be organized, with clear pricing and purchasing policies.

• The best stuff is usually sold in the first few hours so get there early. But, remember that what constitutes “the best stuff” is in the eye of the beholder. Moreover, if you come after the rush (later in the day or the next day), you will feel less frazzled and are in a better position to haggle.

• Don’t forget the attic and basement, where vintage treasures lurk in boxes. And remember to check out the rugs on the floor and the curtains and blinds on the windows.

• All sales are final.

• Check out the estate sale company’s website for details and photos before you go. You may discover that the sale is really a glorified garage sale (not necessarily a bad thing). If you see something that strikes your fancy, do a little research so you can make an educated assessment as to the piece’s authenticity and worth.

At one of the sales I visited I got the distinct sense that it had been held by the family of an old lady who had recently passed away. I couldn’t help feeling a little sad at the idea that we were rummaging through this woman’s linens, dishes, pillows--even her wedding dress. This was the material legacy of her life: all the gifts she had received over the years, those carefully chosen curtains, the wedding china. I couldn’t help picturing my own things being one day poked, prodded and discarded in the same manner. But then I reminded myself that estate sales are a blessing for families who a mourning a recent death. After all, they are very quick, efficient and effective. And maybe the idea of passing on one’s belongings to a stranger is somehow reassuring. A rebirth for the object if not for the person. And, who knows, maybe this woman bought her own clothes and furniture at estate sales in 1950s and 1960s?

Image: RockCandy56