The Secrets to Estate Sales Demystified, According to a Frequent Shopper

published Mar 7, 2022
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Credit: Photo: Shutterstock; Design: Apartment Therapy

Look at the photo of my living room below. It contains eight (!) items that I’ve snagged from estate sales. In fact, there’s an estate sale find in nearly every room of my house! But while I see myself as a seasoned estate saler now, the first few times I shopped, I was intrigued by all the deals, but intimidated by the process. If you’ve never been to an estate sale before, the accompanying culture can seem a bit mysterious. How do you find out about estate sales? Do you have to pay to enter? How much do things cost? Can you get stuff delivered? Allow me to demystify the process for those hoping to delve into this treasure-hunting and architecture-gawking hobby.

There are over EIGHT items in this photo that I've snagged from estate sales. The rug to the right and the drop-leaf table on top of it are two favorites: I found them for $50 and $80, respectively! Other items purchased at estate sales in this room include the rattan coffee table (though we spray painted the base blue), those fantastic square mirrors hanging on the wall, that giant maroon planter, and a gorgeous mid-century modern coffee table we're using as a side table in the corner.

It has been in the great city of New Orleans — with its rich history of design and architecture — that I’ve honed this occasional hobby into a passionate weekly activity. I’m not an estate sale expert by any means, but I have picked up a few tips and tricks over the years. The advice below is far from exhaustive… and your success will depend on how estate sales are done in your city. But perhaps the answers to some of the most common questions I had before becoming a frequent shopper might be helpful.

For me, the architecture is half the fun of going to estate sales: Getting to step inside gorgeous homes — from “time capsules” that have haven’t been updated for decades, to artists’ eclectic lairs, to grand mansions — is as much a part of estate sale culture as the discount on furnishings. Marvel at old wallpaper patterns, page through shelves of books, poke around kitchen cabinets — visiting estate sales is an activity for all of the senses.

What is an estate sale, exactly?

Estate sales — also sometimes referred to as Tag Sales — are sales, usually on the weekends, where nearly everything in someone’s home is available for purchase. While not always the case, estate sales are often homes where one of the residents has recently died or downsized. Many sales are run by companies who specialize in them, and others may be run by a family member of the previous homeowner. The people who visit estate sales run the gamut between pros who shop for inventory for their own businesses, to people who just love a good deal. Based on my experiences, estate sales typically run on Saturdays and Sundays, usually from the morning to the early afternoon, but some run on Fridays for a three-day sale, and other sales last longer! Always check the estate sale listing to find out the exact time and date details. Speaking of listings…

The desk, the folding chair, the vintage radio, the blanket at the end of the bed, and that cool crystal lamp were all found at estate sales.

How does one find out about estate sales?

I personally enjoy perusing the listings on EstateSales.NET every week. Many of the top estate sale companies in New Orleans list their upcoming sales on this site. They also have an app that you can use to find and save sales, where you can search by zip code (and set how far you’re willing to travel) as well as filter for dates and a few other elements.

Other places to find sales happening are online marketplaces like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. I also enjoy searching for and following the social profiles of some of my favorite estate sale companies for info on upcoming sales, as well as sneak peeks of what might be sold. Speaking of sneak peeks…

How do you know if an estate sale will be “good” or not?

Many estate sale listings will furnish preview photos of the sale, at least a few days before. Depending on who’s making the listing, you might see a handful of photos of the rooms of the house, or you might see lots of close-ups of specific items. If preview photos are provided, look through them to see if you can spot anything of interest in the home, or if the taste of the previous homeowner matches your own style. There may also be a list of keywords of the items for sale. All of these hints can help you determine if this sale is “worth” your visit. This won’t give you a full “picture” of the sale (and I’ve been fooled many times in wrongly thinking a sale would be good or bad according to the photos), but it’s primarily the way I decide on which sales to go to.

Gawking at gorgeous architectural details, like the floor tiles I spotted on a PATIO once, are part of the fun of going to estate sales.

What should you bring to an estate sale?

  • I suggest bringing a couple of different forms of payment with you, because it will vary from company to company. Most take cash, some take Venmo, a few take credit cards.
  • A mask! I (thankfully) still see many people wearing masks in estate sales, where there are often lots of people crammed into small spaces.
  • Gloves: Some estate sales might have very dusty/dirty items to look through.
  • Comfortable clothes you don’t mind getting dirty: I’ve gotten grime on my jeans from carrying something dirty before. You also want to wear comfy shoes that have good treads… you’ll be walking on a lot of different surfaces.
  • Bags: Consider bringing your own reusable shopping bags or maybe even a giant IKEA bag. You can use them during the sale to carry stuff while you’re shopping and use it to transport items to your car after you check out. This isn’t like a regular store… there might be some packing supplies/bags available to wrap your things up for your trip home, but not always!
  • A tape measure: It can also be helpful to have on hand a few measurements of “open” areas in your home you’re trying to fill, and to have a tape measurer on you to make sure an item will fit in your home before you buy. I have a few measurements of important home areas listed in my phone’s note app just in case.
The owner of the house above had a nautical theme to the entire home, inside and out, and I waited in the longest line to date to enter!

How do you get into an estate sale?

Most listings will have the exact address of the sale at least a few days before the sale opens, and on the day of the sale, look for an estate sale sign. You can also look for people walking toward the same house or a house with a line outside!

Many estate sales that I’ve gone to operate under the “First Come, First Served” rule; meaning whoever gets to the sale first gets to go in first. If you spot something in a listing photo you REALLY want, consider getting to the sale before it even opens to wait in the entry line. You won’t have to wait in a line for every estate sale — it’ll depend on the popularity of the sale — but a lot of times the really “good” ones will require at least a little queuing. I like to drive or walk by a house first to see how long the line is. Depending on the size of the home or a company’s specific Covid rules, they may only allow a few people in a sale at once, which can also lead to waiting in an entry line.

Depending on the estate sale company, there might be a “number system” in use, meaning you’ll wait in line to grab a number before the sale even opens, and then get to enter that sale according to your number after the sale starts. Full disclosure: I’ve gone to a few sales that did the number system, but I’ve never personally used the number system. Often, I’ve just waited until later in the day or the last day of the sale to visit the very busy/crowded ones. BUT, that’s because I’m usually never hunting for something in particular. If you have your eyes on a very specific item, you might do your own research to find the best way to get into a sale the quickest.

Also, note that accessibility might be very limited. Because these are private homes that are only temporarily open to the public, accessibility to each home will have to be determined on a case-by-case basis. You might be able to determine how accessible it is by photos of the home, or you may need to contact the company to ask how easy it is to access the sale. Some sales do offer online sales and auctions, which you can inquire about as well, if you’re unable to physically make it into the sale.

“Remember this was someone’s home… and will likely be someone’s home again. So respecting the space is important.”

Is there any estate sale etiquette to be mindful of?

According to EstateSales.NET, etiquette includes not cutting in line, not grabbing things out of people’s hands, and other common sense manners. Remember this was someone’s home… and will likely be someone’s home again. So respecting the space is important. Stay out of the areas that are clearly marked with “do not enter.” Ask for help with heavy or hard-to-reach stuff. I try not to squeeze into a closet or other small space when someone else is already in there. I wait my turn to walk down crowded hallways or narrow stairwells. And I try to stay aware of my surroundings (and anything I’m carrying) as I move through the home shopping so I don’t break or damage anything.

Rules differ between companies, but if possible I suggest you also avoid bringing dogs, drinks, or food into an estate sale. Also be respectful of the neighborhood; don’t block driveways when you park, and be polite when moving your vehicle closer to the sale to load up large furniture.

I love birds, and buying unique art from estate sales affords me the ability to grow my bird art collection.

Pro Tip: I like to do a quick walkthrough of the entire home when I first enter an estate sale. Then I do more thorough examinations of each open room. I look at the rugs on the floor. Then the larger furniture pieces and the smaller items, glancing at all the art hanging on the walls, too. Even after checking out I’ll usually go back in to make sure I didn’t miss anything! There’s SO MUCH to look at when you go to an estate sale you have to do a few rounds of shopping to really take it all in. Some people like to start at the top floor and work their way down, yet others like to beeline straight to the rooms and areas that contain items of interest. You’ll find your own shopping style!

The cool painted mirror, the textile on the table, and several pieces of art hanging on this wall were found at estate sales.

How do you actually buy something?

Many items will have a price located on a sticker or tape on the actual piece, or, for smaller items or collections of things (like books, clothing, and sheets and towels), there might be a nearby sign that lists the pricing info. If the item you want to buy is small enough to carry, hold it with you (or put in the hold area) while shopping. Estate sale companies have different ways in which they handle selling big pieces. When in doubt, ask someone in the know if they want you to take the price tag off the furniture piece to check out, or if they want to put a “sold” sticker on it, or both. If you see something you want, either buy it right then or come back at a later time and hope no one else has bought it. If you weren’t expecting to buy something big and don’t yet know how you’ll transport it, you can often pay for an item and come pick it up later that day, or sometimes even the next day. Also, you might see items labeled with a sticker that reads “NFS,” which means it’s “Not for Sale” and staying with the house.

As far as negotiating prices, you can always try! In my experience you usually can’t successfully negotiate the price down on big furniture pieces all that much on the first day of a sale, but sometimes on smaller items, items without a price on it, or on a bundle of things, you can get a deal if you suggest a lower price for everything. The real deals can be made and had on the last day of a sale, when many estate sale companies (around New Orleans, anyway) do discount days. Again, it’ll depend on the company, but I’ve seen 40 percent and 50 percent off prices on the last day of the sale, when most companies are trying to sell as much of the home’s content as possible. But, if you wait for discount day you run the risk of the item being sold already on your return visit.

According to EstateSales.NET, some estate sales use a bid system, but I don’t ever bid on anything, so I can’t give out advice on that. I suggest that if you see something you really love, ask someone who works at the sale what the best way is to make it yours.

Pro Tip: There’s often a “holding area” where you can temporarily store stuff you want to buy while you’re shopping, so you don’t have to carry it around. Look for a sign that says “hold” or ask someone that works at the estate sale. You can stash something in that area and then pick it up right before you check out. This isn’t to be used as a “leave the estate sale and think about it area,” though. There’s an unspoken understanding that items in the hold area are temporarily claimed, but workers are usually closely monitoring the area. They may try to find the potential owner if they notice an item sitting in the hold area for a long time. If you’re not there to claim it, they might put the item back on sale.

“I’ve found that many estate sales are filled with high-quality items that have withstood the test of time and are built to last. You can often buy items — sometimes even barely used things — for a fraction of what it might cost to buy something new.”

What are the best things to buy from estate sales?

Whatever it is that you need or really love, of course! What you get at an estate sale is entirely up to your own home needs, but I love snagging rugs, kitchenware, lamps, books, holiday decorations, plants, and art, as well as sheets, blankets, and pillowcases. I’ve found that many estate sales are filled with high-quality items that have withstood the test of time and are built to last. You can often buy items — sometimes even barely used things — for a fraction of what it might cost to buy something new.

As I wrote above… I’m no estate sale expert. I just love them a lot and have time-honored tips and experience. So if you enjoy visiting estate sales as much as I do, please share in the comments your own estate sale tips, tricks, and advice!

This post is part of our Thrifting Package, a celebration of all things secondhand. Head over here to read more about everything from how to restore a thrifted item to the best thrift shops in the U.S.