This Is My #1 Tip for Shopping Estate Sales (I’ve Been to 50!)

published Mar 7, 2024
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Fireplace mantel in Brooklyn apartment filled with plants. Mantel is topped with mirror, vases, plants and taper candles and surrounded by artwork.
Credit: Erin Derby

As an avid thrifter, I’m always on the hunt for secondhand items. From driving to local yard sales on warm-weather Saturdays to popping into local charity shops when I have 15 minutes to spare, I find it relaxing to sift through and see what I can find.

My mom opened an antique shop when I was 5, so I grew up going to flea markets and garage sales, but over the past few years I’ve gotten into the estate sale game. Unlike thrift shops and the classic yard sale, which typically have a less well-rounded selection of items, estate sales have everything from fine furniture and closets full of clothes to mounds of books and mundane household items. Case in point: One of my recent estate sale scores was a massive box of new light bulbs for $5. Boring, I know, but have you seen the price of light bulbs lately?

If you’ve never attended an estate sale, they can seem intimidating initially, as the atmosphere differs remarkably from the relaxing meander through a thrift store. Nothing compares to the adrenaline rush of an estate sale as you wait in line and enter the home all at once.

A few weeks ago, I walked into an estate sale 15 minutes after it opened, and there were already over 100 people packed into the small home. Although everyone inside was polite, it felt like limbs were everywhere as folks picked up items and reached over each other to view price tags. I did an about-face and headed out the door, deciding that even the best treasures weren’t worth the chaos. To make sure you don’t make the same mistake, here’s my best piece of advice for those new to the estate sale game: Consider going after the big rush.

Credit: Jennifer Prince

Not being one of the first to get to an estate sale may seem counterintuitive, but I’ve found some of my favorite gems by either going a few hours after opening on the first day or during the last day of the sale. But I’ve also scored some of my best deals by going on the last day when items are deeply discounted — many times 50% off the original price.

A few weeks ago, I went on the first day of the sale, where I bought two items — an adorable $10 side table with chipped paint and an outdoor coffee table for $35. I snagged them because they were good deals, but I was willing to wait for prices to get slightly lower on the other pieces I was eyeing. 

Credit: Jennifer Prince

On the last day, I went when they opened (yes, there was a line), but then I returned an hour before they closed to see what was still there. I liked the homeowner’s style, so I figured a few treasures would still be left, and I was right. I purchased a tavern table and a chest for less than half their original prices; I was able to barter a bit, as the sale was closing. 

Sure, if you have your eye on a specific one-of-a-kind piece from the listing photos, you may miss out, but if you have an open mind about what kind of gems you might find, I encourage you to wait — at least for your first sale. That’s how I’ve brought home some of my favorite estate sale finds. Plus, it’s nice to walk around at a leisurely pace and peruse things when it’s less crowded. It makes for a nice experience whether it’s your first time at an estate sale or your hundredth.