My Tried-and-True Tips for Shopping an Estate Sale (I’ve Been to 100!)

published May 13, 2024
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graphic collage showing a photo of a bookshelf and a photo of a bedroom from an estate sale the writer attended
Credit: Photos: Jennifer Prince

Although I don’t keep a tally of the number of estate sales I’ve been to, I’d have to say I’m close to 100. While that may sound impressive, I’ve been told those are rookie numbers by some (and to those people I say I’m working on it — trust me). However, if you’re an avid thrifter who’s never been to one, I encourage you to go. But, first, you may wonder: What is an estate sale?

While charity shops and yard sales can be hit-or-miss with the amount and types of items available, I’m convinced everyone can find a little something at an estate sale. While they can seem a little overwhelming if you’ve never been, I rarely leave one empty-handed. In fact, they’ve quickly become my favorite way to shop for secondhand goods. If you’ve never experienced one, here’s the answer to every question about estate sales that you’ve ever had.

What is an estate sale?

A true estate sale is run by a company specializing in clearing out estates, typically when folks move, downsize, or pass away. The individual, couple, or family is looking to offload a lot of items, which often means the estate sale company is responsible for liquidating an entire household of belongings. Because there are so many things for sale at once, these events usually take place at the house where the items are stored.

How does an estate sale work? 

Before navigating your first estate sale, you have to find one first. Head to a site like or (or both!) and input your zip code to find out about upcoming sales in your area. Because estate sale companies have to pay to list their sales on these sites, you may also have to scour Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, or local yard sale groups, where businesses can list their sales for free. Many estate companies also have email lists or send out text reminders, so if you go to a sale you like, sign up for alerts before you leave. 

One of the best parts about seeing these sales online is that you can usually scope out the photos beforehand or see a detailed listing of items to be sure the sale is worth your time. However, just because you don’t see something in the images doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stop by, as not every item makes it into a photograph. You can also find details on these listings, such as accepted payment methods, sale hours, and any specific rules for attending the event.

If you have your eye on a particular item or just want first dibs on walking through the home, arrive early. Although you probably won’t be able to enter the house before the stated start time, folks will start to line up beforehand to queue or get a sequential number to enter the home. And once the door opens, the fun begins! 

When you see something you want to purchase, put it aside or carry it to ensure it’s yours. If you’re interested in more oversized items, ask the company if they have sold tags so that you can claim items quickly. The opening of an estate sale can be quite frenzied and filled with quick decision-making. I’ve learned that if I see something and ponder it as I walk around, it’s often not there when I return. 

Credit: Lauren Kolyn

What can you buy at an estate sale? 

The beauty of the estate sale is that you can find pretty much anything. Because a whole household of items is available, there’s almost anything you can think of. I’ve purchased everything from cleaning supplies and light bulbs to toys, clothing, and even plants. Once, I splurged on a $175 mirror that I couldn’t resist (in my defense, it’s an 1800s oval beauty).

Because there is so much to take in visually, you should go with an open mind. Yes, you may be looking for a new dining room table or a lovely set of crystal glasses, but also be sure to pop into the basement to find tools, extension cords, and potting supplies. The homeowner may also be getting rid of larger, high-ticket items like lawnmowers. 

One thing I love about the “arrive early” mentality of estate sale shopping is that I’ve gotten to know several of the regulars in my area by standing in line for 30 minutes or so before a sale opens. Some people are there to buy coins, others jewelry, some fine art, and still others — like me — are looking for a little bit of everything (or one special something that catches their eye). 

What is the difference between an estate sale and a garage sale?

Although there are several distinctions between estate and garage sales, I will preface this by saying that some “estate sales” are glorified yard sales meant to clear out an estate. The family often runs these kinds of sales, which makes them more similar to garage sales because you’re dealing with the owners of the items. 

On the other hand, a genuine estate sale is run by a company that specializes in clearing out homes, so there are a few differences between a professionally run estate sale and your typical Saturday morning yard sale. Here’s what you can expect.

  • Estate sales open their doors at a specific time, whereas sometimes you can pop into a garage sale early while people set up. 
  • Estate sales are designed to clear out a home full of items quickly and efficiently, while garage sales usually have fewer items.
  • Estate sales are usually haggle-free (I have had some success during the last hour of the sale on the final day), whereas you can often ask for a lower price on high-dollar items or a group of things at a garage sale.

Estate sales typically last two to three days, and a garage sale may be only a few hours on a Saturday morning. The good thing about this difference is that estate sales will discount most items on the last day of the sale, with many things being 50% off, depending on the company.