Want to Score Big at Estate Sales? Look for These 6 Things

published Sep 29, 2022
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Credit: Chloe Berk

It’s easy to get lost in the mystery and intrigue of #estatesalehaul TikTok. Just like visiting well-preserved time capsule houses, estate sales are remarkable to attend, if only just to admire the collections and curations of a well-loved life and home. Estate sales are also a sustainable way to shop for your own home. They’re easy to find, thanks to websites like estatesales.net, where you can peruse sales in your area online before you even step foot in the door. You can even have the app track certain brands and key terms, like “Eames Chair,” for example, to alert you when something you’re searching for goes up for sale nearby. Knowing your own style can also help you narrow your search to homes that share your aesthetic, whether that’s mid-century modern, Japandi, Art Deco, French-inspired.

After estatesales.net, your second shopping best friend will be Google Lens. Use the app to take a picture of an item you’re curious about to find more about its popularity and provenance, or its history and/or record of ownership.

If you’re new to estate sales and are wondering how to approach them — or if you’ve been to a few but struggle with the amount of the merchandise, not to worry. Keep an eye out for these items to add focus to your hunt and find accents for your home that you can’t go wrong with buying.

Glassware

Glass is a strong material and holds up well over time. Shopping for unique or vintage glassware at estate sales is a great way to build a custom bar or table setting with colorful, textured glass at a deep discount. 

Kimberly Hellstrom, owner of The Lovely vintage boutique in Orlando, Florida, offers a quick tip for identifying vintage glass: “Hold a glass vase that you picked up at a big box store along with a vintage hand-blown vase. The differences are weight, and there will be no seam on the vintage vase.”

You might also keep an eye out for vintage depression glass. The “depression” in depression glassware comes from the time period it was produced — during the Great Depression. Distributed as freebies, promotions, and purchasing incentives by brands and businesses at the time, this glassware was inexpensive to produce. Today, it’s a collectible. Depression glass comes in all kinds of colors and features different etchings and designs, which makes it quite lovely for display or use.

Credit: Kim Lucian

Art

Unlike shopping for reproduction prints and paintings at big box stores, picking up art at estate sales offers the opportunity to score something unique. Art tends to be a travel collectible and popular souvenir, so chances are, you could find pieces from all over the world right in your neighborhood. Look for original oil paintings, which often hold up well over time; if there’s an artists signature, that could be a sign that you’re dealing with an original work. On prints, search for what looks like a fraction, which is actually the edition number of how many of the prints exist. Don’t pass up the opportunity to flick through estate sale art in search of a beautiful frame either. 

Credit: Carina Romano

Pots and planters 

Head straight to an estate sale’s garden or porch in search of unique pots and planters. Pick up the pot to make sure it’s crafted from sturdy material like ceramic, terracotta, or clay. Chelsea Mac, home stylist and antique enthusiast in Venice Beach, California, suggests looking for vintage pottery and planters that have interesting shapes and chips. “I avoid painted wood, laminate, and modern designs,” she says, which often don’t stand up quite as well to the elements. 

Turn the pot over to look at the bottom for any signed details, which can indicated where an item was made. Hellstrom suggests looking for a maker’s mark on planters and pots. “Many times pottery and art will be signed and dated,” she says.

Cedar chest

You can style a cedar chest a bunch of ways, and that’s why I always look for them at estate sales. Use it as a seat that offers storage, an end-of-bed bench, or as a sturdy coffee table alternative. Cedar chests, also called “hope chests,” are pretty common household items, but vintage ones can have a lot of character and style. Search for hardware made of wrought iron and interior panels without water damage. Try to find a manufacturer’s mark in the form of a brass plate, tag, or stamp, so you can look up comparative models online. Bring the interior cedar back to life by sanding it with fine sandpaper.

Wood furniture and metal accents

Like glass, certain sturdy materials age gracefully; for that reason, brass, silver, and copper are just a few metals to keep your eye out for. They may be covered with a patina, but could be restored to their splendor with a good polish or kept as-is for an aged look. Mac’s suggests hunting for pieces that look like they’ve been around for a century. “I am drawn to raw woods, patina silver serving ware, which is abundant at estate sales,” she says. 

When assessing wood furniture, Matt Ellison, director of marketing at Estatesales.net says, recommends studying the joinery, which won’t be as well-crafted on a cheaper piece. “The use of solid, beautifully-grained wood in a furniture piece might also be considered of higher quality than a piece that uses veneers,” he says. “With anything, look at the piece as a whole.” 

Coffee table books 

“One other thing to really look out for is coffee table books,” says Mac. “Ditch the Tom Ford book, and find a beautiful vintage book about a subject that you love. Some of my favorite pieces I’ve ever bought were books from a handled estate sale of an infamous book collector William Daley.” Search for coffee table books that speak to your travels, hobbies, and interests. Build out a budget-friendly library with character that you can flip through for inspiration and use to style your tables and mantel