Tips for attending your first estate sale

I love estate sales. Until we moved to Cleveland two years ago, I had never been to an estate sale. I’m not sure how I went this long in my life without going to one. Especially since I really like antique and vintage pieces, it seems like a natural thing to do. After moving into our 100-year-old home, I frequently contemplated going an estate sale. However, I found the idea a bit intimidating.

A road-side estate sale sign
A road-side estate sale sign

For one, estate sales have rules which is weird. And each sale seems to have their own rules.’ No large bags.’ ‘Park only on one side of the street.’ ‘Numbers to be distributed at 8am.’ I found these rules a bit daunting and was concerned that I would show up unknowingly break one. Because of this fear, I didn’t go to my first estate sale until we had lived in Cleveland for over a year.

The reason I finally went was because I found a specific item in an online estate sale advertisement that I really wanted. It was an antique radio. It doesn’t work. But they can be expensive and we wanted one to use to hide our Google home device. Overall, it was a fun experience. I have come to really look forward to attending estate sales. They are similar to any other yard or garage sale. The biggest difference is that the estate sales are usually inside the house instead of the garage or driveway. Since the first one was pretty successful (I got the radio I wanted), I started going to estate sales quite regularly over the past year. 

I have probably attended close to 50 estate sales in the past year alone. Based on what I have learned, here are my tips for attending your first estate sale:

#1: Estate sales aren’t always for people who have died

When I used to think about estate sales, I assumed it was being held because someone had died. It felt a bit odd to be shopping in a dead person’s home and sorting through their belongings. Although this is sometimes true, it isn’t always the case. At the very first estate sale I attended, the people were older but very much alive and were working at the sale. They were simply downsizing. A lot. It turned out that the husband had a slightly out-of-control habit of collecting cool antique and vintage furniture items. This is often true for estate sales; especially if they are marketed as ‘moving sales.’

#2: Research is essential

I learned very quickly that there is a lot of variability in the type, quality, amount, and pricing of items across various estate sales. The best way to determine if an estate sale is worth your time is to do some research. We have been to sales in wealthier neighborhoods as well as upper and lower middle-class neighborhoods. We have been to sales with outrageous prices for high-end goods that we weren’t interested in. But we have also been to a sales that were very low end (and poorly run). Once, we went to a sale in a home that looked like it had been ransacked. But, we have seen some really weird and interesting things in some of these homes (like the pull-out stove below).

A mid-century modern pull-out stove top
One of the homes had this amazing mid-century modern pull-out stove top

A bit of research will save your from driving across town to a sale that isn’t a good match for your preferences and needs. Some estate sale companies have pretty stringent criteria for the type of estate for which they will host a sale. Other companies are much more flexible. I have spent time familiarizing myself with the biggest estate sale companies in our area. I can often tell which sales I don’t want to miss and which I will skip because I am familiar with the type of sale a specific company tends to offer.

It is also helpful to research the property address of the estate sale, especially if you aren’t familiar with the estate sale company. On sites like zillow.com, you can see estimated home values for the estate sale property and its neighbors. This can also be helpful in selecting the sales that best fit your budget and interests.

#3: You need to bring cash

I recommend using the website estatesales.net to find estate sales in your area. On that site, each sale typically lists their rules and hours as well as some photos of items for sale. You can usually find out by reading the description if the sales accept credit cards or checks. Some sales accept only cash. For most sales that do accept credit cards, there is often a fee to use them, so it is a good idea to bring cash anyways.

#4: Not all prices are good ones 

Just like at yard sales, the marked prices at estate sales aren’t always good deals. For instance, I purchased a five gallon whiskey crock (with the original cork) at a sale for $45. I have seen virtually identical crocks (usually without the cork) for as much as $90 at other sales. Sometimes the sellers will negotiate the price, but often they will not (unless it is the last day of the sale).

When I first started attending estate sales, I found myself spending a lot of time on my phone price-checking items. Now that I am a more experienced estate sale shopper, it is easier for me to determine when most items are overpriced. However, I still occasionally pull out my phone to check prices on comparable items online.

#5: Some sales give out numbers

Although I really wanted to get one of the antique radios at my first estate sale a year ago, I almost didn’t go to the sale. This was primarily because they were handing out numbers at 8am for a sale that didn’t start until 10am. At some sales (especially those that are more well-attended), the estate sale company will hand out numbers to people. These numbers are handed out in the order people arrive. Once the sale officially starts, they will let in a few people at a time based on their assigned number.  

I find the idea of competing with other people over items to be stressful. As a result, I usually avoid attending sales on the first day (or at least not until the end of the first day) because of this. I am also not interested in waiting for an hour to get into an estate sale. In fact, I usually attend the sale on the last or next-to-last day (see below). They usually give out numbers only on the first day of a sale.

The antique radio that I purchased
The antique radio that I purchased

#6: Prices are often discounted on the last day

Many estate sales run multiple days. I initially attended a few sales on the first day but now am much more likely to attend sales on the last day. In my experience, sellers are unwilling to negotiate prices on the first day, but are often very willing to drop prices on the last day. In fact, many of our local estate sale companies will discount all remaining items by 50% on the last day of the sale. If there is something you really want to get, you might want to go on the first day. However, if you are just looking for some really good deals, going on the last day of the sale might be a better choice.

#7: You must be able to haul away your purchases on your own

We have purchased a few large furniture pieces from estate sales including an antique dry sink and a drop leaf dining table. It is important to note that if you purchase large items you will have to load and move those items yourself. Some sales will allow you to pick up your items on a specific date later that week, but most estate sales require that you take the item with you upon purchase. If you are in the market for furniture items, it is important to bring someone along with you to help you move those items. You will also have to consider how to transport your item home if you don’t have a truck or large SUV.

#8: Take time to appreciate the home

Some of the sales we attend are in the coolest houses. Brian and I love architecture and enjoy just taking in some of the homes. We especially enjoy visiting the larger, million-dollar homes and the older homes with lots of character.

Summary

We consider ourselves pretty seasoned estate sale shoppers at this point. Estate sales vary so greatly in terms of the type and quality of items that it is difficult to make any broad generalizations about the experiences. I think that the most important lesson I learned was the importance of doing research beforehand (#3 above). This has helped us to avoid visiting sales that are a waste of our time.

I have also learned that estate sales are somewhat regional in their popularity. While estates sales are common place in the Cleveland area (there are generally at least four or five sales advertised each weekend), they don’t seem to be popular in Columbus. When visiting family in Columbus on several occasions I have searched for estate sales with no luck.

If you love shopping (and getting deals) as much as I do, you should review my posts on how to prepare for Black Friday shopping and warehouse and clearance outlet sales you didn’t know about.

Do you enjoy going to estate sales? What tips would you give to someone who had never been to one?

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2 thoughts on “Tips for attending your first estate sale”

  1. It’s great that you mentioned that estate sales vary greatly in terms of the type and quality of items that it is difficult to make any broad generalizations about the experiences. I’ll share this with my mom since she plans to get assistance in selling her home before she moves to our former vacation home by the lake. I hope we can find an agent ASAP and get the plan started. Thanks!

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