Tips for attending your first estate sale

Until two weeks 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 have recently developed a liking for antique and vintage pieces, it seems like a natural thing to do. I had been contemplating going to one for some time, but I don’t have anyone in Cleveland to go with me and I found the idea a bit intimidating.

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

I mean, estate sales have rules. That is weird. And each company seems to have their own rules. No large bags. Park only on one side of the street. Numbers to be distributed at 8am. All these rules are a bit daunting and I was concerned that I would show up unknowingly break one of these rules and it would be clear that I didn’t know what I was doing. Because of this fear, I didn’t go to my first estate sale until two weeks ago.

The reason I finally went was because I found a specific item in the online advertisement for a sale that I 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 would compare it to any other yard or garage sale I have ever been too. 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 went to several more this past weekend. My mom was in town for the holiday weekend which made it even more fun. 

I did quite a bit of research before going to my first estate sales and learned more as I went along. I have now visited seven different estate sales. Here are my tips for going to your first estate sale based on what I have learned so far:

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

When I think of an estate sale, I assume someone has died. It feels a bit odd to be shopping in a dead person’s home and sorting through their belongings. This isn’t always the case. At the first estate sale I went to, the people were older but very much alive and were working at the sale. They were just 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 was also true for several of the other sales that I went to this past weekend.

#2: Research the estate sale company and sale location

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 went to a few sales in a wealthier neighborhood and a few in some middle-class neighborhoods. In the course of just two days we saw sales with outrageous prices for high-end goods that we weren’t interested in. But we also went to a sale that was very low end (and poorly run) and looked a bit like a neglected home that had been ransacked. We did see some really weird and interesting things in some of the 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 could have saved us the drive across town. My understanding is that some estate sale companies have pretty stringent criteria for the type of estate for which they will host a sale. Others are much more flexible. I plan to spend more time investigating the biggest companies in our area.

It would also potentially be helpful to research the property address of the estate sale. On sites like zillow.com, you can see estimated home values for the estate sale property and its neighbors. This could also be helpful in selecting the sales that best fit your budget and interests.

#3: Some sales only accept cash

I have been using the website estatesales.net to find estate sales in my area. On that site, each sale typically lists their rules, hours, and some of the 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, so it is a good idea to bring cash.

#4: Not all prices are good ones 

Just like yard sales, the marked prices aren’t always good deals. At the sale two weeks ago, I saw a mounted utility shop light that I thought might be nice to have for our garage workshop marked $20. I did a quick online search for similar items and found that I could get a new one for $30-$40. Saving $10 on a light for which I didn’t know the age or recognize the brand didn’t seem like a good deal.

I found myself spending a lot of time on my phone price-checking items. You certainly don’t want to overpay for something when most people shopping estate sales are looking for deals.

#5: Some sales give out numbers

Although I really wanted to get one of the antique radios at the sale a few weeks 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. My understanding is that they hand out numbers in the order people arrive and then only let in a few people at a time based on their number.  

I found the idea of competing with other people over items to be undesirable. Plus, I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to do while waiting for two hours for the sale to start. Ultimately, I didn’t go to the sale until later in the afternoon. It ended up working out because the radio I was interested in was still available. In my limited experience, it seems like only the larger, higher-end sales distribute numbers on the first day. 

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 was able to attend a couple of sales on their first day and a few on the last day. In my limited experience, sellers are unwilling to negotiate prices on the first day, but both of the sales we attended on their last day had everything marked 50% off. 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 to 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 did not purchase any large furniture pieces from any of the estate sales, but it is important to note that if you do so, you will have to load and move those items yourself. 

In total, I have now attended seven estate/moving/tag sales. They varied 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 my most important lesson was the importance of doing research beforehand (#3 above). We spent a lot of time in the car driving to the sales and there were at least two that were most certainly a waste of our time. This could have avoided had I done a bit more research.

I did enjoy going to the estate sales and plan to visit more in the future, especially as we continue to look for items to decorate our century home. I will just be a bit more selective about which ones I attend.

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

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