An estate sale, sometimes known as a tag sale, and sometimes operated as an estate auction, is the sale of everything inside a house. The sales are often held to clean out the house of someone who has died, but many sellers are simply looking to downsize from a big house or start over with new furniture. No matter the seller’s motivation, most buyers find that estate sales are a great way to get a good deal on household items.
One of the best ways to find out about estate sales all over the country is EstateSales.net, based in Jackson, Mo. “An estate sale is everything that’s in the house, and that includes everything new in the house,” says Dan McQuade, cofounder of the site.
An estate sale is usually put on by a professional. The seller takes an inventory of the items in the house and assigns a value based on what the market will bear. “There’s a difference between going to an estate sale and a garage sale or a flea market,” McQuade says. “You’re not going to get something for a quarter. Most estate sale companies know what they have. You’re not going to see mistakes like you might see at a garage sale.” If you’re hoping to pick up a Chanel purse for $10 or a Roberto Clemente baseball card for pennies, you’ll be disappointed.
On the other hand, many of the items available at an estate sale aren’t available at garage sales at any price. Other items are available at great prices because the supply outstrips the demand. Brad Ruby, managing partner of Ampersand Estate Sales in Chicago, says that incandescent light bulbs are especially popular right now, but that the best values are on dressers and televisions. Older dressers are made of wood, not particle board, and someone looking for inexpensive furniture will do better at an estate sale than at a place like Target or Ikea. The styles may be less fashionable, but the quality is much better. Likewise, Ruby says that someone looking for a television can pick up the old cathode-ray tube versions for as little as $1 – and no, that is not a typo. These models are heavy, but they work.
Other items include partially used bottles of cleaning supplies, spices and tools. “If we have someone who has been through the Depression, they will have 200 or 300 rolls of toilet paper,” Ruby says. The prices will be better than double-coupon day at the grocery store.
McQuade says that estate sales are a great way for college students and recent graduates to furnish an apartment. Antiques may not always be available, but there are usually great deals on such basics as end tables and coffee tables.
Estate sales run a little differently than garage sales. Often, a line forms outside the door before the sale begins, and the selling company may even assign numbers if the house has a lot of valuable items (Mid-century Modern furniture is the rage right now.) “A lot of people want to do pre-shopping. At least for us, we don’t pre-sell,” says Ruby. Otherwise, the early customers may see items that had been advertised missing, and they will feel as though they were the victims of bait-and-switch. Because people need to move around safely, there are limits as to how many people can be in the house at any one time. Ruby has had sales where a new shopper could not enter until another one left.
For the most part, items are priced as marked. Ruby says that different estate sale companies have different policies about markdowns. Some companies will negotiate each day during the sale – it helps to ask nicely — while others will negotiate only on the last day. Others reduce prices by a set percentage over the course of the sale and do not deal otherwise. It should go without saying, but don’t switch price tags. Ruby says that people have been banned from his firm’s sales when they are caught.
Buyers at estate sales can usually pay by credit card, and they have to arrange their own transportation for their purchases. Ruby notes that many big-box hardware stores will rent trucks by the hour for items that won’t fit into a car.
An estate sale is a great way to find a good price on household items and get a peek into someone else’s life. “Once you get hooked, you’re hooked,” McQuade says; he loves shopping at estate sales so much that he turned it into a business.