Estate sales are hugely popular these days as more families downsize, declutter or need to liquidate the entire contents of long-occupied family homes. "It's a buyer's market right now," says National Estate Sales Association chairman Martin Codina, founder of in the San Francisco Bay area, and author of . "There's never been a better time to go to estate sales." Here's how to find the deals and enjoy the adventure.
Sales are usually held for two to three days over a weekend, though midweek sales are trending in some parts of the country. Look for sales near you by searching sites such as , , and . In some rural areas, local classified ads may still be your best bet. And keep your eyes open for directional street signs, too, that companies post a day or two before a sale.
Many sales are run by professional estate liquidation companies, which sift through and curate the items, assessing prices based on current market values. These sales often are better organized than those run by the homeowner. On the other hand, homeowner sales may offer lower prices. The latest development? Professional firms run the sales from a central warehouse, showcasing multiple estates at once, says National Estate Sales Association chairman Martin Codina, founder of
Read the sale ads for descriptions of highlighted items such as furniture, specific kinds of collectibles, and art. Most ads also include photos so you can see the condition and get feel for the sale. For example, is it a "diggers" sale where you'll have to root through piles? Or is it set up more formally? "Ads also list terms such as cash-only or if they accept credit cards," says Matthew Ellison, marketing director of .
Some companies may charge a service fee if you use a credit card. And many states do require professional estate liquidators to charge sales tax.
If you have your eye on a specific item, get in line early. "The good stuff goes fast, although the 'good stuff' is different for different people," says Ellison.
It's almost impossible to see everything on the first pass-through, says Codina. Companies rearrange items as things sell, so if you return the second or third day, you may notice an object that you didn't spot earlier.
"That's often when you'll find the real treasures," says Ellison. "People don't know what something is so they keep passing it up. But then you have the opportunity to discover it."
"It's still someone's house, so we always act with dignity and honor," says Codina. "That's important to us and the family."
Look for cracks, missing parts, or stains. Sometimes cosmetic flaws can be part of the charm, but sometimes, not so much. Stuff is sold 'as is,' so refunds typically are not given for any reason.
"The key is to do it nicely," says Ellison. "Be courteous. A professional company's job is to liquidate the contents in a short time, so there's no harm in asking." But be aware that some companies have a policy that they will not negotiate on the first day. Others may offer automatic discounts on the second or third days of a sale. However, in some parts of the country, there's no discount at all. Also, if family members are hosting the sale due to a death in the family, they may be uncomfortable negotiating.
As long as an area isn't taped off or blocked, it's likely fair game. Garages, basements and sheds that have not been sorted sometimes contain the best items. Ask about appliances, window coverings and garden statuary, too, which may all be available to purchase.
If it's unique or if appeals to you for whatever reason, take it home. There are no guarantees it will be there the next day or that you'll ever see another one like it, says Ellison.
Flats and a cross-body bag are musts. Many companies don't allow large purses or backpacks in the doors for security reasons.
Generally, the sale will not provide containers or packing materials to transport items, so bring your own. You'll also need to haul your own load to the car, so bring muscle if you plan on purchasing large items.
Anticipate crowds, expect to see professional pickers (this is how they find their products), and keep a sense of humor. Most of all, shop sales frequently. "If you don't find 'it' this Saturday, you may next Saturday," says Codina.