While there are some potential pitfalls, you can do very well buying tools at estate sales. Probably 1/3 of my hand tools came from estate sales, and so did my most expensive corded power tools. Here’s how to find the best tools and the best deals.
The key is knowing what you’re looking for and what the tools you’re after are worth. Whether you’re buying tools to use or tools to collect, you don’t want to overpay. After all, you’re investing a lot of time, gas, and mileage. Factor that in.
Finding estate sales
First, you need to know how to find them. That’s a fairly extensive topic in and of itself. For tools, you probably don’t have to go super far at least. But finding sales near you still takes a bit of work. Otherwise, a sale could be happening two miles away without you knowing about it.
Know your neighborhoods
Tools are everywhere, but the selection in the rich part of town probably isn’t going to be as good as the selection in the blue-collar parts of town. If an estate sale in a rich part of town advertises a woodworking shop, go. But most of the time, you’re probably going to find better tools and better prices in the estate of someone who worked maintenance at a hospital.
Know your sellers
Some estate sale companies specialize in high-end sales that feature expensive furniture and collectibles. Others specialize in blue collar sales that have a small number of prized possessions and a whole lot of ordinary. You’d think you’d get better prices at the blue collar sales, but not necessarily. Some of the high-end sellers will charge $5 for an ordinary screwdriver, because selling items for less than $5 seems beneath them. But some high-end sellers will price household items cheap in hopes of clearing it out.
So the seller with the reputation for pricing stuff cheap might charge $2 for a screwdriver or wrench, but some of the high-end people might charge $1 for the same thing.
Any time I see a new estate sale company pop up, I visit at least one of their sales. This lets me get a feel for how they price things, and the kinds of things they get.
Study the sale ahead of time
Most sellers post pictures at least a couple of days ahead of the sale. Some start posting pictures a week or more in advance. Study the pictures, because what the seller thinks is important may be obscuring the item you’re after. Try to get an idea whether the tools you’re after are in the garage or the basement.
Make a list of sales and prioritize. You can only be early in line for one sale at each hour of the morning. Decide which sale at each hour is most important to you, and whether it’s important enough to you to be there before 7am to stand in line for a number to be one of the first in.
I find it’s more enjoyable to go in the afternoon with the pressure off, but I have most of what I need or want.
Tips for getting what you came for
When I go out on a Saturday, I take a list. My list includes the address and starting time of any sale, plus what I’m looking for, and what rooms I think those items are in. If I’m going to more than two sales, I map them out to minimize my drive time as much as possible.
Once I get to each sale, I go straight to the room that I think has interesting stuff. Frequently I’m not the only one eyeing the same thing. If you want it and the price is right, pick it up, or if it’s too big to carry, take the tag off it and take the tag to the front table. They’ll hold the item for you if you give them the tag.
Whatever you do, don’t dawdle. If something else catches your eye, it better be more important than the other thing you haven’t gotten yet, because someone else may be going for it. Keep a laser focus, especially during those first few minutes you’re there. Collect the tags for the things you’re after, take your haul to the front table, then look around and see what other interesting things you might find. You’ll miss fewer things that way.
Now, once you get the loot you came for, if you have time before your next sale, take another look around to see if you can find anything interesting. Usually you won’t find much, but it’s those times you do that make your ventures worthwhile. Always look for clamps, because you can’t have enough of those. If you see something you don’t recognize, give it a second look and figure out what it is. The coolest thing about buying tools at estate sales is finding things that aren’t made anymore.
If you keep finding great stuff at one particular sale, you may give up on your other plans for the morning. It seems to me like that happens to me about once every hundred times I go out. That’s rare, but it can happen. Digging at one sale certainly beats waiting in your car for the next sale, but if a sale isn’t extraordinary, cut yourself off soon enough that you can get to your next sale.
If you find damaged power tools, think about whether you can fix them, assuming the price is low. Replacing power plugs is easy. Replacing power cords isn’t all that hard either. Don’t pay a lot for damaged goods, but I’ve saved a lot by buying damaged or incomplete tools and making them usable.
Go to nearby sales no matter what
I’ve had three sales within walking distance of my house so far this year. I went to all three. None of them were great, but I got a few things I could use and without spending much on gas. It also gave me an idea what two newer companies charge.
Know what things are worth
Some people are counting on you assuming since it’s an estate sale, everything’s a bargain. Don’t pay $2 for a screwdriver. A set of six Stanley screwdrivers sells for $6.50 at any big-box store. Is a decades-old Stanley screwdriver made in the USA better? If it’s in good condition it might be. Is it worth $2? Not if you’re buying it to use.
Keep in mind you can get decent hand tools very inexpensively at Harbor Freight, especially with coupons, and they’re open every day. Are they as good? Probably not, but the six-piece screwdriver set costs $3, assuming you don’t have a coupon to get it free with another purchase.
It’s once you get outside of the ordinary tools that you’re likely to do better. No one is an expert on everything, and even if your knowledge of tools is sub-par, you can learn enough by the end of this year that you’ll know more than most of your local estate sale pros. If you see interesting tools in the ad’s pictures, do your research ahead of time, then go and see how it’s priced.
I bought a 100-watt Weller soldering gun at a sale for $5, and a damaged 150-watt Weller gun for $3. Those sell for $40 and $75 new, respectively. I had to replace the power plug on the larger gun and it wasn’t long before I had to replace both tips, but in the end I got $125 worth of equipment and I only put $15 in it.
If you see something you need at a good price, grab it.
Different sellers have different policies on offers. Some don’t take them, period. Most don’t take verbal offers until late in the day on the last day. On the first day, if they have a bid box, they’ll tell you to use the bid box. If they don’t have a bid box, and it’s late in the day, you might consider making an offer that’s higher than the next day’s discount. If a drill press is marked at $75 and it’s 10 minutes until closing time, it makes sense to sell it to you right there for $40 rather than sell it for $37.50 the next day.
When you make an offer, having the cash in your hand as you make it tends to be more effective. It’s harder to turn down four Hamiltons in plain sight than the words “forty bucks.”
Also, be friendly. The estate sellers will recognize you once you’ve been to two or three of their sales. You want them to remember you as someone who’s good to deal with, not as someone who hassles them.
Using the bid box
If you see an interesting power tool but the asking price is a bit high, ask if the seller does a bid box. The goal of the bid box is to get more than 50% of the asking price, and the high bidder gets it.
You can take two strategies with the bid box. Offer around 65% if you really want the item. If you’re willing to play the waiting game, offer a dollar above 50%. You’ll lose more than you win that way, but if there aren’t any other offers, you’ll get it, and that frees you from having to be there first thing on Sunday morning.
The half-price day game
At most estate sales, prices are 50% off on the last day of the sale. And late in the day, many sellers will discount even further, possibly selling items by the bag to clear out the house. You can expect to have competition, but resellers can only be at one place at a time and most sales tend to end around the same time. Many items that are too expensive on the first day can be rather reasonable at half price.
And if the seller does a bag sale at the end of the day, a grocery bag full of hand tools for $5 is tough to beat.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.
One thought on “Buying tools at estate sales”
Good advice. In 1972 I bought a used 6 1/2″ SkillSaw for $10, practically brand new except for the burned blade. . I built a house and cabinets with it, a couple of largish sheds and quite a bit of incidental use since. I eventually had to replace the power cord and I think I did the brushes once. It is still running strong.
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