Buying trains at estate sales

I think estate sales are an underrated place to buy trains. While some things have changed from 15 years ago when I started, there are still good finds out there. Here are my tips for buying trains at estate sales.

There are lots of places to find trains, including train stores, antique shops, train shows, and placing want ads. But buying trains straight out of people’s estates is surprisingly effective, and can be economical too.

What’s an estate sale?

An estate sale, if you aren’t familiar, is like an oversized garage sale where everything in the house is for sale, including the cleaning supplies under the kitchen sink. The goal is to liquidate the estate to provide living expenses or money to the heirs, and empty the house so it can be sold. Estate sales can be overpriced, or a great source of bargains.

I’ve found trains at estate sales that I’ve never seen anywhere else, like a Marx train that supposedly doesn’t exist. Whatever it is you look for, estate sales are a good place to find trains and accessories that have been out of production for years or decades.

Look in advance

Buying trains at estate sales
I paid $20 for this mess of Marx train parts at an estate sale one March. I buy a lot of my trains at estate sales.

If you think you want to go out on Saturday and hunt for trains, you need to start on Monday. Check for sales in your area. Different companies list on different days, and many tend to add photos throughout the week. They may very well include trains in a photo without ever mentioning trains anywhere in the ad’s text. The trains may or may not be the focus of the photo too. You may see a train lurking in the background, overshadowed by something the seller thought was more important.

To find overlooked gems, pay close attention to basement photos.

Check back throughout the week, as a seller may only have a handful of photos posted on Monday, but may add hundreds as the week wears on.

Here are some more tips on how I find sales.

Get there early if you can

If you see a train in an ad and it looks interesting, get there early enough to get a number. I remember a time when any and all trains would sell within minutes of the sale opening. That’s not the case anymore, because there aren’t nearly as many people looking for them as there used to be. Pedestrian stuff may sit a while. But the nice stuff still sells pretty fast. So to give yourself the best chance, be one of the first to get in.

At a recent sale near me, I spotted a Lionel KW transformer in the ad. It wasn’t Lionel’s best transformer of the 1950s, but it was high-end. I couldn’t make it to the sale right away because I had other commitments that day, and by the time I got there around 11 am, someone else had bought the transformer and most of the other trains. My consolation prize was a broken-down Marx locomotive with lots of spare parts. I was more interested in that than in the KW, so I was happy. But if anyone wandered in at 2 pm hoping the KW would still be there, they were disappointed.

No trains? Go anyway

Marx set 452
This Marx train set isn’t in any of the books. I found it at an estate sale in 2012.

Even if a listing doesn’t mention any trains, if the sale is close enough, go anyway. I’ve found trains in basements that no one mentioned in their ads. This year I went to a sale literally in my neighborhood, two streets away. I went there looking for tools, and lo and behold, there was a nice HO scale layout folded up in the basement.

About five years ago, I went to an estate sale about five minutes away. Nothing in the listing seemed all that great, but it was only a few minutes away, so I went. I spotted a 1920s American Flyer train at a good price. It wasn’t complete, but it was in nice shape. I bought it.

Oddly enough, before I spotted the box, I spotted what I thought was a Marx windup train motor sitting on a dresser. Then, when I spotted the box, I wondered if the two went together. I went back and picked up the motor. My hunch was correct, it was an American Flyer motor, not a Marx, and the locomotive was missing its motor. The motor had a broken spring, but it fit. My eagle eye paid off.

Where to look

Of course there’s no rule about where the train has to be. Frequently trains are either in the living room, if the seller thinks it’s one of the better items of the sale, or in the basement or attic, often on a shelf. But I’ve found them literally everywhere but the kitchen.

How to make an offer on an unmarked train

buying trains at estate sales
These American Flyer cars came out of an estate sale whose ad didn’t even mention trains.

If you see a train without a price tag on it, it may have already sold, or the seller may be fishing for an offer. It never hurts to ask what they’re looking to get.

If you have an amount in mind, pull out the money ahead of time and slip it into a different pocket. Then, if you don’t like the amount the seller suggested, pull out the cash, then ask if they would take that amount. If the offer is much lower than what they’re thinking, they may not take it, especially if it’s less than half. But it’s a lot harder to turn down cash in hand than a number.

Where to go when you don’t know where to go

I always go to sales in my neighborhood, because it doesn’t take much effort to go. And I tend to do surprisingly well, but part of that is where I live. My neighborhood was mostly built in the 1960s and people here tend not to move a lot. There are a couple of long-established hobby shops in the area, and sometimes I find items that still have price tags from those stores on them. If there’s an area like that near you, go there when in doubt.

Interest in trains has declined sharply in recent years, so areas that built up in the 1990s tend not to be great hunting ground.

It also helps to have more than one thing you look for. You won’t find trains every weekend. But since I look for trains, tools, and vintage computers, and mostly go to sales within a few minutes of home, I rarely go home disappointed. Going out for four hours on a Saturday and not finding anything can be pretty disappointing. Going out for half an hour is less so.

Here are some more tips for estate sales, especially when it comes to maximizing your return on effort.

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