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Estate sale tips for buyers

I talked earlier this week about garage sales, but what about estate sale tips for buyers? The overall strategy is similar, but there are definitely tips that apply specifically to estate sales. Simply put, shopping at estate sales can save you thousands of dollars if you do it right.

So what is an estate sale? Imagine an oversized garage sale. Essentially, the family is liquidating everything in the house. Of course you find a lot of the same things you’d find at a garage sale, but at a good estate sale, there will be high-dollar items too.

So, without further ado, here are my 18 hard-won estate sale tips for buyers.

Finding estate sales: where to look

When I was getting started, all we had to go on were 6-line classified ads in the Friday paper. It’s different now. Finding estate sales is much easier today. At, you can see ads with hundreds of photos and as much description as they’re willing to write. There’s a lot less guesswork than there used to be. Visit the site, click through the sales in your area, and odds are you’ll find something interesting.

It doesn’t hurt to check your local paper and/or Craigslist, but these days, is king.

Arrive early to get your number

Many dealers hand out line numbers an hour or two before the sale starts. They’ll say in their ads. You’ll want to arrive at least an hour before they hand numbers out on the day of the sale. In extreme cases, I’ve seen people camp out the night before. You’ll get a feel for how early you need to arrive to get a good number.

Some dealers don’t do numbers. They’ll often say so in the ad if they don’t. I tend to prioritize the ones who do give numbers, unless there’s something I really want at a particular sale. Numbers reduce the amount of time you spend in line. If you’re not standing in line, you can be doing other things. More on that in a minute.

Be polite

There will be people who try to cut in line. Everyone knows who they are. Don’t be that guy. Don’t confront that guy either. Let someone else handle it. The dealers know who the troublemakers are. To succeed at this, you need a reputation for minding your own business.

I’ve also seen people who will clear a shelf full of stuff into a box, then take it somewhere in a corner to look over it. Dealers don’t like that behavior either, because usually those guys only buy a fraction of the stuff they clear. But let the dealer handle it. There are other patrons who will make the guy’s life more difficult too.

Most of the people who behave badly at sales lead a pretty miserable existence, and it causes a downward spiral. Stay above that and you’ll do fine. Both at the estate sales and in life.

Talk to the other patrons

While you’re waiting for your line numbers on the day of the sale, or waiting in line for your number to get called, you might as well talk to the people in line around you. Find out what they look for. Ask them about a dealer you’re not familiar with. Or ask them about the neighborhood. If you give them a chance to brag, you can learn several years’ worth of insights over the course of an hour. If they ask you a question, answer honestly, but be careful about giving away too many of your own trade secrets.

As a general rule, I was always glad to talk about what kinds of things a dealer finds, or what dealers price things cheap and what dealers charge a fortune. But I was careful about disclosing things that gave me an advantage over my direct competitors. More on that in a bit–my story about something that shouldn’t be there is a cautionary tale.

Know the dealers

Every dealer has a specialty, and you’ll get better stuff if you frequent the dealers who tend to get the same kind of stuff you look for.

Know their style too. Different dealers have different pricing strategies. Some dealers price stuff cheap to clear the house out fast. Others look up prices online for everything in the house and price it at 105%.

Talk to the dealers

The dealers recognize their regulars, but they’re more likely to recognize you and tell you things if you take a few minutes to talk to them. Don’t chat them up during a rush, but if you’re checking out and there’s no one behind you, take a few minutes to talk to them about what they like. Then they’ll ask you what you like, besides what you’re buying at the moment of course. When they know what you look for, they’ll tell you about upcoming sales that have stuff you’ll like.

It can also help you. One time I needed a washing machine, and one of my favorite dealers had one. But he had it priced at $100 and all I had was $90. I told him I was interested in the washing machine but I only had $90. “You’ve been at all of my sales this year,” he said. “I’m not going to cut you off. 90 is fine.”

Get on your dealers’ mailing lists

Sometimes they tell you things in their mailings that they don’t put in their ads, as a way to say thank you. Some also conduct presales for their best customers.

To become one their best customers, you’ll have to get on their mailing list first. Show up at lots of their sales and spend lots of money, and they’ll let you in on their exclusives. How much money is enough? Good question, but the top-tier estate sale buyers spend thousands of dollars a year. If that’s not you, just be polite and reliable and don’t be a pest. If they like you and they see you all the time, you might get in.

Attend garage sales and yard sales near the estate sales

After you have your line numbers, what do you do? Some people go get coffee, but you might as well visit the garage sales and yard sales in the area. You’ll have competition, but you may find something. You won’t find anything if you’re sitting at McDonald’s drinking coffee. Get your coffee to go. Hit the garage sales and look for something that shouldn’t be there. On the day of the sale, every minute is precious, especially those minutes before noon. Spend as many of them as possible at a sale of some sort. And on a Sunday when there probably aren’t many yard sales, hit any open thrift store along the way between sales.

Know the neighborhoods

Some neighborhoods are better for finding what you want than others. Keep a logbook and note what you tend to find where. Sometimes things will surprise you when you review it. For example, it always seemed like I didn’t find stuff in the town directly west of me. It turned out that I frequently didn’t find things there, and that was what I remembered. But several times a year, I would find a really good sale there. So it evened out.

In my experience, I find it easier to find trains in areas where there used to be a good hobby shop. And I find vintage computers in areas near where the old computer dealers used to be. I also once found a great music collection in a house within walking distance of a good independent music store.

Know the neighborhoods, and what used to be in the neighborhoods. Talking to old-timers on the day of the sale is a good way to learn what used to be there.

Prioritize and plan

On any given day, there will usually be too many sales for you to make each one when it opens. There may even be more sales than you can get to all day. Sales tend to open at 8, 9, and 10 AM, so be sure you’re able to make the best sale at each opening hour, then make your way to other sales afterward. Plan your trips to non-prime sales to minimize backtracking.

Look closely at the photos of the sale items

Modern estate sale ads have dozens of photos, if not hundreds. Look through them, but pay attention to the edges of the photos. What the dealer is trying to highlight and what you’re most interested in can be completely different things. It’s the people who can spot the background items in the photos who find the best stuff.

Dealers usually try to put their best, most expensive sale items in the living room, but they don’t always know what the best stuff is. Sometimes it’s incomplete. The missing parts may very well be in the basement.


There generally isn’t a lot of bargaining for most of the duration of an estate sale. Dealers generally hold prices firm on the first day of the sale. Everything will be half off on the second day of the sale. Then, some dealers do some kind of a bag sale at the end.

Use the bid box

If you don’t want to pay full price but you don’t want to take a chance on someone beating you to it on half price day, place a bid on it. Your bid has to be higher than 50 percent, but a dollar over 50 percent is higher than 50 percent.

If you’re not in that initial crush where the house is full and there’s a line of people still waiting to get in, feel free to ask about the item. If there’s a bid in the box, the dealer knows about it. The dealer won’t tell you the amount, but if you directly ask if he or she has a bid, and if it’s any good, you’ll get an answer.

Know what things sell for

There are two dealers in my area who will look up everything in the house and charge full price for everything. If they have a TV in their sale, their price will be very close to what a comparable TV costs at an electronics store, whether the TV is a year old or ten years old. They occasionally miss something, but I don’t like scouring 3,000 square feet for the one or two things they accidentally priced below retail.

If you’re trying to resell for a profit, avoid those types of dealers. If you’re buying for yourself, make absolutely certain what you buy is perfect, because these dealers will price it like it is, and you can’t return it.

Those high-end dealers are usually a better place to buy antiques from than newer stuff. You’ll pay top dollar, but antiques generally appreciate in value, at least.

Know your margins

To make a profit, you generally need to be able to sell something for three times what you pay for it. A venue like Ebay or Amazon is going to take about 15 percent, and you’ll probably still pay around 15 percent in taxes after you take all of your deductions. That leaves a little more than a third for you. You might be willing to take a smaller margin for some really fast cash, but that should be the exception, not the rule.

Saving money on household essentials

If you need household essentials like trash cans and laundry baskets, you might as well get them at an estate sale rather than buying them at retail. You’ll get them for pennies on the dollar. You can get cleaning supplies cheaply too.

If you’re having trouble buying groceries, you can go to estate sales and go straight to the pantry. Everything there is for sale too. It will be cheaper than buying at retail, and there won’t be many other people looking for that. Just be sure to pay attention to the dates so you don’t buy things that are expired. It’s a discrete way to get basic necessities very cheaply. Look for any other type of nonperishable staples you can think of too.

Buying boring everyday household essentials this way may not save you thousands of dollars, but it will save hundreds.

11th hour bargains

The rules change near the end of the last day. Usually, part of the deal is that the house will be empty. The dealer has some arrangements for that, but if they can make a dollar more selling a bulk lot to you, they will. Be sure to ask all of your favorite dealers how they handle the late hours on the last day. Don’t ask during the initial rush at the beginning of the sale, but if you’re still hanging around after the madness dies down, ask discretely. You can scoop up some low-risk bargains.

Prime season

There are a lot more garage sales in mild or warm weather than in cold weather. Estate sales slow down in the winter but they only completely shut down for Christmas. Even on Thanksgiving weekend, there may be a couple of outfits having sales.

Sales are less crowded when it snows, or when it’s below zero, or when it’s raining cats and dogs. It’s frustrating to go out in terrible weather and not get anything, but I’ve had days where one sale in bad weather netted me a month’s worth of loot, because nobody else wanted to brave the weather. If you’re out to make money, you’ll make more if you go out on days you’d rather stay home.

Remember to have fun

Part of the fun, for most people, is finding things in the wild instead of in a shop. It’s less predictable. But you’ll find more stuff and better stuff if you’re having fun. If it isn’t fun for you, have an exit plan. Make enough money to finance something else, then do that.

There’s a book and a movie called Waffle Street about a hedge fund executive who took the fall for his company’s shady business dealings. He found himself working at a 24-hour waffle joint. Near the end of the film, his friend, Edward, tells him he’d work the grill at that waffle joint for free. He asked Jimmy if he liked running a restaurant so much he’d do it for free. Jimmy said no. Edward told him to find something he’d do for free.

Edward’s advice was good. It’s easy for me to say now. I enjoy estate sales, but I don’t go every week anymore. And I don’t go trying to make money anymore. There are other people who love it more than I do. Good for them.

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