I’ve long advocated shopping at estate sales as a way to save a lot of money. I frequently get lots of questions about them, for that reason, so I thought I’d try to share some insight. Most importantly, I’ll answer a key question: What are prices like at estate sales?
After all, it’s not uncommon to see a couple hundred people lined up in front of a house to get into an estate sale on Saturday morning. They aren’t standing in line expecting to get ripped off. Some are buying for themselves. Some buy to resell.
What is an estate sale?
First things first: What is an estate sale? An estate sale is an event where all of a household’s possessions are for sale. Picture a garage sale where the whole house is open and everything in the house has a price tag on it. The goal is to empty the house and convert its contents to cash quickly, often over the course of a single weekend.
Sometimes a family will run the sale itself, but most bring in professionals who do nothing but run estate sales for a living. When you’re trying to strike a balance between maximizing return on sold items and minimizing how much you have to pay to have hauled away, professional experience helps a great deal.
Estate sales are a good place to find bargains, but also a good place to find things that have become hard to find because they aren’t made anymore. Most people are looking for both.
Are estate sales expensive?
Estate sales usually are more expensive than garage sales, but prices vary. If you find a couch that originally sold for $2,500, don’t expect to buy it for 20 bucks. Common household items like a toaster or a screwdriver will sell for close to garage-sale prices.
The neighborhood makes a big difference. In an affluent suburb where houses sell for a million dollars, estate sales tend to be pretty expensive. In blue-collar neighborhoods where the average family income is $40,000 a year, estate sales aren’t expensive.
Are estate sales cheap?
Some professionals go out of their way to price, high, but even they make mistakes. So even at a premium estate sale, it’s still possible to find bargains. Other sellers pride themselves on providing bargains.
For some things, estate sales are crazy cheap. One extreme example is cleaning supplies. All the cleaning supplies are for sale, and, as you can imagine, nobody’s willing to pay much for a half-full bottle of glass cleaner.
I bought my ironing board at an estate sale, and I doubt I paid $2 for it. I buy stepladders at estate sales too. When one wears out, which usually takes about 10 years, I buy another one. I never pay much more than a couple of dollars for those either. Most people who need one probably have one.
How pricing works at estate sales
Items not for sale will be marked “NFS” or something similar, or stashed in a room with a sign that says nothing inside is for sale. Everything else generally is, and most items will be marked with a price tag.
Items that don’t have price tags usually means the dealer wants you to make an offer. If they don’t like your offer, they’ll tell you. Usually I straight up ask how much they were thinking. It’s best to stay on a dealer’s good side, because if they have a good sale this weekend, they will have more.
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, and take bids on the first day. 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.
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.
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 significant bargains on that last day.
Cash is king
Some estate sale dealers take credit cards but many charge a fee for credit cards if they do. Most will take a check under some circumstances, but they will likely want to see some ID. Cash is always best. Unfortunately a fair bit of fraud does happen at estate sales so the dealers have to protect themselves and their clients.
Cash also makes it easier to negotiate. I don’t generally recommend bargaining, but it’s harder to turn down cash in your hand than it is to turn down a number. So when you make an offer, have the cash in your hand as you make the offer to increase the chance of the person taking it.
Know your local estate sale companies
I have a spreadsheet where I keep notes on my local estate sale companies. I note the kinds of things they tend to deal in and other things I think might be helpful to know later on, such as what forms of payment different dealers take. If I only have time to go to one or two sales, my notes can help me decide where to go.
What are prices like at estate sales, in conclusion
Estate sales are, to a large extent, what you make of them. After you visit a few and get an idea what the kinds of things you like sell for, you can get pretty good at finding bargains. If you enjoy the hunt, they can be a good way to find necessities, or just collectibles, and save money doing it. I have more tips on estate sales if you want them.