The How To Guide For Estate Sales

It was shocking to learn how many of my vintage besties have never attended an estate sale. Yes, walking into a complete stranger’s home can be quite intimidating, but estate sales are where I find the best stuff with the best prices. So, because not everyone is versed in this art of thrifting, I decided to write a complete how to guide for estate sales.

Complete How to guide for estates sales. Everything you wanted to know about estate sales by House of Hipsters

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First off, let’s talk about how to find an estate sale. Sometimes they are listed on Craigslists, your local paper, or street signs the day of, but most of the time I search on EstateSales.net. It’s super easy, just enter your zip code and this handy dandy site spits out all the estate sales currently scheduled in your area. Now, I realize I’m lucky. In the Chicagoland area, there’s usually 50 plus listings every weekend. If you’re living in a more rural area, you may only get a couple hits. Click on the listing that sounds interesting to get a sneak peek of what’s for sale, the address, and hours.

Complete How to guide for estates sales. Everything you wanted to know about estate sales by House of Hipsters - Vintage Persian Rug

After reviewing the sneak peek images, if the sale REALLY looks amazing, get there early…I’m not talking 15 minutes early, I’m talking hours. I can’t tell you how many dealers I spy with my little eye when standing in line. If you wanna compete with the big boys, you gotta get there at the crack of dawn. If you arrive early, check to see if there are numbers to pull at the front door or if a list was started.

Numbers? What chu talkin’ bout Willis? Basically whoever gets there first will either sit outside the front door or in their car, and they are considered the list master. You give them your name, they give you a number. If you brought a group with you, put everyone’s name on that list. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT. If you don’t, your friends will not enter. Just sayin’. Estate sale-ing can be vicious. I had an old man with a cane yell at me once, so it’s good to know the rules.

Once your number is called, or if there’s no line during opening hours, you walk right through the front door. Don’t knock. Don’t ring the doorbell. Just take a deep breath if you’re nervous, turn the knob, and go in. Some sales require you to wear booties, fancy homes may request you to remove your shoes…if you don’t see any signs in the foyer, just dig in. And don’t be surprised if no one greets you upon arrival…that’s completely normal.

Complete How to guide for estates sales. Everything you wanted to know about estate sales by House of Hipsters - Vintage Painting

Where to go first? Kitchen? Bedroom? Basement? Living room? Well, that depends. I usually choose which estate sale to attend based off the images in the listing online. If there’s something special, I may take a screen grab to show an employee. They can usually direct me to where an object is…they may also know if it’s already been sold. Sadzies.

I usually scope out the main floor first, basement second, then upstairs. For the most part, upstairs will be bedroom home decor, clothing and bathroom accoutrements. Unless I’m searching for a headboard or art, upstairs is not my jam. Basements are hit or miss. They can be filled with mold, mildew, and cleaning products…but if you’re lucky, the homeowners never purged. This is where you find vintage gold. Also, don’t forget the garage and back patio.

I have a few essentials I always take with me. Most often used are Post-It notes and a black Sharpie, measuring tape, cloth tote bag, flashlight, umbrella, and lots of cash. Oh, and I should also mention, there are things I do not bring. Jewelry…don’t wear fancy diamonds if you want a deal. Leave the Louis Vuitton bag at home. Don’t wear heels. Don’t wear skinny jeans you can’t bend in. Don’t wear a poncho (I learned this one the hard way). And just as an aside, ponchos are extremely difficult to go pee in as well.

Complete How to guide for estates sales. Everything you wanted to know about estate sales by House of Hipsters - Vintage wedding dowry chest

Why on earth do you need Post-It notes and a Sharpie? Easy. You find a chair…what are you going to do? Sit in it? Haul it up to the front desk? Nope, nope, and nope. You’re going to remove the price tag (give it to an employee working the sale and say, “”hey, this bad boy is mine”, stick a Post-It on that sucka, and move on. If it’s an estate sale where I know I’m buying furniture, I’ll even pre-write, “SOLD KYLA” on a stack of them. That way I’m not wasting time digging around for the marker and flailing about in my purse. Now go get that lamp and mirror and slap sold signs on those too!

Measuring tape is probably a no brainer, but sometimes what I think will fit into my car is a no can do. If I’m questioning it, I’m prepared. Say you find the most perfect bench, but it can’t be wider than 42″ to fit in that alcove in your hallway? Measuring tape just saved the day.

Some estate sales will have shopping baskets available, others will have nothing. If you have an armful, they usually let you chuck your treasures under the cashiers table, but that’s not always the case. No one wants to end up lugging 78 lbs of marble and books around a sale. A cloth shopping bag or two will be really useful in these occasions.

Complete How to guide for estates sales. Everything you wanted to know about estate sales by House of Hipsters - Vintage portraits and sketches

Why on earth do you bring a flashlight? Easy. How many times have you walked into a dimly lit basement, closet or den? Wanna check way in the back of a cabinet? See behind all those books? The flashlight is your friend.

Always leave an umbrella in the car for estate sales. If it’s raining and there’s a line, you will be standing outside, getting wet. They will not take pity on you. Same thing goes for winter weather. If it’s cold, always dress appropriately. You can thank me for this later.

Cash is king at an estate sale. Many will say in the listing what payment is accepted, but a credit card will hit them with a 3% processing fee. No beuno. If I’m looking at a large piece, I may start negotiating right then and there, but if I have a ton of smalls, I’ll try to bundle everything together and ask on certain pieces if they can come down. Many times if you’re paying with cash, you’ll wind up with a better bargain.

If you attend the estate sale on the first day, they may not discount, but the second day of the sale after 12pm, you can usually start to wheel and deal. Third or final day of the sale, everything is usually 20-50% off. If you feel something is too high, no matter what the day, make a reasonable offer or ask what’s their best price…even if you don’t have cash. What do you have to lose? More often than not, the prices are not firm…and really, what’s the worst they can say? No?

Complete How to guide for estates sales. Everything you wanted to know about estate sales by House of Hipsters - Vintage mirror

If you are attending the mother of all estate sales on the first day and find something you like that’s not negotiable, go back the last day. See if it’s still there. Remind them that you already purchased something the day before. Their job is to empty that house. If you give them a reasonable offer, you’ll probably make the sale.

There is a bit of etiquette to follow at an estate sale besides respecting the list or numbers. Be polite. You’re in someone’s home. Someone who more often then not has passed. Many times family members are within ear shot. If something is junk, keep it to yourself and move on. There’s no need to make a scene.

If someone starts to tell you the story of a piece…even if it’s not interesting, be gracious and listen…even if you’re planning on selling the piece. These items hold memories and have meaning to their lives. Be kind.

Most of the time, it’s a company running the estate sale and more often then not, they host one, sometimes two sales a weekend. Ask if you can be added to their email list. These companies tend to to stay within their decor genre. This way you’ll never miss a sale. You’ll also become a familiar face which may help your next round of negotiations.

Do you have any additional tips and tricks for estate sales? If so, I’d love for you to leave them in the comments below!

9 Comments

  1. Maryanne Sullivan April 3, 2017

    What a wonderful post!! Agreed with everything you say. The most important pieces in my home are from Estate Sales. I have been doing this since the 60’s, live in New England now. One thing I would add is ‘go to the wealthy towns’. After a while you will become adept at sizing up each sale.

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  2. Susan McDonald April 3, 2017

    If I am considering buying something, I look on the back or bottom for a makers mark. If I don’t recognize it, I google it on my smart phone to get an idea of what kind of price this item or similar goes for to determine if it’s a fair price. It’s also helps understand quality. And if I need a little time to decide if I want it, I keep those details to myself; don’t blab to everyone at the sale what a hot piece something is, because someone else might grab it.

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  3. Deidre Clarke April 4, 2017

    I would add that sometimes it’s just better to wait an hour or two if you are new to estate sales. The professionals are all going to get in first (because they were willing to wait in line and are the first 25 or so on the list.) Unless otherwise stated, only a few will be allowed in at a time after the initial group goes in the house – one out, one in. Maybe a long line to pay in the first hours of the sale. The parking situation is loosens up if you arrive later too and it’s just easier to get around the house. Estatesales.net is such a wonderful tool. I look at all the pictures of the sales before I head out. Estate sales are worth the effort.

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  4. Katie April 4, 2017

    This is one of those posts I make a mental note of to go back to later when I’m planning on putting it into action. I’ve never been to an estate sale (combination of financial constraints and living in a very small town) but I am planning on hitting them up big time when I have the resources! Question though! hypothetically what can I expect price-wise on a relatively nice, vintage credenza, at a moderately priced estate sale, in a nice area such as Chicago? How would you price that reasonably? Like I said I live in a very small town and my expectations on such things are a product of my environment. I need to know if I’m getting cheated or not in a nicer area. Thanks for the advice!

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  5. Ramsy April 4, 2017

    Cool article and a lot of interesting insights! Not really what I will be confronted with during the next upcoming months, but I will save myself this as a link for the future!
    Keep up the great work!

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  6. Reena April 6, 2017

    This is what i want to show my friend like if you want to decorate your home like you want this is the best place.

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  7. Amanda April 7, 2017

    If negotiating or browsing with a toddler, for example, makes you cringe, I recommend ebth.com, an online auction site. It’s in multiple cities and they also offer shipping if you can’t make the pickup time. It’s a nice alternative until I graduate from the “bull in a china shop” years. Plus you can use your other hand for coffee… Thank you for the article – I especially like the post-it idea.

    Reply
  8. Matt Jarvis May 3, 2017

    Love this post! My wife and I love estate sales. It’s actually become “our” thing over the years, and gradually it has become a nice side business as well. And YES– sharpies, and post-its are absolute essentials! Happy Hunting! Looking forward to more of your posts!

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  9. […] been around these parts, you know I’m a sucker for estate sales. A couple months ago, I even wrote a how-to-guide explaining all the ins and outs. Where to find estate sales, what to expect, how to pay, what to […]

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