How To Find Estate Sales
Last Updated on March 7, 2023
Have you ever attended an estate sale? I was surprised to learn many have not. Yes, walking into a complete stranger’s home can be intimidating, but estate sales are where you’ll find the best vintage decor for the best prices. Because not everyone is versed in this art of secondhand shopping, I decided to write a complete guide on how to find estate sales. Also, be sure to check out my how-to shop estate sales online, where I teach you how to navigate Everything But The House.
How To Find Estate Sales Near You
Sometimes estate sales are listed on Craigslists, Facebook Marketplace, your local paper, or street signs the day of, but most of the time I search on EstateSales.net. Click over to the site, enter your zip code, and this handy dandy resource spits out all the estate sales currently scheduled in your area. Because I live in the Chicagoland area, there are usually 50 plus listings every weekend. If you live in a more rural area, there may only be a few estate sales in your search results. Click on the listing that sounds interesting to get a sneak peek of what’s for sale, the address, and the hours.
After reviewing the sneak peek images, if the sale REALLY looks amazing, here’s what you’re going to do.
Best Tips For Shopping Estate Sales From A Pro
1. When To Arrive at the Estate Sale
EARLY! I’m not talking 15 minutes early, I’m talking hours. I can’t tell you how many vintage 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. Always ask about the list, cuz those jerks standing in line won’t offer it up.
2. What Are Numbers
Whatchu 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, and in return, they give you a number. If you brought a group with you, add everyone’s name to that list. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT. If you don’t, your friends will not enter. Attending an estate sale can be vicious if there are vintage dealers. I had an old man with a cane yell at me once, so it’s good to know the rules.
RELATED: Check out my latest estate sale haul full of vintage treasures.
3. How To Enter the House
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.
4. Plan Your Route
Where to go first? Kitchen? Bedroom? Basement? Living room? Well, that depends. I usually choose which estate sale to attend based on the images in the listing online. If there’s something special, I show a screenshot from the listing sneak peek to an employee. They will direct you to the object you desire…they may also know if it’s already been sold.
I usually scope out the main floor first, the basement second, then upstairs. For the most part, upstairs will be bedroom home decor, clothing, and bathroom accouterments. Unless I’m searching for vintage clothing, a headboard, or artwork, upstairs is not my jam. Basements can be 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 backyard. I’ve found incredible outdoor patio furniture at estate sales.
5. What To Bring To An Estate Sale
I have a few essentials I always take with me. Most often used are Post-It notes and a black Sharpie, measuring tape, a cloth tote bag, a flashlight, an 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 that 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). Also, a random side note, ponchos are extremely difficult when you have to go pee.
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 cashier’s 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 on these occasions.
RELATED: How do I know all about estate sales? I used to own a vintage shop in Chicago!
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 waaaay 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. The 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 bueno. 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.
6. Negotiating At Estate Sales
If you attend the estate sale on the first day, they may not discount, but on the second day of the sale after 12 pm, 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?
7. Last Day Of The Estate Sale
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 on 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.
8. Estate Sale Etiquette
There is unwritten estate sale etiquette and rules to follow besides respecting the list or numbers. Be polite. You’re in someone’s home. Someone who more often than not has passed away. Sometimes family members are within earshot. If something is junk, keep it to yourself and move on. There’s no reason to comment or 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 a dealer planning to sell. These items hold memories and have meaning to their lives. Be kind.
9. Last Tip and Trick
Most of the time, it’s a company running the estate sale, and more often than not, they host one, sometimes two sales a weekend. Ask if you can be added to their email list. These companies tend to stay within their decor genre, plus you’ll never miss a sale. You’ll also become a familiar face which may help your next round of negotiations and makes the whole how-to-find estate sales chore a lot easier.
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!
Learn More Vintage And Estate Sale Shopping Tips and Tricks
Love antiques and planning a trip to Chicago? Be sure to bookmark the Ultimate Guide To Vintage Shopping In Chicago
Erica Reitman teaches us How To Start A Collection
If you’re hosting a party soon, be sure to check out the Vintage Barware For A Modern Bar Cart post to get your cocktail trolley party ready!
Come with me to shop the Elkhorn Flea Market in Wisconsin!
If you love vintage, you don’t want to miss my top 7 Tips For Buying Vintage Home Decor
I’m gearing up for an Office Makeover With Vintage Finds. Here’s my inspiration.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!