How To Shop Estate Sales

how to shop estate sales

Today is the second part of a two-post series on estate sales.  If you missed yesterday’s post, How To Find Estate Sales, you should check it out.  It outlines my tried and true process for finding the best estate sales around.

If you are a frequent estate sale shopper, you know it can be fairly cutthroat.  That’s because you, as a laid back estate sale shopper, are competing with dealers, who are not so laid back about their estate sale finds.  This might be annoying, and you may have had an ugly experience a time or two, but I try to remember this is some people’s livelihood – how they feed their families and pay their medical bills.  Then again, some people are mean and prickly, and sometimes you have to be the bigger person and try not to take it personally.

With that said, here are a few estate sale rules, followed by tips and tricks you have probably never heard of or thought of before.  Follow these to be a successful estate sale shopper!

1. “THE EARLY BIRD GETS THE WORM” COULD NOT BE A MORE TRUE STATEMENT WHEN IT COMES TO ESTATE SALES.

If you see photos of an estate sale online or read a sales description (sometimes there are no pictures), and you know it is going to be the coolest estate sale ever, you need to get there early.  Well, how early???  This is a good question, and one you can more clearly figure out once you have been going to estate sales awhile.  I know for me, when there is a vintage bamboo, brass, Dorothy Draper awesomeness sale that starts at 10 am on Friday, I need to be there by at least 6 am.  That’s just how it is.  For most sales, however, you need to get there at least an hour or so before it opens to have a chance at the best stuff.  Usually, unless something is just listed at a crazy price, the best items go in the first ten minutes of a sale.

Also, another reason to be early is sometimes certain cities/areas/neighborhoods have limits on how many people can be allowed in a residence for an estate sale at a time.  Therefore, they will only let in a few people; when someone leaves, another person can come in.  You typically want to be in the first ten or fifteen people to enter the door of an estate sale to get the best items.  

2.  WHEN YOU GET TO AN ESTATE SALE, YOU NEED TO ESTABLISH YOUR PLACE IN LINE.

This is so important because when you are waiting around for an estate sale to open, people talk and move around, and it can be hard to remember where people were.  From the beginning, state so those around can hear and know who you are behind in line.  Some estate sales have numbers they give out, which decreases the need for line placement establishing, but in my experience, most sales do not do numbers.  You don’t have to yell it, just state it kindly.  And smile.  : )  Many of the rules and tips may seem a little overboard to you, but this is what people are doing who are getting awesome finds at estate sales.

3.  IF YOU ARE PLANNING TO BRING KIDS TO AN ESTATE SALE, MAKE SURE THEY ARE ALLOWED.

I cannot tell you how many people I have seen denied access to estate sales after waiting in line because they had children with them.  It can be a bummer to have to find a sitter for your kids while you go to an estate sale, but when these estate sale companies say “no kids” in their listings, they mean it 100% most of the time.  I will tell you, I even got rejected once when I had my baby with me, and the baby was strapped to me.  For estate sales where children are allowed, I would say to bring activities with you so they will be occupied during the long wait before the sale opens.  I took my oldest to a sale a few weeks ago, and he threw and caught the football in the front yard for a good hour.

Those are some basic and useful rules, but I’m going to tell you now about the tips and tricks of estate sales.  I am bracing myself for the emails and comments because some of these methods are controversial, and I know some of you will say, “I cannot stand it when people do ___ at estate sales!”.  And truthfully, I find some of these methods frustrating too, especially when I do not get what I am wanting, ha.  BUT using these ideas will help you get the golden eggs, so do with them what you will.  Integrity intact, of course.  Be kind and respectful and follow the rules of those running the sale.

Note:  Sometimes people do not follow the rules, and the company running the sale does not care, and allows it.  This is always disappointing, especially when you have done the honorable thing and followed the correct process, and because of that, you miss out on something you really wanted.  What can I say other than it is a big bummer and such is life.  When this happens, I just try to tell myself it was not meant to be.

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TIPS & TRICKS OF ESTATE SALES:

1.  The “Walk in the door, I want the ___” method

If there is something so awesome in an estate sale that you know you want it immediately, and do not need to see it, you can go directly to the cashier and say, “I want the __”.  Some estate sale companies do not allow this so I suggest emailing or calling the representative before the sale and asking if this is allowed before you do it.  Sometimes the company will say in their listing what their protocol is for the purchase of items or the “who was there first” process.  But know it is an option, and yes, it does give you an advantage if you are behind someone in line that wants the same thing, but that person went to go see it in real life before purchasing.

2.  The “where is the item” method

Many estate sales have the rule that you need to pull the tag off of the item in order to purchase it.  That is why people rush into estate sales, searching hungrily from room to room.  They know they have to get there first.  A couple of ways you can pinpoint where your favored item might be is to quickly ask someone when you walk in the door.  “Where is the ___?”  Then go find it.  You can also study the sale photos to memorize other items in the room so once you recognize one of those items, you realize your prize is nearby.  The last way to find something you want that is a personal favorite of mine, and I can hardly believe I am revealing it, is to see if the house where the estate sale is being held is for sale or has been for sale recently.  This information is easily found using sites like Zillow.  (just enter the address into the search box and the address/photos will come up)  The reason this works is because much of the time, a whole home of furniture/items are for sale, and estate sale companies don’t really move many of the larger items.  So if you want a dresser, for example, and you look online at a real estate listing, and see that dresser is in the bedroom on the second floor, you know where to hurry to when the doors open.

3.  The SOLD signs method

This is another avenue of getting items at an estate sale that is not always allowed so you may want to check with the company or person running the sale first to see if this is okay.  If you know there are going to be many items in an estate sale that you want, you can get some labels and write “Sold” on them in capital, bright letters to place on items as you zoom by.  It is usually a good idea to pull tags when you do this so people do not try to say “oh, I’m buying this because I have the tag” after you have already placed a “sold” tag on it.

4.  Getting in early

Some estate sale companies have notepads where you can add your name to an email list for notifications of upcoming sales.  Always sign up for these!  Every once in awhile, a sale will open early for people on the email list, and you already know, the earlier you get there, the better.

5.  When someone gets there before you…

It can be really, really disappointing when you have stood in the rain and cold for three hours and still not get what you want at an estate sale.  I have been there more than once!  But never be afraid to ask the person who got the item if they will consider selling it to you for a little more money than they paid.  Oftentimes, these “get there first” people are dealers so if they do not have to transport the item AND still get to make a profit, you can cut a deal with them.  I’ve done this many a time.

6.  Don’t be intimidated by “the community”

Since I have been going to estate sales several years now, I know many of the people who go in my area, and I consider some of them friends that I get to catch up with every so often.  You learn who buys what and where they are from and what they like.  Some people even have special little chairs they bring to sit on while in line!  I had a friend tell me recently how intimidated she was when she went to an estate sale because it seemed like “everyone knew each other”.  And the truth is, many of those that are first in line do know each other.  Don’t let that bother you or make you feel like you don’t belong.

7.  Never be afraid to bargain a little

If you are buying a lot at an estate sale, you can always see if they will cut you a little deal.  For example, I bought several vintage scarves last week and got them for $2 apiece instead of $4, simply because I said, “hey, I’m buying seven of these, can you do this price?”  Many times, they won’t do that the first day, but as you go to estate sales more and more, and the people who run the companies get to know you, they appreciate your loyalty, and are more apt to cut you some slack on pricing.

8.  You know you are at a good sale when…

you see lots of dealers there.  It is typically fairly easy to see how “hot” an estate sale is by noticing how many people are in line early and how many of them are probably dealers.

9.  If you can’t get to an estate sale super early, don’t fret

You may just get lucky.  Occasionally, if a particularly sought after item is too much for dealers to turn and make a profit on, it will sit there.  It will stay there waiting for you to come get it.  This is always a happy moment!  I have been shocked so many times at what has still been at an estate sale when I have gotten there late.  Sometimes the stars just align.  And hey, something you may think is awesome is not what the general population thinks is awesome, so you may still have a chance.

10.  When you want to negotiate on pricing, and they have already rejected you

If you have tried to get the folks running the estate sale to lower a price for you, and they have already turned you down, go back to the estate sale right before they close for the day.  After making sure the item is still there, go up to them, and say you noticed the item is still in the sale, politely tell them you know they are about to close, and ask if they will work with you on price.  This has worked for me many a time!

Although I know this post is more text heavy than usual, I hope you have learned from it, and gotten some new tips and tricks to help you “win” at estate sales.  I also realize estate sales may *seem* overwhelming/too much trouble, and while I get that some of you might feel that way, I look back at all of the amazing finds in my home and other’s homes (and think about how much $$$ I have saved), and think, WORTH IT!! 

Anyone have any interesting/frustrating/crazy estate sale stories?

P.S.  I also feel like I should point out that when you go to an estate sale, you are looking at items that belonged to someone loved.  It hurts my heart sometimes when I see people going through things in a disrespectful manner.  I just think it’s important to keep in mind that you are looking at things that were owned by someone’s mother/father/sister/brother/grandmother/grandfather, etc.  Just something to keep in mind…

Written by Grace

19 Responses to “How To Shop Estate Sales”

  1. Elizabeth @ The Little Black Door May 8, 2014 at 2:46 pm #

    Very good post Grace! I’ve run into several of these situations as well. Great advice!

    • Grace May 10, 2014 at 9:33 am #

      Thanks Elizabeth! Hope it helps. 🙂 xo

  2. Tracy Laverty May 8, 2014 at 3:55 pm #

    I still have not been to an estate sale so this series is super helpful. I think I can go to one now and feel more confident. Thanks Grace.

    • Grace May 10, 2014 at 9:34 am #

      Tracy, oh my goodness, treasures await! I’m so glad this helped you, an it especially made me happy when you said you felt more confident. My work here is done. 😉 I hope you find some great things, let me know how it goes!

  3. Emily May 9, 2014 at 5:10 am #

    You really made me think about my approach at my next estate sale. #2 was the most helpful hint to me. I’m going to start studying the homes pictures online next time. Great advice Grace!

    • Grace May 10, 2014 at 9:35 am #

      Oh good, Emily! Yeah, the picture trick has worked for me many a time. Hope you get something great because of it! xo

  4. Tiffany May 9, 2014 at 7:41 am #

    Love this! All great tips.

    • Grace May 10, 2014 at 9:36 am #

      Thanks Tiffany! I’ve never been to an estate sale in Canada, but I would love to check one out when I take my dream PEI/Nova Scotia trip. 😉 Someday. 🙂 xo, G

  5. Frances @ Improvementlist May 9, 2014 at 5:08 pm #

    So glad you shared this information. I have been think of going to estates sells lately, since I like the idea of getting something a little different that not everyone can get in a store. I took notes while reading this post!

    • Grace May 10, 2014 at 9:37 am #

      Hey Frances, yes, estate sales are such an awesome resource for one-of-a-kind finds. Good luck, hope your notes help! I would love to hear how it goes for you! xo, G

  6. Gwen, The Makerista May 10, 2014 at 10:15 am #

    Thank you so much for this! I learned a lot that I did not know. I love estate sales, if for nothing other than getting to peak inside someone’s home – it’s fascinating!, but I don’t really go much because of my young kids. I hope when they get a bit older it will be easier to take some time for them!

  7. antiquechase May 10, 2014 at 11:46 am #

    I have been to many estate sales and this was a great read!! For the beginner or the advanced!! Thank you! Marcy

  8. Meagan Claire May 10, 2014 at 11:50 am #

    I loved this post! I’m from your neck of the woods, but I live south of Houston right now. I’ve found estate sales to be really hit and miss here because my zipcodes are all small towns. It’s not uncommon for me to drive an hour for a sale. But, small towns usually mean small prices. One of my biggest peeves is when I end up at a sale with a line and they only let a few people in at a time, but the people who run the sale aren’t keeping up with who is going in and out. I’ve been at a sale that got a bit riotous because lots of people were coming out, but no one was being let it.

  9. Jennifer May 10, 2014 at 12:17 pm #

    Such a great post, Grace! How about I buy your coffee and just follow you around to an estate sale one day? 😉

  10. Gina May 10, 2014 at 3:52 pm #

    I loved reading this!! Thanks for taking the time to share your tips!! When I read your first post of how to find estate sales I thought how I would love to live in an area where there are a lot of sales, but after reading this I think I am satisfied being in a small rural area where I am lucky to find a few. 😉 My husband and I enjoy going. We normally just buy small items and I have been really happy with what we have found the past few years!! Our daughter lives in Northern Virginia and we have wanted to find a couple to go to when we visit her so I can use your tips!! 🙂

  11. Jesse coulter July 26, 2014 at 9:24 pm #

    Loved this post! I’ve been hitting up Austin/round rock/georgetown estate sales for about a year now and I never thought of your #1 tip! Great advice. I curate a list of my favorite upcoming Texas estate sale finds on my blog almost every Wednesdag! Jessecoulter.blogspot.com

  12. kate October 31, 2015 at 8:51 pm #

    Such a great guide! I totally agree that you don’t have to worry if you didn’t get there early. Sometimes that’s the only way to get the item you want, but we are also a fan of the last sale days when they have the discount – there are always awesome finds to be had!

  13. Candice November 9, 2015 at 8:41 pm #

    First off, love this post!

    Second, if I can add just one thing. Leave the following statements and bad habits at home:
    – Can I have ____ for ____? That’s a good price! (the second part is what gets folks stomach turning).
    – That’s too much!
    – Describing how bad an item is constructed so you can get a cheap price.
    – Get mad when the worker says a price and it’s not what you thought it would be.

    When you are nice to them, they are nice to you.

    • Grace November 20, 2015 at 1:36 pm #

      Candice, agreed! Being kind is always the best policy! Thank you for reading. xo

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