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How Do Estate Sales Work? A Basic Guide

Reviewed by Antique Collector Kate Miller-Wilson
man looking for second hand clothes

Learning how estate sales work can help you be a smart shopper or even hold an estate sale of your own. Estate sales create a chance to showcase an individual's or family's personal items at a price point that may be more affordable, although typically not as well-priced, as a garage or yard sale. Whether you are planning on buying or selling, there are a few helpful estate sale tips to keep in mind.

What Are Estate Sales?

An estate sale is a private sale that usually happens in an individual's home, an inherited home, or solely online. They often take place because a family or individual wants to or needs to liquidate as many assets as possible in a short amount of time. Estate sales are typically open to the public and advertised to bring in a crowd of serious buyers. They usually take place over a three-day period, beginning on Friday and ending on Sunday, with prices, as well as inventory, decreasing by the final day of the sale. Some estate sales may also include the actual property, cars, and boats available to purchase as well.

Reasons for Having an Estate Sale

Understanding how estate sales work means having a sense of the reasons behind them. They usually involve a major life change. Estate sales may take place for several reasons:

  • Because of a death in the family
  • Due to a divorce
  • Because a family or individual wants to redo their home
  • Because a family or individual is planning on moving
  • Because a home was inherited from a family member who has passed away, moved into an end-of-life care facility, or has been hospitalized long-term

How People Find Estate Sales

Estate sales are usually advertised on specific sites and/or signs are put up around a local neighborhood to notify the public. Individuals in charge of the estate may hold their own estate sale or hire a company to help with staging, pricing, advertising, selling, and clean up. That company often handles promotion of the sale as well.

What to Expect When Shopping at an Estate Sale

An estate sale will have a larger inventory than a garage, yard, or tag sale, and items may be slightly pricier, although cheaper than buying retail. Items will be marked with a price tag, and some items may not be up for sale. Feel free to ask about discounts, make a slightly less expensive offer, or ask about items that aren't marked for sale that you're interested in. Expect larger crowds on the first day, and smaller crowds and less inventory near the end of the sale. An estate sale differs from a garage sale or thrift store in the rules and etiquette expected.

Estate sale and radio equipment

Estate Sale Etiquette and Rules

Different estate sales will have unique rules and regulations. If you're in doubt, inquire about specific rules for shopping when you arrive. Rules may dictate a "first come, first served" policy depending on the particular sale. Some estate sales will give out numbers that dictate when you can enter the property for browsing. Also ask about the parking restrictions in the neighborhood so you don't get a ticket while browsing the estate sale. Keep these etiquette guidelines in mind:

  • Don't bring a large purse or tote bag; instead bring a small bag or just your wallet.
  • If you're considering a small item, you should carry it around so you don't risk someone else purchasing it.
  • For larger items, notify someone who is working at the sale that you'd like to purchase a large item so they can mark it as sold.
  • Negotiate politely. You may ask about paying a lower price than the sticker reads, but don't expect to pay as low as you would at a garage or yard sale.
  • Be prepared to take items right away unless you've worked out another arrangement. Some estate sales will give you a few day grace period before needing you to pick up a purchased large item.
  • Bring cash unless you know the sale will accept credit cards.

What Happens to Estate Sale Leftovers?

If you're looking for a discount, head to the sale on the second or last day, but know that the inventory may be significantly lower. After that point, estate sale leftovers may be given to family members or friends if they'd like, stored, sold to a flea market, or auctioned off. They may also be donated. Many donation companies will pick up larger items if requested.

Holding a Successful Estate Sale: How It Works

If you are planning an estate sale, there are a few tips to keep in mind that can help you create a successful and well organized event. The more you understand about how estate sales work, the more you can make from your sale.

Is an Estate Sale Worth It?

Be clear about how much you expect to make from an estate sale. Estate sales make an average of $11,000, with some making significantly more or less depending on the size of the estate and/or the demand for what's being sold. If you have items worth more than $10,000 and/or a large estate, an estate sale can help you unload items at a quicker pace than you would probably be able to otherwise. Estate sales can take a lot of work to plan and put on, especially if you are doing so on your own. If you have a lot of high price items you'd like to liquidate, you can consider setting up a free consultation meeting with an estate sale service to see if having an estate sale is the best course of action.

When Is the Best Time to Have an Estate Sale?

There's no right answer about timing, and depending on the circumstances, you may not have a choice. Some argue that the best time to hold an estate sale is in the winter time, when there's less competition with yard and garage sales. Others note that there is no right or wrong way to hold an estate sale. With solid advertising, great pictures, and good staging, attracting a crowd can happen any time of year.

Know What Sells Best at an Estate Sale

Estate sales will sell differently depending on location, as well as types of items available. Trends can also influence what sells at one sale versus another sale held later on. Items that tend to sell well include:

  • Lightly worn or unworn designer clothing, shoes, and accessories
  • Vintage jewelry
  • Mid-century furniture
  • Solid wood furniture that can be reupholstered
  • Art and decorative modern objects
  • Flatware
  • Barware
  • Kitchen appliances

Pricing Items at an Estate Sale

If you ask too much for items, they won't sell. Price items correctly by checking on similar products on eBay and other bidding sites. Make sure your pricing is competitive and not overly high. You can also speak with an antique specialist, or hire an estate sale company to help you with pricing. Make sure items have an easy-to-read and large price tag. If you are interested in selling certain difficult-to-sell pieces, mark the prices down on the second and third day.

Advertising an Estate Sale

You need to get the word out about an estate sale. There are several ways to do this, and it makes sense to work with more than one:

  • Advertise in the local paper.
  • Place ads on Craigslist, Facebook, and neighborhood sites.
  • Take great photos of the items in the sale.
  • Print up flyers to display in your neighborhood.
  • Make yard signs to let shoppers know the sale location.

Create a Welcoming Environment for Shoppers

A successful estate sale starts with a welcoming environment. These tips can help:

  • Make sure the house is clean, smells good, and is bright.
  • Be sure your displays have a clean feeling and aren't cluttered.
  • Post clear rules and policies for buyers to see.
  • Have people to help, such as family and friends. This will make shopping easier for guests and keep you from getting overwhelmed.
  • Set up locked cash boxes near the exit. Create signs so people know where to pay.
  • Lock and label all rooms that are off limits. Make sure signs are polite but firm.

Make an Estate Sale Checklist

Estate sales may take up to three weeks to plan, and can require a lot of organization and research to finalize. Making a to-do list for yourself can help you handle everything in an organized way. These are some of the tasks you may want to include on a checklist:

  • Creating an organized inventory of items for sale
  • Coming up with pricing for each item based on similar items
  • Fixing, cleaning, and repairing items for sale
  • Staging the items for sale in a desirable way
  • Advertising the estate sale online and/or with neighborhood flyers
  • Having people assist you with security, making sales, and checkout
  • Having a plan in place for items that don't sell
  • Being prepared for proper clean up post sale

Should You Work With an Estate Sale Company?

It can be daunting to hold an estate sale on your own, and there are companies that specialize in helping you. Good estate sales companies are typically licensed, bonded, and have good references for you to review prior to hiring. These companies take a percentage of the total sales (usually about 30-60 percent) and assist with pricing, set up, staging, sales, clean up, and handling unsold items. Hiring an estate sale company usually takes a lot of the burden off of the individual in charge of liquidating the estate, but it isn't always worth it for a smaller sale or if you need to make a certain amount of money from the sale.

Antiquities in estate sale

Be Prepared for Estate Sale Success

Estate sales present a great opportunity to buy and sell unique items that are already staged in a home. Whether you are shopping at an estate sale or planning your own estate sale, your knowledge of how the estate sale process works will help you navigate this type of sale with success.

How Do Estate Sales Work? A Basic Guide