Today I want to share one of the best kept secrets for finding great furniture and household items at rock bottom prices: estate sales. Having had my own estate sale several years ago when we decided to downsize and change house styles, I came to understand how these sales work and why they are such a great thing from the standpoint of the buyer.
Estate sales differ vastly from yard sales where individuals set up in their yards and try to dispense with household clutter, e.g., used toys, half-burned candles, old florist vases, clothing, etc., in hopes of earning a few pennies on the dollar. While you certainly can find great deals at yard sales, I generally find the quality and diversity of offerings is not at the same level as estate sales. In most cases, estate sales are held to liquidate the estates of people who have passed away, moved to assisted living situations or otherwise downsized, or those who are liquidating assets due to divorce. The goal is to quickly get rid of what is sometimes an entire lifetime’s accumulation of stuff.
While the first impression upon walking into a stranger’s home and seeing all their belongings displayed with price tags can indeed be a little sad, I’d encourage you to get past that and see it as an amazing opportunity to purchase unique quality items at excellent prices. And keep in mind that, for whatever reason, the people holding the sale NEED to get rid of these items. You are helping the sellers alleviate the burden their possessions now represent. Their possessions will have a new life through a new owner. It is recycling at it’s best!
The best site I know of to find sales in your area is www.estatesales.net. Type in your city and you’ll get a list of upcoming estate sales in your area. Once you are on a company’s mailing list you will receive regular emails telling you when they are conducting sales in your area. They will usually advertise a few days before the event with numerous photos of every item included in the sale. Sales usually include furniture, garden items, jewelry, clothing, kitchenware, and collectibles. I recommend scanning through all the photos to see if any items catch your attention. I can usually determine whether the sale is a “must” or a “pass” just by previewing the pictures.
For example, earlier this year I came across the estate sale of the former editor of Bon Apetit Magazine. The preview photos showed a wall inside the house that had been signed by Julia Child during a visit for Christmas Eve dinner in 1980! I knew this was the estate of someone who loved cooking and entertaining, and I could see from the pictures that there were vast amounts of tableware, cookware, linens and many other items of interest to me. It was a three day sale and I went on the second day. (Truthfully, I also went the first day but there was a line wrapped around the block to get in! I decided to return the next day.) I came home with two of the ironstone pudding molds shown in the picture above. I went back the third day when items were 75% off and purchased two more molds, several pieces of tin bakeware, a vintage faux fur throw, as well as other miscellaneous goodies.
Most estate sales start on Fridays and end on Sunday afternoons. The first day you will get the best selection, but you will pay the most. By the second day, most sales cut prices by 50%. On the final day, prices are often slashed by 75%! Yes, there is a high probability the item you eyed on Saturday may be long gone, but if it is still there, it is now at least half price! Because I’m not in an active acquisition mode these days, I most often go on the last day of the sale to scoop up amazing deals on unexpected finds.
Here are some of the best things to buy at estate sales:
Large pieces of furniture. You can purchase large pieces of quality furniture at extremely low prices. These items tend to go for very low prices because no one wants to haul them away. Since these pieces have usually remained in use, they are most often in quite good shape. Oftentimes, the style of the furniture is dated, but a fresh coat of paint or new upholstery can breathe new life into dated pieces of furniture. Smart estate sale companies will usually have a mover on call that will give you a moving estimate before you purchase. Since the mover is usually connected in some way to the estate sale company, try negotiating the price to include the moving fee.
Tableware. Formal china, crystal stemware, silver serving pieces, linens, and other cooking related items are often great deals at estate sales. Of course, it helps if you like vintage but don’t be surprised to find items of all styles, quality levels, and price points. I recently found a set of twelve contemporary handmade dinner plates that still had their original price tags on them. The original price was $33 per plate and the sticker indicated that they had been marked down to $25 each when they were purchased. On the last day of the sale, I got them for $2 each!
Linens. If you’re a fan of vintage linens as I am, you can often find gorgeous tablecloths, napkins, and hand towels at estate sales. In bygone eras, fine hand needlework was something every well-equipped household had. And because it was prized, oftentimes it was rarely used. It is not unusual to find an entire room dedicated to linens at estate sales. While you’ll need to examine them carefully to check for stains or damage, I’ve seen many, many beautiful items with original tags still attached.
Garage/yard items. Tools, garden supplies and equipment, planters, lawn furniture and other unusual items are often displayed in the garage or in the backyard. These practical items can be quite expensive to buy in retail stores and you might find just the item you need for your garden or patio.
Hobby Items and Collectibles. From cameras to comic books, estate sales tend to reflect the owner’s hobbies and interests. Depending on your interests, you can find just about anything you collect at reasonable prices.
So if you’ve seen signs around your town for estate sales and been intimidated or thought they were just junk sales, I’d encourage you to give them a try. You might be pleasantly surprised at the treasures you’ll find.