Estate Sale Tips for Shoppers

Woman shopping for artwork at an estate sale
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Estate sales typically take place when someone makes a big move or passes away. Most are managed by professional estate liquidators, but you'll also see estate sales organized by the owners or heirs. No matter which type you attend, the same estate sale tips apply. Read these estate sales do's and don'ts before you go:

What to Keep In Mind

  • Do attend the first day of the estate sale at the starting time for the best selection of merchandise. If you find something you love, but the price is too high, go back in the afternoon on the last day of the sale.
  • Do go early and get in line to enter (or to get an entry number), especially if the sale is held indoors. Organizers often limit the number of customers inside the house at any given time. Your goal is to get in with the first group.
  • Don’t take a huge purse or tote bag. You may not be allowed to enter. Instead, keep your money or wallet in your front pocket. Because estate sales typically take place inside the house, organizers want to limit a shopper’s ability to steal small items from interior rooms. Unless the staff is large, it’s usually impossible to guard the entire sale at all times.
  • Don’t feel offended if security guards watch you while you shop, or if they ask to see your receipt for purchased items as you leave. Estate sales are hard to watch, and they’ve been hired to make sure the merchandise doesn’t walk away. It’s not personal.
  • Don’t expect to haggle on the first day of the sale if the estate sale is professionally managed. Nobody will shoot you for asking, but you may not have much luck. Private organizers may entertain offers, but estate sale companies typically have a fixed percentage they’ll take off of the tag price that increases with each subsequent day of the sale. You’ll get the best bargains during the final hour on the last day of the estate sale.
  • Do ask about payment terms before committing to a large purchase. Some estate sale companies are set up to take credit cards, but others operate on a cash-only basis. Individual organizers almost never accept credit cards.
  • Do ask about pick-up policies. At most sales, you can return for large pieces such as furniture on the same or the next day, but it’s best to make sure before handing over the money.
  • Don’t expect estate sale organizers to help you load your purchases. Some sales do have a helper who will load your stuff for a fee, but it’s always best to bring your own muscle.
  • Do sniff upholstered seating and bed treatments before buying them. If the goods being sold were the property of an elderly deceased person, some pieces might be soiled with urine. Poor bladder control is frequently an unfortunate part of growing old. Upholstered pieces may be salvageable if you plan to strip them to the frame and reupholster, but it’s best to know what you’re buying.
  • Do inquire about window treatments, including hardware, lighting, and other fixed objects, even if there’s no visible price. At many estate sales, the house is being stripped bare before putting it on the market. Ask about garden statuary, potted plants, and kitchen appliances also. In many cases, those items are also up for sale.
  • Don’t feel uneasy about wandering through the house, including areas that are typically private, such as bathrooms, basements, and closets. When you’re liquidating an entire estate, you usually can’t fit the merchandise the front room. If a room or door is off limits, organizers will mark it with crime-scene type tape or a sign.
  • Do ask if there are sale items in the garage, backyard, or in outbuildings. It’s not unusual, but those areas are easy to miss because you’re concentrating on shopping inside the house.
  • Do check the condition of antique and vintage pieces before you buy. Most estate sale merchandise is sold as is, which means you can't return it later if you find a flaw.
  • Do check the estate sale company's website for professionally managed sales. Many companies list the best merchandise online during the week before the sale, and some even include lots of photos.