How to Navigate Online Estate Sales Like a Pro

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There's no need to travel far to shop a fabulous estate sale—or a dozen! Websites such as Auction Ninja,, and others make it easy to snag stunning pieces for the home and closet without leaving your living room. To help you master the art of estate sale shopping and score everything you've always wanted and more, we spoke with pros who weighed in with six key tips to keep in mind during the browsing and bidding process.

Read the Fine Print

We get it—it's awfully tempting to quickly place a bid and throw caution to the wind so as not to miss out on that perfect item. But vintage dealer Lily Barfield of Lily's Vintage Finds says that reading the item description and the terms and conditions listed on a site it ultra key. "You don't want to purchase something you love, only to find out you missed an important detail," she says. "For example, you need to be sure you can pick up your items within the specified time frame. Usually, all sales are final."

The issue of shipping versus pickup is something that designer Lucy O'Brien of Tartan Toile reiterates. "Keep in mind where the auction is located especially if you are purchasing large furniture," she advises. "Freight on a piece for the West Cast to the East Coast will be a significant cost in comparison to a piece coming from a few states over."

And doing a bit of extra research during the shopping period is never a bad idea, if you're able, Barfield states. "I always ask the seller if there are any notable defects or imperfections in items I'm interested in purchasing," she says. "If they ever list a phone number, call! You can usually find out way more about an item by speaking to the seller on the phone."

Review Photos Closely

Pay close attention to the listing photographs available but also don't hesitate to ask for additional shots if you have any doubts about an item's condition. "Sometimes things can look great in a photograph but can be damaged or in need of extensive repair," designer Stephanie Purzycki says. "I once bought caned seats covered by a cushion. The chairs were beautiful but the cane was completely torn, and to get it repaired was very pricey."

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Avoid Upholstered Pieces

This has become a best practice for Barfield when shopping online sales. "Oftentimes the pictures aren't detailed enough to see the true quality and condition of the fabric," she explains. "You might think you are purchasing a fabulous piece, only to pick it up and see that it has stains or tears." Such items are also prone to holding onto smells, Barfield adds.

Set Your Sights on an Investment Piece

Online auctions are an excellent opportunity to stock up on everything from day to day household accessories to more splurge-worthy finds, says Rebecca Thistlethwaite of Hunt & Peck Estate Services. "It’s great to purchase decorative pieces that fit in with current aesthetics, but it’s even greater, in my opinion, to purchase an 'investment piece' that stands the test of time," she says. "Whether it be a great pair of classic Chanel flats or a fabulous work of art, think of now, but also the future!"

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Or Look for Simple Treasures

Designer Adnan Anwar is a fan of this approach. "I adore getting books at estate sales, because what room is complete without those? I try to focus on topics I'm interested in and gorgeous covers or illustrations," he says. Anwar also likes using estate sales as an opportunity to stock up on tableware. "If you stick to brass, sterling, stainless steel, or silver plate, you can mix forks, knives, and spoons from different sets," he suggests.

Don't Bid Too Far in Advance

This is one case in which the early bird doesn't necessarily get the worm, O'Brien cautions. "Be mindful do not bid very far in advance or get too excited on a piece that is 16-plus days out," she says. "The bidding will go up significantly on closing day. The day of price will be a better gauge of what the item will go for at the closing of the bidding."

Designer Camila Pavone of Effortless Style shares similar sentiments. "I typically don't bid until the last couple of minutes," she says. "I like to see if anyone else is out there and how active the listing is going to be."

Set a Budget

This is key in order to keep your finances in check on closing day! "Set a rough amount you want to spend on a specific piece," O'Brien suggests. "Bidding is not a rational process once you get going. Make sure you know your absolute max you will spend on an item and stick to that." Pavone agrees, noting, "Need versus want is very important when it comes to how high I will go." Doing research ahead of time on an item's value may also help you determine an appropriate budget for a specific piece and help you feel assured that you are indeed scoring a great deal. "I once found an oil painting that was in beautiful condition and it was signed on the corner," Purzycki says. "I looked up the artist's signature and some of his work sells for upwards of $7,000 to $8,000 dollars. I won that piece for $400, and it hangs in my home."