When you have to sell the contents of a home due to downsizing, divorce, or a loved one's death, holding an estate sale is usually the most efficient option.
Though you can organize an estate sale on your own, hiring an estate sale company (or estate liquidator) saves you time and stress. It may even make you more profit—even after you pay the liquidator's fees. But, don't be rushed into signing a contract. Here are important questions to ask before you hire an estate sale pro:
What Services Do You Provide?
The answer to this isn't as obvious as you think, so break it down and ask specific questions:
- Do they sort, clean, price, and stage the merchandise? Do they provide tables and display cases?
- Do they take care of advertising and any required permits? How many staffers do they provide, and what do those staffers do? If local laws require sales tax, do they keep track and make sure it gets paid?
- Do they clean up and clear out the property after the estate sale ends?
What and How Do You Charge?
Don't settle for any estate sale company without understanding what and how they charge. Common methods include:
- Percentage of gross sales
- Flat rate
- Flat rate plus a percentage of sales
- A minimum or a percentage of sales, whichever is greater
However, they charge, does that method include everything? Does it cover permits, advertising costs, and credit card processing fees? Do they charge extra for optional services such as clearing out unsold goods? Finally, ask if you're required to pay a deposit.
How Do You Determine Prices on the Merchandise?
Pricing the merchandise appropriately is one of the most important services an estate sale pro should provide.
- Ask if anyone at the company is a professional appraiser. Whether the answer is yes or no, ask about any areas of pricing expertise.
- How does the liquidator set prices and research items outside of their expertise? Do they rely on price guides? Completed item searches on eBay or other online sales sites? Do they hire an appraiser for unknown items that are potentially valuable?
Are You Insured? What Does the Insurance Cover?
You need to know if the estate liquidator carries insurance that covers your sale. If so, are you covered if:
- The house gets robbed while under the company's control
- Merchandise gets stolen during the sale
- A shopper slips and falls during the sale
- A shopper is injured by defective merchandise after taking it home
- A staffer gets injured loading merchandise in a shopper's car
- A staffer damages a shopper's car while loading merchandise
Are You Bonded?
Will they be purchasing a surety bond to protect your losses if the company doesn't perform as agreed?
How Will You Keep the Property Secure?
- What precautions does the estate sale company take to protect the premises and the merchandise?
- Do they hire security staff to patrol back rooms, outbuildings, and the exit door? How do they handle crowd control? Do they limit the number of shoppers allowed inside at any given time? Do they prohibit shoppers from entering with large bags and backpacks to limit pilfering?
When and How Do You Discount the Merchandise?
- Does the company let shoppers haggle for lower prices from the start? Or ever? If so, do they take up to a certain percentage off of the tag price? Or do they call you, the owner, with offers?
- If the estate sale company doesn't allow haggling, do they offer scheduled discounts? With a two-day sale, for example, they might say no discounts the first day, 25 percent off from 9 a.m. to noon on the second day, and then 50 percent off from noon until they close.
- Scheduled discounts usually make the most sense for estate sales. You're not lowering prices the minute the sale starts—and you aren't tying up staffers with constant negotiations. Additionally, offering the biggest discounts during the final hours of the sale encourages shoppers to come back.
Do You Allow Yourself or Your Staff to Make Purchases?
- It's a conflict of interest to purchase the merchandise you've been hired to price and sell. Even if the company is scrupulously honest, it gives you a reason to doubt—especially if they buy to resell online or at a flea market or antique mall.
- How do you know they aren't setting the prices too low on things they want? How do you know they aren't tucking things away until the big discounts are offered at the end of the sale? If they are also clearing out the leftovers after your estate sale, how can you be sure they'll put those things out during the sale at all?
Do You Allow Anyone to Buy Before the Estate Sale Starts?
- If the company does buy from its estate sales, are they allowed to purchase before the sale starts?
- What about dealers? Do they get the first look? If so, how can you be sure they're not partnered up with the estate liquidator on an antique mall booth?
- What if a potential shopper falls for something she sees in one of your advertising photos? Can she buy it now, so nobody else gets to it first?
- What about a friend or relative of yours? Let's say your cousin decides he'd like to have your dining table? Can he buy it early if he pays full price?
When Will You Schedule My Estate Sale?
Some estate sale companies are booked months in advance. If a company can't get to you for three months and you have to have the property empty in one, move on to the next liquidator on your list.
What Happens Before the Sale and How Long Does It Take?
An estate sale requires lots of prep, including time for sorting, pricing, and staging. How much time will the company need to do all of that? What else will they need to do? They'll need access to the house, but do they require exclusive access? That's probably not a problem if you're liquidating a deceased person's estate, but what if it's your sale and you still live there? Will you have to get out? When?
What Do You Require Me to Do?
- Does the estate sale company require you to move all merchandise you're not selling out of the house before the initial walkthrough? Or, is it okay if you point out the excluded goods? How about if you move it all to one room and make that room off-limits during the sale?
- Are you responsible for moving merchandise from attics, basements, and outbuildings into the main part of the house before prep? Do you need to have the house or merchandise cleaned?
- Does the company expect you to be on call during prep to answer questions? Will they be calling you about offers during the sale?
- What else do they expect you to do?
How Will You Advertise My Estate Sale?
- How does the estate sale company plan to advertise your event? Will they take lots of photos and post your event on major estate sale directory websites?
- Do they utilize an email list and social media?
- Will they place classified ads in local newspapers and on Craigslist? Will they place larger ads in the newspapers too?
Is There a Penalty for Pulling an Item out of the Sale?
What happens if you change your mind about selling an item or two? It's your stuff, so you can do what you want, right? Maybe not. Some estate sale companies make you pay a penalty for pulling an item after the initial walkthrough. After all, if they're paid a percentage, removing merchandise means minimizing the company's profit.
How Do You Account for the Merchandise and Money After the Sale?
Some estate sale companies make a written inventory and check items off as they sell, along with the selling price. Some successful, reputable companies don't do any of that because they'd have to hire more checkout staff and charge you more.
Do you need that proof of fair dealing for your peace of mind? Or, if you're liquidating someone else's estate, do you need that information for the estate taxes?
When and How Does the Estate Sale Company Pay Me?
- When will you get your share of the estate sale take? At the end of each sale day? As soon as the estate sale officially ends? Within 30 days of the final sale date?
- Also, do they plan to pay you by check or cash?
Am I Allowed to Attend the Estate Sale?
Emotionally attached sellers are rarely effective sellers. Much like real estate agents, estate liquidators usually prefer that the owners stay away during the sale. Some even write it into the contract.
What Happens After the Sale?
- When the sale ends, what happens?
- Do they put your stuff on the floor as they pack up display cases and tables? Do they lock up and leave you with the mess? Or, do they clear out the unsold stuff and clean up the house? Do they take the leftover stuff to keep or donate? Or, do they place it with a consignment shop?
It may all depend on the optional services you selected from questions one and two.
Can You Provide References?
Ask the companies you interview for references from previous estate sale clients.
- Can they provide contact information so you can check? Or are letters of reference all you get?
When and Where Are Your Upcoming Estate Sales?
Get a list of upcoming estate sales organized by each company you interview and attend them. Get to the sales a bit before they start. Be glad if you have to wait in line. That means a company did its job advertising the event—and that it's serious about security during the opening rush. While you're at each sale, make notes:
- Are there enough staffers on hand?
- Is the merchandise staged in an organized, attractive way?
- Do you see security checking in bedrooms, bathrooms, and other areas not visible from the checkout table?
Attending estate sales is how you'll find out how each company performs.
Will the Contract Include Everything I've Asked?
Once you find a company with answers you like, make sure they detail what you've discussed in the contract. If the company doesn't make written contracts, find someone else. A reputable company wants a contract to protect itself from you too.