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Tips for Shopping Estate Sales

Tips for Shopping Estate Sales

Wooden items at an estate sale including a bench, baskets, and a step stool
Written by Kristin Dowding

You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again: garage sales and estate sales are fantastic places to purchase antique and vintage pieces at better-than-bargain prices. But while similar in concept, an estate sale offers an entirely different experience.

A person hosting a garage sale is vending a limited selection of their own items, while sellers at estate sales are vending on behalf of a client who is looking to clear the house, typically before it goes on the market. For that reason, there’s a different protocol to learn in order to be successful at an estate sale. Here are some tips to keep you ahead of the game.

Piles of vintage and antique items at an estate sale
Items are pulled out of closets, cabinets, drawers, attics and other forgotten storage spaces and piled up for eager shoppers to browse and buy.

1. Plan Your Day

Most event dates, times and locations are posted on estate sale websites like EstateSales.org, EstateSales.net or Craigslist, so research sales in your area before you plan. Many sales start on Thursdays or Fridays, meaning many of the most desirable items may have sold by Saturday and Sunday.

Driving out of town may be worth the bargains, as well-established communities with older populations are more likely to yield higher quality vintage items. Simply getting in your car and looking for sale signs last minute may not get you there at the optimal bargain time.

2. Pick a Time

The first day of the sale is the best for selection, particularly furniture. Arrive half an hour early, so you can be in the first group of shoppers and have your pick of items. However, note that the sellers may not budge on pricing the first day. The last sale day is optimal for bargain prices, with deals getting better as the day comes to a close. Estate sales are typically “everything must go” affairs, so you may find an overlooked gem and get it at half the original cost.

A table full of second-hand items at an estate sale
Most people are collectors of one category or another. If several items of a kind are featured, discounts may be available for buying the entire collection instead of purchasing one or two selected pieces.

3. Research Prices

If this is your first time at an estate sale, it can be difficult to know whether the price tag is a deal or a rip-off. Research items that you’re looking for to get a sense of the average price before you start shopping. That way, you can know whether to wait until the last day or snatch it up right away. It’s also a good idea to shop year-round to get a sense of regularly priced items versus a deal.

4. Know Your Brands

If you’re particular about your brands, learn their marks and logo, so you know how to spot a fake while shopping. This way, you don’t have to rely on the word of the seller.

5. Be Polite

Estate sales are, in a way, high-end flea markets, and it’s not as simple as offering a lower price for an item. Usually, professionals are doing the selling for the family, and you could offend by trying to bargain. Instead, test the waters by asking if the price is the best they can offer, and they’ll let you know if they’re willing to budge.

Antique electronics at an estate sale
Whenever you buy electronics without a manufacturer’s guarantee or a shop return policy, it’s best to test them out before buying. At an estate sale, you can find a socket and see if the item you have your eye on is worth the investment

6. Bring Cash

While some places take credit cards, it’s always best to ask up front and bring cash just in case. You’d hate to lose a treasure just because you didn’t have the proper means to pay!

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7. Test Electronics 

Always test any electronics before you purchase them, including vacuums, blenders, fans, lamps, etc. While they may not be intentionally selling you something that’s broken, sellers don’t always have time to test them before a sale, so that becomes your responsibility.

8. Bring a Large Car

You never know what you might find at an estate sale, so even if you’re just looking for some small kitchen items, be prepared in case you fall in love with a furniture piece.

Vintage knick knacks and secondhand clothing at an outdoor estate sale
Consider condition carefully. While wood glue and a sanitizing soak can be in any buyer’s wheelhouse, falling in love with a vintage lamp that needs to be rewired may be more than your bargained for.

9. Bring a Measuring Tape

Sizing is tricky, and it’s always best to be 100% sure something will fit before you buy it, so bring a measuring tape. Don’t trust yourself to estimate correctly, as most estate sales don’t allow returns.

10. Don’t be Shy

Don’t forget to ask about out-of-the-way places like garages, backyards and attics. There may be some treasures hidden where no one else is thinking to look!

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