An Unofficial Guide to Estate Sales

After having just got back from a particularly peachy estate sale, I thought it might be appropriate for me to impart some wisdom on the topic.  After all, you can leave an estate sale either with a handful of gems, or a handful of clutter – and it’s up to you to make sure it’s not the latter.

An estate sale is what becomes of one person’s possessions after they pass away.  Generally, the heirs to the estate will come in and select what they want to keep, then pass the rest along to a professional, who prices, organizes, and cleans the items, making them ready to sell.

I’ve been to estate sales of all types, from people selling out of a mobile home, to people selling out of a 1.7 million dollar country mansion.  No matter what type of sale, there are some common threads that can aid all types of darlings out there who are in search of a deal.


Generally, estate sales will be posted about on your local garage and yardsale forum on craigslist.  Don’t disregard a sale just because it doesn’t have the most appealing image attached to it – make sure to read the description.  Often, a seller will list the types of items that are for sale, giving you a better idea of wether or not this may be an estate sale for you.

I also personally have a stop-drop-yardsale policy, meaning that unless I’m 15 minutes late to a meeting, it’s my utmost responsibility to pull over every time I see an estate sale, garage sale, or yard sale sign.  Impromptu ventures like this have lead me to some of my favorite finds.


Always be sure you’ve eaten a good meal, hydrated, and had your coffee or tea – estate sales can be tiring, and going to one on an empty stomach is a horrible idea.  Additionally, consider wearing comfortable shoes and a practical outfit.  You may be doing a substantial amount of walking, and bending down.


Once you find a particularly alluring sale, there are two prime times to arrive.  First, and last.  Of course, I’ve found incredible scores at all different times during an estate sale, so this is entirely up to the individual.  Arriving in the middle is never a terrible option either.

The perk of arriving first is having first pick, of course.  Depending on the location and content of an estate sale, they can become extremely competitive.  Arrive 1-2 hours beforehand, and be ready to stand in line – some sellers will even ask you to take a number and be put on a waiting list to enter.  I’ve heard of estate sales with 65 people lined up before opening time – yes, it happens!  Being first to enter allows you to scout out the best and most valuable must-have items.  But be careful, you may have to do some elbowing and clawing to get at them.

The second best time to arrive, is of course, last.  On the last day everything is half price o cheaper, meaning you get the ultimate deals.  This is a perfect time to haggle and bargain.  The only downside of last-day shopping is that anything of real value will most likely have already been nabbed, leaving you with beautiful nick-nacks that are probably more aesthetic than anything.


Know what you’re looking for when you arrive.

There’s a huge temptation when stepping into someone’s home to get hung up on every beautiful throw pillow, end table, marble sculpture, or light blue antique crystal punch bowl.  Stop it.  If you came looking for clothes, immediately locate where the clothes are.  Jewelry?  Find the jewelry sections.  Kitchen wares?  You get the picture.  If you’re on a mission, it’s important to comb through their relevant selection immediately.  Grab everything remotely of interest, and ask the seller if you can make a pile of things before you continue searching.  Once you’ve hoarded all the items you’re interested in – congratulations!  You’re free to browse around as much as your heart desires.

Paring Down

Once you’re ready to make your final decision, ask yourself the following series of questions for each item:

  1. Am I really going to use/sell this?
  2. Is it a brand name item, and therefore worth more than face value?
  3. Is it worth more than the price I’m paying for it?
  4. Does it have any damage that will impact the item’s function of value?
  5. Is it unique, or can I find similar things many other places?

If you find that this item is going to be useful, valuable, worthy, and unique, go for it!  But of course, it’s important to find your own criteria based off your own needs.

Finishing Touches

Always be sure to thank the seller for their hard work, and be courteous to them.  Putting together an estate sale is hard.  And never forget that estate sales can be great opportunities to network – if you’re a seller or collector, you may be among people who can share with you enthusiasm, insights, or business.  I recently bought an extremely lovely Valentino coat for a screaming deal, and on the way out, asked a glamorous older lady if she could tell me anything about the garment.  I was informed that it was most likely early to mid sixties make, mink fur, and that the label was extremely rare and valuable – all things I would have never known without the kindness of a stranger.

And of course, remember to have fun with it!  You have the privilege of getting a snapshot at someone’s life.  It’s a very unique and fascinating experience, so be sure to take the time to appreciate it.  After all, you never know who might comb through your belongings one day, long after you’re gone.


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