How to shop at an estate sale

At 10am yesterday morning, Kris and I climbed into the Mini Cooper and to head for the county fair. We'd only been driving for a few minutes when Kris pointed at a sign. “Look! An estate sale,” she said. “Let's stop.”

Kris and I like estate sales better than garage sales because they usually feature nearly everything a person has ever owned — not just the cast-offs. Family members have generally pulled the plum pieces, but there are still plenty of treasures remaining to be found.

In this case, the treasures we purchased included:

  • 40 canning jars for $7
  • a pair of pruning shears for $3
  • a carousel clothesline for $20

Estate sales don't always mean that the previous owner of the Stuff has died. That's frequently true, but sometimes they're simply moving on to another situation. The best estate sales are those at which everything is for sale, not just “collectibles” or “antiques”. At the former, you can usually find great deals, but things can be way overpriced at the latter.

Though estate sales are similar to garage sales (and thus similar shopping tips apply), there are differences between the two. Here's our best advice for shopping at an estate sale:

  • Have a list in mind. When you visit an estate sale, it helps to have a list of items you're looking for. I used to come from estate sales with lots of Stuff I didn't really need: books, old magazines, outdated camera gear. Now I'm more focused. I look for comic books (which I never find) and garden tools. Kris looks for canning supplies. We both have mental lists of things we need around the house, and if we can find them at a good price at an estate sale, we'll pick them up.
  • Set a budget. When you decide to spend a day looking at sales, it's important to set a budget. Take $20 or $40 or $100 cash and leave the rest at home. Don't carry your checkbook. If you have a list or are shopping for something specific, it's okay to take more money. But if you're visiting estate sales just for fun, you don't want to spend a lot on junk.
  • Take your time. Be thorough. It's easy to scan a garage sale because they're nearly all the same. But every estate sale is different. Move slowly from room to room. Check the closets and the drawers (but only those that are part of the sale). Look in corners. Dig through boxes and bins. If you're methodical, you can often find unexpected goodies in out of the way places.
  • Be willing to clean. Over the course of seventy or eighty years, people can acquire a lot of Stuff. In time, some of these things become worn or dirty. These items tend to be ignored at an estate sale, or marked with low prices. (They're also the sorts of things you can haggle on with great effectiveness.) If you're willing to apply a little spit and polish, you can sometimes turn lumps of coal into shiny diamonds. (Well, not literally, of course.)
  • Remember that old is often better than new. Kris and I own a home with a large yard and large garden. We use a lot of tools to maintain our property. But I'm always frustrated by the low quality and high prices of modern garden implements. Quite frankly, they suck. I've learned that for a fraction of the cost, I can pick up high-quality yard tools at estate sales. Older items are frequently better made, and they certainly have more character. Yesterday, for example, I spent $3 for a fantastic pair of garden shears. These have lasted 30 years or more. I'll bet my family ends up trying to get three bucks for them at my estate sale.
  • Be picky. It's easy to convince yourself that you need some wonderful item you've just found, even though it's broken or otherwise not exactly what you were looking for. While there's merit to being flexible (see the previous tip on cleaning things), it's generally best to wait until you find something exactly right instead of settling for something close. Being patient and being picky are all part of the game.
  • Haggle. Americans aren't fond of haggling, but estate sales are an excellent (and appropriate) place to do so. The sellers are looking to purge as much of this Stuff as possible, so ask for a discount — especially if you're spending a lot of money. If you come back at the end of a sale, your bargaining power is even greater.

And here's one final bonus tip: If you're going to buy a ginormous carousel clothesline at an estate sale, have a vehicle other than a Mini Cooper to haul it in.

Kris and I were lucky yesterday that the yard sale was only about two miles from our house. I drove Kris home with her canning jars and then walked back to the sale. I know I looked pretty silly walking home with a big clothesline draped over my shoulder, but that's what I did.

One of my jobs this weekend is to get that clothesline installed in our lawn. Meanwhile, Kris has washed her 40 canning jars. Just in time, too. Last night, the neighbors brought over 40 pounds of pears that are ready to be canned today. Who says frugality can't be fun?

More about...Frugality

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