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 I used to come from estate sales with lots of Stuff I didn't really need: books, old magazines, outdated camera gear.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?

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Sheila
Sheila
11 years ago

Great deal on the canning jars! I wish somebody would offer me 40 lbs. of pears. And your clothesline walk was probably no sillier than when my husband and I walked our kids’ swingset (including slide) six blocks from one Lake Oswego rental house to another because we didn’t want to take it apart.

Doggie
Doggie
11 years ago

Great post, JD. For years, I avoided estate sales because I thought they were all of the “jewelry” and “collectible” type — stuff seemed just outdated and overpriced.

But when I began to discover the “everything” type of sale, I became a convert. My GF and I got a box fan for 25 cents at one — it only lasted about a year – but for 25 cents!! Great deal! We also got some neglected plants in window boxes that I have on my balcony now – they’ve lasted a long time.

Great, great deals to be had at these.

val dekam
val dekam
11 years ago

I love estate sales too. I am usually very impressed by how people have cared for and maintained items; especially ones that would be “disposable” today. We need to take better care of our things!
My weirdest walk home was after buying 2 (!) wheelbarrows and my son stacked them one in the other and walked the 5 blocks rolling them back to our house. small price to pay for looking a little silly!

Miko
Miko
11 years ago

You’re quite right about the quality of old tools. I know several woodworkers and boatbuilders who have nothing good to say about modern tools – they’re made cheaply for people who don’t put much use into them, and the blades and fastenings are much weaker than those in the past, when tools were machined much better and made from better materials. Most of them shop at old tool auctions – and most of those auctions are run by people who scour estate sales for old tools!

Funny about Money
Funny about Money
11 years ago

Another thing to know is that some estate sale dealers will cut prices on the second day. So if you’re willing to take a chance that some prize will still be there tomorrow, wait! Also, sometimes dealers will take bids on certain items. I bought a beautiful hand-made library table that way: price was too high the first day. The owner’s father had been a furniture-maker in New England and had made the table for her. I left a bid of $300, figured it would be gone by the second day, but lo! Next day the dealer called and said… Read more »

Handworn
Handworn
11 years ago

Estate sales are good examples of the same great money-saving qualities of used or antique stuff that you find at auctions. (That whole completely consumed increment thing.) Sometimes, of course, they’re better than auctions, if the sellers have no good idea what the piece is worth, though of course, there being no fixed time for the piece to be sold, you have to be the first to spot it. The real key with the weekly estate auctions and estate sales is to not listen to Thomas Jefferson. He wrote, “Never buy something you do not want, because it is cheap.”… Read more »

Chad
Chad
11 years ago

Are you sure you didn’t fall into the Mini? Unless you’re 3 ft tall, I don’t think anyone climbs into a Mini.

Chloe (Naturally Frugal)
Chloe (Naturally Frugal)
11 years ago

I love estate sales because of the wonderful finds. It’s sometimes sad to go through the house, but you’re right in that the owner may not have died but might have moved on our into an assisted living facility.

I’ve found fabric, cheap wall hangings, and wonderful kitchen supplies at estate sales.

Tim
Tim
11 years ago

damn, now i have to rethink my mini purchase…although, i am thinking about the convertible, which would allow me to stick someone’s aunt emma’s giraffe lamp out of, unlike a hard top mini.

Dave
Dave
11 years ago

Good points.
My girlfriend and I just lost out on a great opportunity. We saw an estate sale yesterday but passed it in a hurry to meet some people. Probably lost out on some great stuff.
Thanks for the advice

Dave
LifeExcursion

Tyler@FrugallyGreen
11 years ago

My Grandpa is an estate sale ninja. When he passes, his estate sale is going to be awesome!

Currently, I’m currently on an anti-stuff mission. All of the signs advertising the sales around the neighborhood are mighty tempting, though.

Tim
Tim
11 years ago

@Dave @ Accidental FIRE, how do you know you lost a great opportunity?

@Tyler, that’s the problem with buying this stuff…do you really need it? Or, is your estate going to end up as a “great estate sale” with lots of stuff? my grandpa bought tons of stuff from these sales and they ended up in his shed. when he died, he had a shed full of lots of stuff.

RB @ Financial Samurai
RB @ Financial Samurai
11 years ago

Honestly,

I think estate sales are just another word for “garage sale.” You can pick up a lot of junk for cheap, and who knows, maybe someone’s junk is another’s treasure. You might even find that lost Van Gogh!

But realistically, there’s just too much temptation to buy a lot of stuff you don’t need. If you go to an estate sale, go with a GOAL of buying something, bc with no goal, I bet you’ll buy a lot of junk.

Rgds,

RB

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
11 years ago

I haven’t got the patience for wandering around town looking through random people’s homes for items I need.

If I need garden shears, I’ll go to the hardware store and get them, not look up half a dozen estate sales happening next saturday and spend half my weekend driving around town hoping I find them.

If I don’t actually need the garden shears, then I don’t need them from an estate sale either. In this respect I agree with Tim — shopping for things you don’t need just leads to a house full of junk.

Tom
Tom
11 years ago

Sometimes estate sales are the only way to find certain collectible items because anyone who knows what they are will not sell them at anything less than astronomical prices.

Scott Lovingood
Scott Lovingood
11 years ago

Estate sales can be fun just to wander through. You can see how much the things they prized so much are sold so cheaply. Wealth is more than just the things we own. It is our relationships.

How do you define wealth?
http://www.askthewealthsquad.com/what-is-wealth/

PS JD Shoot me an email. I collected comics for nearly 20 years and need to sell them to clear out some space 🙂

Foxie@CarsxGirl
11 years ago

I haven’t made it to a yard sale in forever, let alone an estate sale… Then again, I can’t think of anything I need, so I shouldn’t be so disappointed. 🙂 Just more stuff I never knew I needed until I saw it, really…! (Unless anyone has ever been to an estate sale with good car parts, ha.) Then again, I’m starting to have a thing for cocktail rings and other “colorful” pieces of jewelry… So it might not be a horrible idea for me, if I can ever get the time to go to these and the spare $20… Read more »

Mrs. Accountability
Mrs. Accountability
11 years ago

It’s been too hot where I live for yard sales, but in a few weeks they will start up again. I totally agree with you on the quality of tools you can buy from the store. Everything is made to throw away after a few uses and it’s just horrible. I come from the generation where you could buy quality and have it last decades but my children are more familiar with the current state, just go buy a new one! They don’t even realize they will end up buying ten junky shovels over their lifetime while one from my… Read more »

KW
KW
11 years ago

My Mini has a sunroof – works great for those extra long items!

Noah
Noah
11 years ago

I admit, it always seemed like grave robbing to me.

Budgie
Budgie
11 years ago

You know what? I don’t think I’ve been to an estate sale, but your logic makes sense on how it’s possible to get a good deal. I love garage sales and have spent many a Saturday morning garage-saleing. And Tyler, I don’t think everyone who shops at estate/garage sales goes exclusively to save money. You may think it’s a waste of time, but it can be a form of entertainment as well. And not everyone has a ton of money to buy items at retail. My future mother-in-law had to support six kids on one income. If it wasn’t for… Read more »

1276
1276
11 years ago

Be careful, especially at estate auctions. When you see how cheap some stuff goes for I just feel like I can’t pass it up even if I don’t need it. I think it’s called auction fever. Picture this… I’m married for a month and see an ad in the free paper for an estate auction which mentions garden tools. Great, I think, I’ll go see if I can get my new bride some good garden tools cheap. Well, I ended up with a house with 2 acres and no garden tools. We had the money to pay for it outright… Read more »

sandy
sandy
11 years ago

I’ve only been to one estate sale, but I found a dozen bright red cloth napkins that I bought for $1, and we use them every day, 10 years later.

Chett
Chett
11 years ago

First of all I don’t have an issue with those who do bargain hunt this way, but I always look at estate sales/auctions as a reminder not to accumulate too much crap during life.

After all when you die you’re not taking it with you and all your left with is a bunch of strangers rummaging through your crap trying to get bottom dollar.

Nancy
Nancy
11 years ago

Just do me one favor, will you people? If the sale is for charity, PLEASE refrain from haggling. Have a heart – good karma will follow you!

Diane
Diane
11 years ago

Chet (#23) nailed it when he said “First of all I don’t have an issue with those who do bargain hunt this way, but I always look at estate sales/auctions as a reminder not to accumulate too much crap during life.” In fact, shopping at Estate Sales continually motivates me to keep my own posessions under control. However, I LOVE Estate Sales for the things I don’t find at garage sales. I regularly buy cleaning supplies and pantry items. They’re way cheaper and there is usually no sales tax. Recently, I went to a sale that seemed to have little… Read more »

Jessica
Jessica
11 years ago

I actually walked into an Estate sale as a broke student and walked away with a 30$ chest sized freezer (I talked it down from 75$). I was prepared to push it home, but she actually had a moving company bring it to me for 10$ (which I had happened to find in the street on my way home that day). I just sold it to my Hydro company for 60$ a few months ago because I inherited an upright. I’d like to say that I made double my money, flipping a freezer, but that’s not counting the cost of… Read more »

elisabeth
elisabeth
11 years ago

I think it depends on where you live — in a lot of places, a good estate sale is hard to find because dealers are sometimes invited in for a pre-sale sale and they will take the best items.

Steve
Steve
11 years ago

Why didn’t Kris drive herself home?

Kevin@OutOfYourRut
11 years ago

I have to agree that old is often better then new. It seems especially true in regard to furniture. It might be better to buy an old piece that isn’t in such great shape and restore, rather then paying big money for brand new. Furniture isn’t like mechanical devices that have moving parts that can wear out. Good furniture can last for decades. BTW, I also bought a shear at an estate sale for $3 at least 10 years ago, and it still works like brand new. It’s worth going to those sales just to see what they might have.… Read more »

Ian
Ian
11 years ago

“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.” This is where the 13 year old station wagon comes in handy. We also carried our Christmas tree home when we lived in Germany and had no car. I don’t think the bus driver’s would have been happy with us dropping needles on their nice clean… Read more »

Mark Gavagan
Mark Gavagan
11 years ago

If you find something great, but it’s too expensive even after your best haggling efforts, consider trying this: “Here’s my telephone number. If no one buys it by the time your sale is over, call me and I’ll buy it at my offered price. I’ll even rush over so you won’t have to move it back into your house with all the other unsold items.”

Kevin@OutOfYourRut
11 years ago

Mark (32)–EXCELLENT!!! So few people realize that the most powerful negotiating tool is a willingness to walk away.

How much would we all save if we did that even some of the time?

jimdavis
jimdavis
11 years ago

This post was awesome! Estate Sale is really a great opportunity for us to have what we want with less expenses in our side. I been into an Estate Sale last month with my girlfriend and we found it so enjoying as we bought all that we need for our apartment. During our shopping, we also experience a little hustle due to the huge crowd that also wants to shop like us. But we eventually managed to deal with it. Thanks for the post!

Marie
Marie
11 years ago

You collect comic books? Want to buy my Archie? I have 1 Archie Comics #4, and 9 Archie Comics Digest Magazines #13, #36, #39, #55, #75, #82, #91, #98, #105. I live in Northridge Porter Ranch, is that close to wher eyou live? Make an offer!
Marie

Chris
Chris
11 years ago

We have been conducting Estate Sales throughout Northern Illinois for the past 13 years. Most conductors now will include a photo gallery in addition to a description on their website so you can see what items are available for sale without going. When you like a company, sign up on their mailing list or Twitter if they have one- sometimes they offer a coupon or special offer in their mailing or announce 50% off sales. We never pre-sell or have dealers in first, but some companies do- I would check to see what their policy is. Always leave a bid… Read more »

DDFD at DivorcedDadFrugalDad
DDFD at DivorcedDadFrugalDad
11 years ago

Great Post– Haggling and budgeting are required for success.

business brokers sydney
business brokers sydney
8 years ago

I have noticed that over the course of creating a relationship with real estate owners, you’ll be able to come to understand that, in every real estate purchase, a fee is paid. In the end, FSBO sellers do not “save” the commission. Rather, they try to earn the commission by way of doing a agent’s work. In completing this task, they spend their money and also time to carry out, as best they could, the responsibilities of an adviser. Those tasks include displaying the home by marketing, introducing the home to willing buyers, constructing a sense of buyer urgency in… Read more »

Holly
Holly
5 years ago

Ive just bought my first home, and while I have some furnishings from my apartment, I don’t have what I want. Since I live in Florida….(the place old people go to…you know…) I am hoping to get some great deals at Estate sales. I’m not looking antiques – more for well constructed furniture. My main goal is a light colored wood dining set with 4-6 chairs….I just can’t figure out what a fair price would be for such an item. I do of course dream of finding a dirty Florida Highwayman painting tucked in a corner, but I’m not holding… Read more »

Leigh
Leigh
4 years ago

I love going to estate sales and hopefully one day I will find something of great value. I bought a park bench for $10 and refinished it. It came out spectacular. I flipped it for $375. I always look for things I can flip and I have done quite well over the past years.
Happy estate sale shopping to all.

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