That little print ad in the back of the newspaper finally grabbed your attention.

You’ve decided to check out your first estate sale, but what should you expect?

From vintage dealers seeking hidden antiques to shoppers just looking for everyday items at bargain-basement prices, estate sales draw all types of buyers.

“It’s become more chic to buy second-hand goods,” said Daniel Sanders, president and CEO of Four Sales Ltd., which operates estate sales in the Greater Washington, D.C., area and Mid-Atlantic region.

Whether you are going just to browse or are hunting for an oddly specific collectible item, the primer below will prepare you for your first estate sale.

Estate Sale Items

What is an estate sale exactly?

“An estate sale is just a way of liquidating the belongings of an estate—whether someone has passed away or is downsizing or moving or sometimes due to bankruptcy,” said Matt Ellison, a marketer at Jackson, MO-based EstateSales.NET, a company that sends free email alerts of upcoming estate sales to subscribers.

“That’s what separates it from a yard sale; it’s an entire house that’s being liquidated,” Ellison said.

What can you buy?

The public is invited into the house and can buy any item with a price tag.

For shoppers, estate sales can be an ideal place to find bargains on household items like cleaning products, cooking utensils and dishes to furniture, appliances, clothing, books and just cool knick-knacks.

You might also see bigger-ticket items like artwork, fine jewelry, antiques, silver and china. Many sales are run by estate sale companies while some are handled by the family. Either way, the goal is to sell all of the possessions left in the home.

 Photo courtesy Four Sales Ltd. </em
Photo courtesy Four Sales Ltd.

How do you find estate sales?

Find sales by signing up on sites like EstateSales.net or EstateSales.org, which email you new listings of sales in your neighborhood – complete with addresses, directions and descriptions and photos of items for sale.

You can also find sales in newspapers’ classified sections or scour Craigslist.

Who will be there?

Dealers, collectors and everyday shoppers are hunting for deals. Most dealers are looking for specific items like art, certain styles of furniture or jewelry, and are in and out quickly and on to the next sale.

“You’ll see people who are resellers to those just trying to find real neat items all the way down to people who want to buy bleach,,” Ellison said.

How do you know which sales to go to?

Check out the estate sale company’s website or visit sites like EstateSales.Net or EstateSales.org to see what items are for sale. They might say “collectible toy and art collection” or “farm equipment and tools.”

If you see an item that you’re interested in buying, you can do research before the sale, which could help you determine the item’s value.

“The pictures and description of the sale are often going to tell you if it’s worth going to; that’s going to be your biggest clue,” said Ricky Kazee, a Minneapolis dealer who buys and sells vintage t-shirts, menswear and furniture.

Estate Sale Finds

If the listing isn’t very specific is it worth going to?

Some smaller, family-run sales might only offer a short description, but that’s where Kazee has uncovered some great buys.

“Also, a lot of times it will say, ‘50 years of accumulation,’ so the longer they’ve lived in the house, obviously, the older the stuff they’re going to have,” Kazee said.

The cool thing about estate sales is you never know what you’re going to find, Ellison added.

“It’s kind of a ‘don’t-judge-a-book-by-the-cover’ principle,” he said. “It could be a sale where you go, ‘Oh, I don’t think there’s going to be anything,’ and it has the coolest item that wasn’t listed or you found in the bottom of a drawer.”

When should you go?

“Usually, they say the ‘best items’ go fast, so you get there early because you see something you really want and you don’t want it to get sold,” Ellison said.

Some companies offer discounts as a sale goes on. Day one is full price. Day two might be 25% off and day three is 50% off. It depends on the company running the sale, Ellison said.

Sanders at Four Sales said it really depends what you’re looking for.

“There are things we see every weekend and things we only see sporadically,” he said. “For some items, you don’t necessarily have to race in to get it.”

Some items are in high demand. For example, the weekend after Labor Day, Sanders’ company sold a signed print by Alexander Calder, a mid-century designer and artist.

“They don’t come up very often. If you’re interested, you want to get there early,” Sanders said.

 Photo courtesy Four Sales Ltd.
Photo courtesy Four Sales Ltd.

How do you get into sales?

Most sales use the “first come, first served” policy. For example, numbers might be given out 30 minutes prior to the start of the sale and in the order the customers arrive. Lines could form hours before the sale opens and some people even camp out.

“There was just an estate sale… and I got up at 4 a.m. and there was already somebody waiting,” said Kazee, the collector.

How do you pay for items?

Typically, you gather up your items and take them to a central checkout location. If items are large, the company will mark it as “sold,” and you have a certain amount of time to pick it up.

Also, if you don’t want to pay the marked price, some companies accept bids. However, if another shopper is willing to pay the marked price before the sale ends, you will lose out on that item.

Sales accept cash and some accept credit cards and checks.

“It’s a good idea to have cash on hand if you’re trying to negotiate something,” Ellison said.

And don’t forget, all sales are final.

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Liz Wolf