As most of my friends and family know, I’m an estate sale nut. In my hay day, I was going to estate sales EVERY weekend and hitting multiple sales per Saturday. Over the years I’ve filled up my house with estate sale finds that I just couldn’t pass up, plus I’ve learned some tricks of the trade to snag some amazing stuff. Below you’ll find a list of my best estate sale tips, advice and hints on having a positive estate sale experience, getting what you want and getting a good deal while your at it.
The 24 Best Estate Sale Tips you Must Know
1. Preview sales online before you go
The first thing I like to do before I go estate saleing is check out all of the local sales listed in my area online. There are a couple Portland area websites I generally peruse during the week, estate sale finder and estatesales.net. You may also check out Craigslist or other local websites in your area.
What to look for:
- A list of sale items
- Photos of items from the sale, which are often posted closer to the sale date. These generally just show a selection of the things for sale in the home as well as big ticket items.
- Contact info for a pre-sign up list if there is one.
- General location of each sale. Often the full address isn’t disclosed until closer to the sale so there aren’t any lookie-loos or theft on the property.
- The sale address. You can usually see it 24 hours prior to the start of the sale if not sooner. If the address isn’t available, you may still get an approximate area for where the sale is located (NE, SE, etc.)
- Sale hours
- Day/s that the sale will be happening
2. Make a list of sales you want to attend
I like to go through all of the sales I find online and make a list of which sales I am most interested in attending. I make the list based on the location of the sale and the photos I find online. I also note the time they start and what days they are open. If there are multiple sales in your area, the list will help you compare start times and distances from your home, or between sales, so you can better plan your trip/s and decide which sale is best to go to first. I personally like to stick to the sales closer to my area, but if there is something I really like in the photos, I might make an exception.
3. Get an idea of the sale before you go
When deciding which sale/s to attend, I make sure to review any photos that are posted online. The photos are a great indication of what you will find at the sale, even if they don’t show all of the items. This will let you know the general style or type of items you might find inside, whether that is mostly mid-century, primitive, clean and modern, asian-themed, doll-filled, or my favorite, the super hoarder home. Personally, I find the more cluttered the home, the better. As people go through, they tend to just uncover more good stuff.
To get more Portland area specific, it may just be me, but I tend to find older and more packed homes on the East side of the river and often find the West side to be a bit more modern and clean.
4. Go on the first day of the sale
If there is something you have to have in the photos, make sure you are there on the first day of the sale. Many sales will be open for the first day on Friday or even Thursday, which are generally done for vendors/resellers who go to estate sales for their business. I work full time, so I can only make it to sales on the weekends. I try to hit sales that are opening for the first time on Saturday. If you don’t attend on the first day that they are open, you may find the sale pretty picked over when you arrive—that plant stand you just couldn’t live with out, will be long gone.
4. Get on the sign-up list (if there is one)
Often, estate sale companies will create a sign up list for their sale. This list indicates the order for which you will be able to enter the sale on the first day. Sign-up lists are generally first come first serve. Make sure to put down a name for each person in your party, or grab a number for each person in your group. This isn’t a restaurant. If your name isn’t specifically in the list, they won’t let your whole group in. Check the listing online to see if there is a list and what type they are using.
Types of sign up lists:
- Pre-sign up. Some online companies let you text or email your name to get on the list ahead of time. I’ve experienced one company that let people put their name on the list as early as a week before the sale. Be sure to check the listing in case you can sign up early.
- On the door the day of the sale (most common). The company will have a list at the door the morning of the first day of the sale. Be sure to check or ask if there is a list posted and get your name on it as soon as you arrive.
- Posted outside the home the evening before the sale. Some companies give you 12 hours to sign up, but you have to physically go to the home/property to get your name on the list.
- No list. This means first come, first serve and you can just hope others are orderly about it. Be sure to get in line or start one.
- Numbers. Another form of a list, but companies will have a stack of numbers that they hand out, rather then use your name. The lowest numbers get in first.
Make sure to put down a name for each person in your party, or grab a number for each person in your group. This isn’t a restaurant. If your name isn’t specifically in the list, they won’t let your whole group in.
4. Get in early
This one is important. In most cases, you’ll want to arrive at the property early to get in at the top of the sign-up list or to get a low number. If there is something in the online photos you must have and if you want any chance at getting it, you’ll probably have to wake up in the wee hours of the morning (or make sure you got on a pre-sign up list as soon as they put it out). I’ve arrived as much as two hours early to wait outside and I’ve found out that some people will get there in the middle of the night if the sale is good. Estate sales are all about timing and as they say, the early bird gets the worm.
5. Wear the proper clothes
If you’re getting to a sale early, it means you’re often left standing outside of the house for quite awhile. Depending on the time of the year, you’ll want to make sure you prepare to stand in the cold, wet or heat. Come prepared with a warm jacket, a rain jacket, mittens, a scarf, an umbrella, and/or hat. If you’re not sure how cold it might be, bring some additional layers and leave them in the car, so you can always layer if needed.
6. Ask at the door
If you’ve seen something you specifically want in the online photos, it’s a good idea to ask where you might find it at the door. If you’re there early, there is always someone at the door managing how many people can go into the house at a time. That is the best person to ask. If they don’t know, you could also try asking whoever is at the check-out area.
Another great thing to ask at the front door, is the location of a specific room. Basements are always at the top of my list of where to go first, so I’ll ask for directions at the door so I can make my way there first.
7. Bring a basket or tote bag
If a sale’s great, you may quickly end up with your hands full of items and without enough places to hold them. Bringing along your own shopping basket or tote bag is a great way to gather and carry items around the sale. Some sale companies now offer shopping baskets at the start of the sale. I always recommend grabbing one if they are on hand, even if you don’t come away with anything. Also, some sales are weary of you stuffing everything into that large bag you brought for fear of you taking off with it, that’s when an open-style basket is great. It keeps the sale items out in the open. I can usually get away with a tote bag or reusable grocery bag without any issues, plus I can fold it up and store it in my purse until I need it.
8. If you’re undecided, carry it around
If you are at a sale early, you may be competing with other buyers that are trying to get at the same items you are. Unfortunately, this comes with the territory. You won’t have the luxury of standing around deciding if something is worth the price, if you really need it, what you’re going to do with it, or what your husband would think of it, etc. If you have any question on if you want the item, grab it. Once its in your hands or bag, you can later decide if you truly want to purchase it. Too many times have I thought I might have wanted something and thought I could just come back for it later. On most occasions, it will be picked up by someone else, sometimes even right in front of your face.
9. Be courteous
Just the other day I was contemplating buying a piece of furniture because I wasn’t sure if I could fix the top surface. I was pulling out the drawers, inspecting it and the next thing I knew, someone came blatantly in front of me, grabbed the price tag, said “I’ll take it how it is” and put a sold sticker on it. WHAT? Don’t be a jerk at a sale. If you can tell someone is honestly looking and contemplating something, don’t steal it out from under them. Wait until they turn or walk away. And if they decide to take it, it wasn’t meant to be.
As you move around the sale, sometimes it will be packed with people and you may tend to bump into at least one of them. Make sure to apologize if you accidentally knock into anyone. Doors will get crammed, there will be one way paths to items. Just be courteous, let people pass, help people if they are having trouble reaching, lifting or holding something. Good deeds will come back to you. My mom and I once had a man offer to carry a VERY heavy 24″x14″ rolled up rug down three flights of stairs and to our car. Without him, I don’t think we could have done it. Just be nice.
10. Bring “sold” Post-it Notes
Sometimes there is a large piece of furniture you must have, but it’s pretty hard to stick it in your tote to secure it as yours. If there isn’t a sale staff person around, claim it as yours by putting your own SOLD sticker on it. I like to use post-it notes, so I can easily stick it on the item. Write “SOLD” in large letters with your name below. I premade a stack to put in my purse. This will be enough of a deterrent to anyone and give you enough time to make sure you can buy it at the register. Some sales also offer their own “sold” signs at the front register. I’ve also seen where you can just physically take the item’s tag with you.
11. Ask if they can hold an item while you shop
Is your tote full and all of your hands? Is that huge picture frame awkward to carry around? Often you can ask at the front check-out person if there is an area where you can stow your finds while you continue to shop. They usually put things behind or under their counter. They may also have designated boxes where you can put your items. Often they will have you put some type of sold sticker on them, so others know that pile of awesome stuff is already spoken for.
12. Bring a friend
Bringing a friend or relative along is always fun. This gives you two sets of eyes and someone to keep you entertained while you wait in line. Let your friend know if there is something specific you are looking for and find out from them if there is anything you should keep an eye out for. This way if they are in a different room, they can pick up something for you while your rummaging through a different area of the house. A friend is also a great sounding board for deciding if you really want or need an item. They can offer advice, be the voice of reason, or even the devil’s advocate. For the most part I love going to estate sales with my mom. She definitely plays the voice of reason and has talked me out of more then one thing I really didn’t need. But, she’s also there to back me up if I find something worthwhile, there to help me carry it out and most importantly, lend me some cash if they don’t take a card.
13. Go with someone that doesn’t have common interests
While going to estate sales is fun, if you go with someone that has common interests, they might just walk away with something you wanted. UH-OH! As always with estate sales, the early bird gets the worm, so if they reach an item first, they are going to get to walk away with it. I recommend going with someone that has disparate interests/styles from your own. You’re already competing with all of the other buyers at the sale, why add your own friend to the competition?
14. Be prepared to haul it out yourself
If you’re buying anything large, be prepared to move it yourself. Many estate sale companies won’t help you move furniture out of the house. I’m sure it’s mostly based on insurance issues and obviously they don’t want their employees to have any back issues. This is where bringing along a buddy is super helpful. They can help you with the heavy lifting. If you’re flying solo, after paying for the item, you can generally schedule a time to come back to the sale with someone else to help you move it. The sales staff will just put a sold sticker on the piece you purchased.
15. Bring a measuring tape
Size always play a part in my purchases and there have been times I’ve passed on things because I just wasn’t sure I could (or wanted to) physically get the item out of the house. You can never been sure if a piece of furniture will easily pass though a door, go down a flight of stairs or most importantly, fit in your car. This is why I always carry around a measuring tape. I have one of those small key chain versions and I can’t tell you how many times it has come in handy. Outside of making sure things will fit in my car, the measuring tape is also useful to figure out if certain pieces of furniture or items will fit in your space at home. This is great for something like a table or cabinet. I’ve even used it to figure out lengths of table cloths to make sure they are a the right fit for my table.
16. Bring a Flash Light
I can’t tell you how many estate sales are poorly lit, especially basements and garages. Bringing a small hand held flash light is a great tool to have on hand for scouring under tables and rummaging through boxes. Plus, you might just catch something cool that someone missed, just because they couldn’t see it.
You can find the flashlight I use on Amazon.
17. Bring a big car
You never know what you’ll find at a sale and it may be too large or too long to fit in a small car. Make sure you are prepared with the right vehicle. I like to take my SUV to sales, just in case I find something. I usually prefer to take an item home after I purchase it, rather then having to come back to pick it up. This saves you time and gas.
18. Bring cash
Nowadays a lot of estate sale companies let you use a credit or debit card to pay at a sale, but still, cash is king. You never know if you’ll be able to use a card or if their card machine happens to go out of commission (this has happened to me). Always bring cash to a sale, even if it’s going to be used as a backup. Also be aware that some sales only take cash. Usually smaller bills are going to be better.
19. Have a budget
If you are on a budget, bringing cash is a great route. This limits how much you will spend during your day. If you’re using a card, it’s great to put a budget in place, even if it’s tentative, so you’re not overspending. This can lead to some major buyer’s remorse.
If you preview photos from a sale online and see an item you want, you usually won’t be able to see how much it’s listed at in the photo. For specific items like these, go with a budget in mind. Set a limit for how much that item is worth to you. When collecting antique blue mason jars for my wedding, I put a limit of $6 per jar. If I found jars that cost more then that, I left them there, knowing I would most likely come across more later at other sales within my budget.
20. Come back on Sunday for discounts
The general rule of thumb in my area is that Sunday offers a 50% discount on items priced $100 or less. This number does vary by company/sale. Sometimes it is also $50 or less and sometimes the discount is a smaller percent off. If it’s a private sale, meaning the owner did not go through an estate sale company, they may not offer any discounts. Sunday is usually the final day of an estate sale, so they are trying to move any of the remaining items that haven’t sold on the first day/s of the sale.
If you’re at the final hours of the sale, you may also be able to just offer a price on an item. It can’t hurt to try right? They want to sell it, so they could give you an even greater discount. I was at an estate sale once where they just started giving whatever was left away for free. I actually ended up walking away with nothing. Just because it’s free, doesn’t make it awesome.
21. Make a bid
For items priced over $100, estate sales usually let you make a bid for the item if you don’t want to pay the full listed price. They often have a bid box setup where you can leave your contact information, the name of the item and what price you’ll offer. If you presented the highest fair bid, they will contact you at the close of the sale to purchase the item. This does leave the opportunity for other buyers to pick-up that item at full price, but if no one buys it during the sale and you have the highest bid, it’s yours! It just depends on how much it’s worth to you.
I can’t deal with the pressure of waiting and not knowing if I purchased something and fear of not getting it. If there is something expensive I LOVE, and I know I can’t get it anywhere else, I’ll usually just pay full price so I can take it home (AKA the art deco ring set I bought last weekend).
22. Make notes about the estate sale companies you visit
Each estate sale company has a different way of doing things. Pricing of items can vary greatly between vendors, so what is a $10 crate at one sale, might be a $34 crate at another sale. Also, the amount of service you get, the style and setup of their checkout area, the amount of help you receive, the style of the directional signs for finding the sale, etc. can all vary and play into the quality of each company. As you go to more and more estate sales, you notice the differences, find out which companies you prefer and which you may want to avoid. Some sales I know will always be on the pricey side, some I know will always have a list on the door and some just have really friendly staff. That knowledge may help influence where you buy and help you get better deals.
23. Bring hand sanitizer
As you move through sales, you’re often touching lots of stuff, inspecting it or moving it to get to something else. Not all of the homes or areas of the homes are clean. There is always dust and grime and it will end up on your hands. Keep some hand sanitizer or hand sanitizing wipes in your car for when you’re done with the sale. That way you won’t have to live with grubby hands until you get back home.
24. If you don’t get it, it wasn’t meant to be
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to a sale with dreams of coming home with something I saw in a photo. Apparently, so did someone else, and they ended up with it. You won’t end up with what you want a lot of the time, unless you are always first in line and know exactly where it is in the house. I like to think if that if you don’t get something, then it wasn’t meant to be and with estate sales, you have to be okay with that. Half the fun is the hunt, checking out the inside of (sometimes) awesome houses, spending time with friends or family and hopefully coming away with something cool at a great price.
That’s a wrap
Estate sales are a great place to find used items for low prices, but it’s even better when you know the tricks of the trade. With these estate sale tips you’ll be sure to have a better chance at scoring some awesome finds of your own and have a great time doing it.
Have any more tips you’d like to share? I’d love to hear them!