A Hidden Gold Mine for Finding High Quality Goods

Estate sales can be gold mines if you’re looking to buy classic, high-quality goods for a fair price.

I’ve found everything from furniture and light fixtures to clothing and jewelry at estate sales. The items aren’t typically the trendiest, but they’re almost always good quality pieces that have stood the test of time and still have lots of life left in them.

If you’ve never been to an estate sale before there are a bunch of dos and don’ts which I’ll cover today.

For starters, don’t call it a garage sale.

Most estate sales are professionally run affairs and held when a homeowner passes away or moves to an assisted-living facility. You will find the occasional family-run sale, which tend to offer better bargains since there’s typically more room to negotiate. Keep these on your radar.

But the main difference between an estate sale and garage sale is an estate sale, everything —  I repeat — everything is for sale — appliances, fixtures, window treatments, and anything else you find on the property.

As for the dos, do go early because you want to be in the first group that walks through the house, and do haggle, but don’t expect deep discounts until later in the day or on the last day.

A Few Other Dos and Don’ts Include:

  • Do ask about payment terms before committing to a large purchase. Some estate sale companies take credit cards, but others are cash-only. Find out beforehand what kind of payment methods you can use. 
  • Do ask about pick-up policies. Most sales will let you come back for large pieces like furniture on the same or next day, but always check before handing over any money that you can meet their expectations with pick up.
  • Don’t bring a big purse or tote bag. Organizers want to limit any chances of shoppers stealing small items from rooms. Because you have access to the entire house, unless the staff is large, it’s almost impossible to guard every sale item. Don’t be offended if you’re asked to leave your bag in the car.
  • Don’t expect help loading your purchases. Some estate sale organizers will have staff dedicated to helping lift heavy pieces, usually for a fee, but it’s best to bring your own muscle since there’s no guarantee.
  • Do sniff upholstered items buying them. If you walk into a house and scented candles are burning, there’s a good chance the organizers are trying to cover up a smell. Be wary of fabric pieces. If you’re looking at an upholstered piece of furniture, consider the cost of stripping it to the frame and reupholstering before you buy.
  • Do ask about window treatments, including hardware, lighting, and other fixed objects, even if there’s no visible price. A lot of houses being sold after an estate sale need to be stripped bare. You can sometimes nab good deals on overlooked items like potted plants, light fixtures, and kitchen appliances.
  • Do ask if there are sale items in the garage, backyard, or in outbuildings. These areas are easy to miss because you’re concentrating on shopping inside the house.
  • Don’t feel weird about wandering through the house, including areas you wouldn’t normally snoop through, like bathrooms, basements, and closets. When you’re liquidating an entire estate, you usually can’t fit everything in the front room. If a room or door is off limits, organizers will mark it with crime-scene type tape or a sign.
  • Do check the estate sale company’s website for professionally managed sales. A lot of companies list the best merchandise online a week before the sale, and some will include photos.

Now that you know what to do and what not to do, let’s home in on what items you should look for when you’re at an estate sale. I might be biased but these are some of the pieces I watch for because they typically offer the best value for money.

Furniture

If you’re looking to furnish your home on a budget, estate sales are great places to start. I’ve furnished a few rooms in our house with pieces picked up at estate sales.

When shopping for furniture, look for quality solid-wood pieces. You’ll pay a fraction of what you’d spend on a comparable new piece.

I’ve seen mahogany five-drawer vanities with mirrors and a bench selling for $25 on EstateSales.org. If you were to buy a similar piece brand new, you’re looking at over $300.

Tools

Tools are usually hot-ticket items at estate sales. Look for vintage tools like a Millers Falls eggbeater hand drill from the early 1900s or a Sears Craftsman table saw from the 1970s.

Despite their age, high-quality tools like these should still be in working condition. And with a bit of elbow grease, you can have them looking like new again.

Designer Clothes

For mid-tier designer brands, like Coach and Tory Burch, expect to save up to 50% percent off the original price. When you come across top-tier brands like Louis Vuitton and Chanel, expect deals north of 30% retail.

Note: beware of fake and knock-offs, familiarize yourself with designer brand’s signature details — like the type of stitching used in handbags, logo positioning, etc.

Vintage Home Decor

If your wife is into decorating like mine, estate sales are ripe with unique home furnishings at low prices. You can find all sorts of one-of-a-kind vintage goods, like old-fashioned typewriters, phonographs, and hand-drawn maps that can be framed.

If you want to add some character to your home, estate sales are great places to find unique pieces on a budget.

Art

We’ve all heard the stories of people walking away from estate sales with painting for pennies that end up being worth thousands — or even millions.

Let me shatter this fantasy for you: those are extremely rare cases. But that doesn’t mean buying fine art at an estate sale is a bad idea. In fact, you can still find some original paintings and quality reproduction prints for a fraction of what you’d pay in a gallery.

Don’t just look at paintings either, look for sculptures, stained glass and wood carvings.

Final Word

Estate sales are hidden gold mines for forgotten junk. If you’re value-minded and up for the task, it’s worth waking up early to spend a few Saturdays hunting down deals.

Start by looking for estate sales near you on Craigslist and EstateSale.org.

To a richer life,

Nilus Mattive

— Nilus Mattive
Editor, The Rich Life Roadmap

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