How To Win At Estate Sales

Sign for a garage saleI love estate sales. You can find an enormous assortment of things for your home or thoughtful gifts at low prices. For those new to the game, an estate sale is basically a large yard sale put on when someone passes away (or in some cases is moving away), and most everything left in the home is sold after their heirs have taken anything in the will or anything of sentimental value. I find a lot more useful and cool things than I do at yard sales for the simple reason that yard sales consist of things that the living didn’t like, whereas estate sales consist of things that the recently deceased did like because he or she held onto it. I also like the idea of giving cherished objects a new life and a new home, instead of sending them to the junk pile or recycling plant. Estate sales are about as green as you can get!

The best place to look for estate sales is on Craigslist or in your local paper. There are also lots of dedicated estate sale companies who sometimes have email lists you can subscribe to. You quickly get to know what types of sales each company seeks out – one company might be big on antique furniture, another might gravitate towards collectibles and dishes, a third might email you about sales with a lot of art. However, most sales will still have a lot of useful household items such as kitchen tools, dishes, linens, and rugs. I find that professional estate sale managers usually have better-run sales than those cobbled together by overstressed adult children.

There’s also a ton of websites dedicated to estate sales, such as,,, and You can sign up for alerts when a sale is listed in your neighborhood. Keep an eye out, though, for people who don’t seem to know what “estate” means and will use it to refer to their 3-box garage sale. You can also Google “estate sale” and then your state or city to find professional estate sale managers in your area in order to get on their lists.

At the sale, I recommend bringing your own bag, like a large reusable grocery bag. While you’re walking around the house, you can take a look at all the items and their respective prices. Since you’ll pay at the end, stick anything you like into your bag. If you decide later you don’t want it, put it back (or just put it down). If you find something large or heavy that you want but can’t carry around, ask the organizer if you can leave it by her table while you shop. Most of the time help is not available to move heavy items, so if you’re in the mood for a concrete statue, you better bring a friend. If you have your eye on a large piece of furniture, you can usually pay for it and then return with a truck later in the day. Many professionals take checks, but I’ve never seen one take credit cards, so bring cash.

Should you haggle? You can always try, although many estate sale managers won’t do it until later in the day or after the sale. My favorite professional says that prices are not negotiable until the sale’s posted hours are over, and then people can make offers. Don’t make embarrassingly low offers (like 10% of the price), but you can ask if they’d be willing to take X amount for that sofa if no one takes it by the end of the sale. Most of the time the posted prices are low enough that I don’t bother.

I also like picking up Christmas and birthday presents at estate sales as part of my stress free holiday shopping. Many times there are mint-condition DVDs or books, and it’s always fun knowing you picked up the most beautiful antique jewelry box for your grandmother while simultaneously knowing that you paid only $5 for it. Make a list of all the people you need to buy Christmas presents for this year, and when you see something new and still in its wrapper, or something out of the ordinary or striking, mentally run over that list and see if you think it would be a great gift for one of those people. However, don’t get too caught up in getting presents on a shoestring – you don’t want to end up looking like you rushed out to the dollar store the day before the holiday or birthday, even if you spent all year picking these items up. The most important thing is to get presents that are appropriate and thoughtful, not presents that immediately let everyone know you got them cheaply.

Things that make great gifts at estate sales:

  • Decorative items like jewelry boxes, picture frames, or collectibles
  • Jewelry (but beware of costume jewelry, which frequently doesn’t age well)
  • Actual antiques
  • DVDs, books, CDs, or records
  • Framed art or sculptures

Outside of antiques, don’t give as gifts items that have obviously been used, such as clothing. Outside of the gift-giving strategy, estate sales can also be a great way to stock up your own home.

Kitchen items and tools are my favorite items to shop for at estate sales. I’ve bought tons of items that are in good condition, and I usually buy items for that I could never have purchased at full price, like an enormous stockpot for defrosting a turkey. As part of my effort to save on gardening tools, I buy most of my long-handled yard tools at estate sales since it hardly matters whether a shovel is five years old or twenty-five years old. Also, if the deceased had a hobby that you share, you can get great deals on hobby tools and accessories, or get that Cabbage Patch doll that you’re missing in your collection. (Interesting fact: A lot of sales that I’ve been to have Cabbage Patch and Beanie Babies, for some reason.)

Your timing may also be crucial – many estate sales start on a Thursday or Friday, so if you can’t get there on the first day you may miss some great stuff. However, on the flip side, some professionals will have discounts on the final days of the sale.

Don’t forget the most important frugal rule of them all – don’t buy it if you don’t need it or it costs too much, even if it’s free! You’ll get the best value from estate sales if you stick to items you would have purchased anyway. Happy sale hunting!

What has your experience been with estate sales?

(photo credit: Eastlake Times)