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How to Find the Best Deals at Estate Sales & Auctions – How They Work


Regardless of where you live, there’s a good chance that somewhere nearby, an estate sale is taking place. That means there are likely great bargains available.

Estate sales and estate auctions are some of the best places to find great deals on used (and sometimes new) furniture, kitchenware, appliances, art, collectibles, tools, household goods, vehicles, jewelry, and even homes. And though there are tremendous deals to be had, that doesn’t mean everything is a bargain. If you want to find the best deals at an estate sale or an estate auction, you must take the time to better understand what they are and how they work.

Estate Property

The word “estate” is a legal term that refers to either the property left behind after a person dies or the people who manage that property and determine what should be done with it. Often, the person managing the estate (called an executor, administrator, or personal representative) either sells the decedent’s personal property and uses the money to cover estate expenses, or distributes it as inheritances. (Estate sales and auctions also sell property of people who are still alive but who are moving, relocating, or want to liquidate their possessions.) Regardless of the reason, the property sold at estate sales or auctions is almost always sold as-is, with no warranties.

Estate property can include anything a decedent owned, but most commonly consists of personal items and household goods. In some situations, the estate sells titled property as well, such as cars, boats, or even real estate. When you buy property at an auction or at an estate sale, you own it, warts and all – you cannot under any circumstance return it for a refund if you later decide you don’t want it.

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Sales vs. Auctions

There are three main ways that estate administrators dispose of estate property: distribute it as inheritances, use it to pay estate debts, or liquidate it through an estate sale or auction.

While estate sales and auctions accomplish the same goal of liquidating and disposing of the estate property, they do so in different ways. Before you go to either a sale or an auction, you should have some idea of what to expect.

Estate Sales

Often, an estate sale is similar to a garage sale, though there may be some differences. Some estate sales are run privately by the relative of the decedent, while others are run by professional estate sale companies. The sale typically takes place in the decedent’s home or surrounding property, and may run for two or three days, with the seller commonly discounting items on the second and third days. Estate sale companies always accept cash, and frequently accept check or credit card payments as well. However, family-run sales may only accept cash.

Each item sold at an estate sale typically has a price listed on it. Once the sale begins, you simply take any item you would like to purchase and pay the list price to the person running the sale. Some items may be identified as “not for sale,” while entire parts of the house may be off-limits. Otherwise, anything you see is typically for sale.

If an item doesn’t have a price listed, you can either ask the people running the sale how much they’d like for it or you can make an offer. In fact, you are free to make offers on any items, which the seller is free to accept, reject, or counter. If you want to buy a large item, such as a piece of furniture, you should be able to simply present the tag to the buyer (instead of the item itself). Furthermore, you can request to leave items at the front desk or sales area if you wish to retrieve additional items.

Once you make a payment, it is your responsibility to take your items away. Remember, while those who are running the estate sale may help you load larger items into your vehicle, it is not guaranteed – so be sure to have adequate help to cart away anything that is bulky or heavy. Also, do not expect any estate sale company to ship items to you. While you may possibly come to such an agreement, they are under no obligation to ship any item, and you are not allowed to leave items in the home to pick up at a later date.

Estate Sale Auction

Estate Auctions

An estate auction involves an auction company and a set time and place in which the estate property will be auctioned. In many cases, the estate hires an auction company that either travels to the home to organize the items and hold the auction there, or transports the property to an auction house where the auction will take place.

Unlike estate sales, auctions do not include list prices with the items being sold. Also, at an auction, a buyer’s or bidder’s premium is added to each item sold, typically as a percentage of the final price. For example, if an auction has a 10% buyer’s premium and you win an item for $300, the total price will be $330, and state or local sales taxes may also apply.

Typically, prior to bidding on items at an auction, you need to register with the auction house. To register, you must have some kind of identification, such as a driver’s license, and you may be required to provide a credit card.

Once registered you are given an individual auction number, typically on a piece of paper or paddle. Always hold onto that number, and don’t let others have it. If you lose it and someone uses it to bid on an item, you may be held responsible for paying, even if you didn’t want the item and the other person takes it home.

During the auction, if you want to bid on an item, you must make a gesture – hold up your number or paddle to indicate to the auctioneer that you would like to bid. If the auctioneer accepts your bid and no one raises the bid, you win that item.

Auctioneers sell each item using one of several different ways, or with one or more conditions. Sometimes the auctioneer explains what each of these ways or terms mean before the auction begins, but in other auctions, it is your responsibility to know.

Here are several terms you should know:

  • Absolute Items. Most estate auction items sell absolutely, regardless of the final price. When selling absolute items, the auctioneer opens the bidding by stating an asking price. If you want to bid that price you can. If no one bids, the auctioneer will decrease the asking price, and will continue to do so until someone bids. After there’s a bidder, the auctioneer will start taking higher bids. If no one bids higher than the most recent bid, the auctioneer will sell the item to the high bidder.
  • Reserve Prices. An item with a reserve has a specific value that the auctioneer keeps secret from the bidders. Regardless of the price at which the auctioneer begins the sale, or how high the bidding goes, the auctioneer will only sell the item if it reaches or exceeds the reserve price. In some situations, auctioneers inform bidders that the item has a reserve price. Other times, they may not.
  • Minimum Bids. A minimum bid is a lot like a reserve in that the auctioneer will not sell the item for less than the set minimum amount. Minimum bids are typically known to the bidders, and though the price increases if people bid over the minimum bid amount, the item will never sell for less.
  • Choice Bids. Usually, choice bids apply to multiple similar items, or multiple items in a defined area. When you are the high bidder on a choice bid, you can take as many items from the lot as you want, and each is priced at the winning bid. For example, say a box of 20 vintage watches come up for bidding and the auctioneer calls a choice bid. You place a bid of $30 and win. You can choose as many of the watches that you want, paying $30 for each one you select. After you make your selections, the auctioneer may allow other bidders to choose to take watches at the $30 price, or may open a new round of bidding.
  • Single Price or One Money Bids. The opposite of a choice bid is a single price, or “one money” bid. Single price bids often follow choice bids, and are used to dispose of the remaining items that the winning bidder of a choice bid didn’t select. So in the box of 20 vintage watches example, let’s say that you won the initial bid at $30 and chose two watches. Afterward, the auctioneer opened the bidding again and the next person won the bidding at $20, taking six of the remaining watches. Now, with 12 watches left, the auctioneer sells the box at “one money,” which ends with a winning bid of $50. The winning bidder takes the remaining 12 watches, paying $50 for the entire lot.

At the conclusion of the auction (or once you decide to leave), take your number to the checkout area, pay the amount you owe, turn in your number, and take the items you’ve won. Most auctions accept cash, check, or credit card, but some may limit payment methods. Some auction houses are willing to ship, hold, or transport items for you, but may charge a substantial fee.

Factors Estate Auction

Various Factors of Sales and Auctions

While there are deals to be had at estate sales and auctions, you have to be careful. Unlike retail stores, there are no returns and you don’t get any guarantees. You buy everything at your own risk, and you have to be aware of the risks before you agree to anything.

At minimum, know what you are looking for and how much you are willing to pay any time you go to an estate sale or auction. Researching items you’re interested in before you bid or buy is essential – eBay is a good starting point. Input the name of the item you’re looking for and then filter for “sold” items. You may not get a lot of results for rare, large, or difficult-to-ship items, but recent sales can give you a general idea of the current market price.

If you go to a sale and find an item at or below your price estimate, then you can feel confident in making that purchase, as long as the item is of similar quality. However, if an item is priced higher than you are willing to pay, or if you are not sure it’s a good deal, it may be best to pass. Then again, if you are in the market for a specific, hard-to-find piece and it sells for a slightly higher price than you had anticipated, you may not get a chance to buy it again for a long time.

Be sure to inspect each item for flaws, damage, defects, or signs of forgery. If you are unsure an item is genuine or in usable condition, factor that into your value estimate and weigh it against your risk tolerance. Some questionable items may prove to only need some simple cleaning or an easy fix, but you have to determine whether you’re willing to take the risk.

Experienced attendees of estate sales and auctions frequently develop their own strategies to get the best deals. As you go to sales or auctions and craft your own strategy, there are several factors you should consider.


  • Professional-Run Sales vs. Family-Run Sales. There can be significant differences in estate sales run by professional companies and those run by families of the deceased. There can be some great estate sale deals found at sales run by the decedent’s family, but estates with a large quantity of valuable property typically hire companies to run the sale for them. Amateur sales typically are not heavily advertised and the family may have done little to no research on the values of individual items. Family-run sales may also be more open to accepting lower offers, especially on the first day of the sale. Professional sales, on the other hand, are usually well-advertised and well-organized. Professional companies research item values and price items accordingly, though usually no higher than market price. Professional companies also have reputations and histories, and estate professionals may seek out specific companies because they are experts at pricing and selling valuable goods.
  • Market Price vs. Below-Market Price. There is little licensing or regulatory oversight when it comes to estate sale companies, and you’ll find a wide range of business practices and strategies. For example, some companies list items below market value as a way to build a following and attract more people to the sale, generating more revenue by selling more items. Other companies list prices at or near market price, taking more revenue from higher average sale prices. Some companies are great at identifying market value, while others still may lack the necessary experience or research skills to properly price individual pieces. Identifying which company uses which strategy, or which company under-prices certain types of items, can be rewarding.
  • Online Advertising. Many estate sales are advertised via Craigslist or Scanning through posted photos and researching the value of the items you’re interested in can help you determine whether any good deals are available. You can also find the websites of individual estate sale companies to research future auctions or find items that may be listed or pictured on the company site but not identified in advertisements.
  • Newspaper Advertising. Many family-run sales do not advertise online, but do advertise in the local newspaper’s classified ad section. Though you may not know whether these sales have much to offer, they may not be well attended and could offer better opportunities to find hidden gems.
  • Early Birds. Many veteran estate sale goers show up early to a sale and wait in line for the doors to open. These buyers also research the sales and identify particular items they want to buy, going straight to those items as soon as the sale begins. Experienced buyers might also bring large bags so they can go through the house as quickly as possible, grabbing items of interest along the way. Once they’ve seen enough and grabbed the interesting items, they review their selections and buy what they want to keep, returning the rest.
  • Latecomers. An alternative to the early bird strategy is the latecomer strategy. If you want to buy estate sale items for the lowest price, going to the sale late on its final day is usually the best way to do so. The estate sale company is more likely to accept low offers on any remaining items on the last day, and especially in the final hours. However, the best items are usually long gone by the time the sale is ending. So while you can get low prices, the items available may not be very desirable.
  • Boxes and Clutter. Homes with a lot of items are often too full of stuff for even an estate sale company to research and price everything. Boxes of stuff found in basements, attics, or anywhere else can be a good source for hidden items that are otherwise overlooked. Just be prepared to make a reasonable offer on anything you find if it doesn’t have a price.
Auction Bid Price


  • Auctioneer Chant or Patter. The busier, louder, and more exciting an auction is, the more likely bidders will give into the excitement and bid more than they should or had planned to. One key part of building this excitement is the auctioneer’s patter or chant. You’ll routinely hear auctioneers use distinct voices that may be fast, monotone, rhythmic, or sing-songy. Auctioneers may use filler words or sounds so there are no auditory pauses between bids, or use helpers in the crowd to cheer or yell when new bids come in. This is designed to overwhelm you and compromise your judgment – so when you first go to an auction, allow yourself some time to listen to the auctioneer and learn his patterns so you aren’t caught up in the excitement.
  • The Bid and the Ask. The two key pieces of information to listen for from an auctioneer are the bid and the ask prices. The auctioneer starts with an amount, called the ask. Once someone bids, the auctioneer will call a new amount (the new ask) and may also repeat the amount previously bid. The lower number (the bid) is the current price, while the higher (the ask) is the amount the auctioneer will accept from the next bidder. If you choose to bid you can raise your number, motion, or otherwise indicate that you want to bid the new ask price. You can also bid an amount greater than the ask by stating your bid aloud; however, you can never offer an amount lower than the current bid. Some (though not all) auctioneers accept an amount lower than the ask, just as long as it is higher than the bid.
  • Advertising. Like estate sales, many auctioneers create a bill that lists the auction’s contents for distribution to local public places. Others advertise online via their websites or through sites such as or Craigslist. Like estate sales, the better an auction is advertised, the more opportunity you have to research available items. Of course, this also means you may have more competition.
  • Previews. Previews allow you to look through auction items before the auction begins, and can be a great way to evaluate the quality of items or to determine whether you want to attend an auction at all. You may even discover items the auctioneer did not clearly identify in advertising.
  • Shill Bidders. A shill bidder is someone who isn’t interested in actually buying an item, but who, on behalf of the auctioneer or estate, bids on items to artificially inflate prices. Reputable auction houses don’t allow shill bidders but they are always a possibility. Since spotting a shill bidder is difficult, determine how much you are willing to bid before bidding begins, and do not exceed that amount. This is the best way to protect yourself.
  • Phantom Bidders. In the fast-paced environment of an auction, it can be difficult to tell who is bidding. Particularly unscrupulous auctioneers may take advantage of this, pretending that someone is bidding in order to artificially inflate bids. This type of practice can be difficult to spot, as some people make only minimal gestures when bidding and auction crowds can be large. Like shill bidding, the best way to protect yourself against phantom bidders is to not bid above your predetermined maximum price.
  • Bidding Wars. A bidding war is when two or more auction-goers are interested in an item and keep outbidding each other on it. Auctions can be exciting, and if you find yourself in a bidding war, you can quickly find the price far exceeding your value estimate and budget. When this happens, knowing when not to bid is essential.
  • Lonely Bidder. This is basically the opposite of a bidding war. If you’re lucky enough to be the only person at an auction who wants to bid on a particular item, you could walk away with it for practically nothing.
  • Online-Only Bidding. Many auction companies have started offering online-only auctions. In these auctions, anyone can place a bid through the auction company’s website. Once the auction closes, if you are the high bidder, you must pay the price you bid and then pick up the item at a specific time and date.
Online Only Bidding

Final Word

For the value-minded, the hard-to-please, or the treasure hunters looking for the hidden gold in forgotten junk, estate sales and auctions are some of the best places to find what you’re looking for – often at prices you cannot find elsewhere. Bits of history, precious artwork, rare collectibles, and any manner of ordinary items are available if you know where to look.

While going to an auction the first time can be nerve-wracking, and getting in early at an estate sale can be an exercise in cutthroat competition, the deals are available if you’re adventurous and prepared.

Have you ever found an incredible deal at an estate sale or auction? What was your strategy?

Mark Theoharis is a former attorney who writes about the intersection of law and daily life, covering everything from crime to credit cards. He mostly writes for legal publishers, marketing agencies, and law firms, but gets the occasional chance to publish fiction. When he is not writing, Mark restores vintage and antique typewriters, though his editors have made it quite clear that typed submissions are strictly prohibited.