How Estate Sales Work

All kinds of items can be offered at an estate sale, from valuable antiques to average household possessions.
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Most people have too much stuff, and gradually, they get rid of old possessions to make room for the new, perhaps by donating them to a charity or holding a garage sale. But what about getting rid of a whole house full of items all at once? Most of us have to do it at some point, usually when a family member dies. The process can be overwhelming, but there are professionals who can help you organize an estate sale and sell all these items efficiently.

Estate sales are similar to auctions. Though they're usually held after someone dies, they can also be necessary because of long-distance moves, divorce and bankruptcy. Whatever the reason, estate sales can be a good way to pay off debt or make money off unwanted possessions. For the shopper, they're often a great place to find bargains, antiques, and unusual items.


Estate sales are also known as tag sales in some places. They're different from garage sales, though, because they're usually run by a professional company, and the goal is to sell all the items remaining in the home. In most estate sales, the public is invited into the house and can browse through everything there. The prices are generally clearly displayed on the items, but it's often possible to bargain for lower prices.

This article will tell you what you can expect from an estate sale, how companies manage estate sales, and how to plan one yourself. Read on to find out exactly how estate sales are conducted.


Items for an Estate Sale

If you have small valuables for sale, estate sale managers will often bring their own display cases to present your items in a secure and professional way.
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Every estate sale is unique. Usually a wide range of items is presented for sale -- furniture, clothing, appliances, linens, silver, china and other household items. Some estate sales feature expensive, one-of-a-kind items such as works of art, jewelry and antiques. Some may even have cars and boats.

Estate sales are usually run by an auctioneer or a professional estate sale agent. These people take a percentage of the total earnings of the estate sale as payment, typically between 25 and 35 percent. The agents put a lot of work into the sale, assessing the value of items, organizing them for display and making sure everything runs smoothly when potential buyers arrive. They're generally also responsible for clearing out the house at the end of the sale and leaving everything clean and tidy.


If you have expensive or specialized items in your sale, an agent's expertise can be invaluable for determining an appropriate price. Good estate sale agents have connections or brokerage sources, who are experts in selling fine art, collectables, jewelry and other valuables. You can trust that the sale managers will try hard to sell your items, because the more money you make, the more money they make. The managers will also take care of publicizing the sale -- advertising in newspapers and online, and putting up signs in the neighborhood.

How a sale is run depends on the policies of the company involved, but there are basic conventions that you can expect at any sale. If the manager has done a good job getting the word out, there will usually be a line of people when the sale opens.

What can you expect as a shopper? There is usually a first come, first serve policy, where people are admitted to the sale in the order they arrived. Estate sale etiquette dictates that people keep this order as they wander through the sale, so that the person who arrived first gets to look at everything first. People are allowed to mingle once they enter the sale, but you're responsible for knowing who was both ahead of you and behind you in the original line. If you leave the sale and return later, you have to go to the back of the line. Some estate sale companies use a number system. Starting at a specified time, they hand out numbers to people as they arrive. Once you receive a number, you don't have to wait in line, and can return when the sale opens.

During the sale, you can pick up small items you wish to purchase and take them to the checkout, and ask to have larger items marked as sold. It's possible to bargain or to make a bid if you don't want to pay the price on the tag. If you bid, you declare what you're willing to pay, as at a silent auction. If someone else is willing to pay more, you lose your claim to the item. Many estate sale companies only accept bids on items priced at $100 or more.

Read on to find out how to start planning an estate sale and how to find an agent you can trust.


Planning an Estate Sale

Some items can be worth a surprising amount of money, such as this vintage toy plane and antique trunk. Don't get rid of anything until an expert looks through the home.
David Evans/National Geographic/Getty Images

The first step in planning an estate sale is deciding whether or not to hire a company to manage the sale for you. Most people choose to do this, because organizing one on your own is an incredible amount of work. Major tasks include

  • making an inventory of all the items in the house
  • figuring out whether they should all go in the sale
  • finding out what fair prices would be for all the items
  • setting everything up so it looks professional
  • publicizing the sale
  • making sure everything runs smoothly and fairly
  • making sure no one steals anything

If you decide to hire a company, how do you find a good one? The Internet and the phone book are both good ways to find professional estate sale managers in your area, and most companies have a website where you can read all about them. Estate sale companies might also call themselves appraisal companies, which mean they're experts in knowing the value of items.


Before choosing a company, call around, comparing rates and services. Ask lots of questions, such as what they estimate you'll make from the sale, and what their policy is on any items left over at the end. If you have any valuable or rare items to sell, make sure the company has people with the right expertise to get you a fair price. Don't trust a company that doesn't answer all your questions directly, and instead refers you to the contract or their brochures.

To determine whether a company is reputable and professional, look for a few signs:

  • Any estate sale company should be licensed, which means they have legal authorization to provide their services.
  • Good companies are usually bonded as well. This is a form of insurance where a third party guarantees that the company will honor contracts and agreements. If the contract is broken, the third party (the bonding company) will pay you compensation.
  • A reputable estate sale company will also provide references upon request and feedback from previous clients about the quality of the company's service.
  • No company should charge you for the initial interview and inspection of the house.

When weighing the pros and cons of certain companies, don't automatically dismiss ones that charge a higher percentage than others. Choosing a company with a low percentage fee doesn't necessarily mean you will make more money. A company with better advertising and presentation is often much more successful at selling your items, though they probably charge a higher percentage.

When you've found a company you're happy with, make sure you get a contract that covers all the details you've discussed and that you understand everything in it before you sign. After this, you can relax and the company will manage all aspects of the sale.

For more information on estate sales, see the links on the next page.


Estate Sales FAQ

How does an estate sale work?
An estate sale is like a liquidation sale in which every asset in a house is converted into cash to settle a debt. It involves making an inventory of all the items in the house, setting prices, marketing and managing the sale.
What is the difference between an estate sale and a garage sale?
A garage sale involves selling unwanted household items to replace with new ones or for some extra cash. It’s typically done in a person’s driveway or garage and while the person is alive. An estate sale involves getting rid of all household items following the death of a family member, relocation, divorce or bankruptcy. Unlike garage sales, estate sales are typically managed by a professional company.
How does estate sale pricing work?
Most items on the inventory are priced according to their current market value or less. This includes furniture, appliances and clothing. However, many estates feature exclusive items that are not priced according to the market, including family heirlooms, art, jewelry and antiques.
Can you negotiate at an estate sale?
Estate sales are often a great opportunity for shoppers to find bargains. So, you can pick up items, take them to the checkout and negotiate the price. However, if someone else is willing to pay more for that item at the same time, you’re unlikely to win the bid.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Ellis-Christensen, Tricia. "What is an Estate Sale?" Wisegeek. 2003-2008. (5/7/08).
  • The Estate Sale Network. (5/7/08).;;;;;
  • Heirloom Estate Sales. 2008. (5/7/08).
  • RedOrbit news. "Woman Finds $3,000 in Garage-Sale Chair." 5/30/05. (5/8/08).