How Estate Sales Work

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.
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.