In the world of secondhand shopping, estate sales call for the most strategic playbook. The sales, popularized in recent years by TikTok, can be hit-or-miss, but they typically last just two to three days and take place in homes stocked with art, furniture, trinkets, and other furnishings—often at bargain prices.
At the very best estate sales, chances are high you'll be competing with seasoned designers, collectors, and antique dealers to find (and quickly claim) dust-covered, statement-making treasures. "Estate sales are an insider's game," says interior designer Katharine Rhudy of Reed & Acanthus in New Orleans, a city known for its epic and opulent estate sales. "Most estate sale companies have longstanding relationships with dealers, which give the average bargain hunter looking for that unique find a distinct disadvantage."
But don't let that intimidate you too much if you're new to estate sales. Follow some golden rules, like being courteous to the sales team and networking with them, and you can rise the ranks to insider status, Rhudy says. Also, "hesitation is death in the estate sale game, so be prepared to make quick decisions," she says.
Read on more tips on how to get an edge at estate sales, according to experts.
Look at the Photos Ahead of Time
Nearly all estate sale companies today post photos online showing each room and area of the house and details of the contents, says Elizabeth Bagwell, an antique and vintage dealer and a personal property appraiser specializing in art and antiques. "Study those photos closely and carefully," she says. "Zoom in on the photos—specifically tables set up with a large number of items—and you'll likely spy some hidden surprises." By studying the photos, you can narrow down the list of items you're most interested in and head straight to those rooms when you enter the sale, Bagwell says.
If there's an item listed or photographed that you're interested in but you can't tell where in the house it's located, contact the sales company beforehand to determine where the piece can be found, suggests Helaine Fendelman, a New York City–based fine arts appraiser. That's a subtle way to make friends and get your name on their radar too.
Get to the Sale Early
For the best selection, you're going to want to hit the sale early in the morning on the first day, says Willow Wright, owner of Urban Redeux Vintage in Alexandria, Virginia. "You can usually expect a line of people outside, and there's often a signup sheet to get into the house," she says. "If there is, just add your name and wait for it to be called." Sometimes numbers are handed out in the order of arrival, Fendelman says. Be prepared to wait—sometimes up to an hour. Ideally, you're one of the first 10 people to get through the doors.
Or Show Up Late
If you're not able to make it the first day, the next best time to shop is on the last day, especially if you're hoping to snag a bargain, Wright says. "While you may think it's been picked over, there's probably still a ton of great stuff left in the house," she says. In fact, this is when you're going to get the best deals. Prices are usually firm on the first day, Wright explains, but on the last day you can expect the remaining items to be marked down by as much as 50 percent off the initial price. Go by in the last hour or so, when they're hoping to clear as much out as possible, to find serious steals.
Bring a Friend
In addition to wearing comfy clothes and your best sprinting shoes, invite a friend to come along with you to help you move your finds to the "hold area." "Two people and four hands are a good idea," Fendelman says.
Know the Rules
Rules vary by estate sale, so knowing them up front will make shopping a more seamless experience. Some sales, for instance, will hand out "sold" stickers that you can place on the larger items you buy; others might require you to remove the price tag and promptly pay for the item you're interested in.
Consider Shopping Online Sales Too
Many estate sales moved online during the pandemic, and some companies decided to stick with digital sales. For online sales, many companies will post photos of the items prior to the sale going live as an auction or with a "buy it now" option. This allows you to do your research ahead of time and determine what's a good deal. You can also get ready to make a quick purchase. "With online sales, be sure and have your online shopping profile and payment ready to go so you can click 'buy it now' and get that designer sofa you've been eying at an excellent price," Bagwell says.
The downside of online sales, Wright says, is you might have to pay for shipping or show up to pick up items during limited time slots. "You also lose the ability to do any haggling," Wright says.
Become a Regular
It pays to become a regular customer with estate sale companies, Wright says, since they're typically more willing to work a deal if they know who you are. "You can also leave your name and phone number and a bid for an item that you're interested in," she says. "If no one has paid for it by the end of the weekend, you may be in luck."
Pay in Cash
While more and more estate sales accept Venmo and Zelle payments, it's still a good idea to have some cash on hand. Many sales don't take credit cards or checks, Wright says, or the estate sale company might charge you a 3 percent fee to swipe your credit card. If you want the best deal possible, bring cash.
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