Top 10 Tips for Navigating an Estate Sale

Article by Trim Design Co.

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It’s fall! And fall is a fantastic time of year for estate sale sleuthing! So we’re sharing our top ten tips to help you get the most out of your next estate sale adventure.

1. Sometimes It’s Best To Go It Alone...

First things first: Do NOT bring anyone to an estate sale who does not want to go to an estate sale. You're just asking for misery. Unfortunately, I speak from experience. Take my advice and don't pull the 'ole, "Honey, do you mind if we just swing by that estate sale on Robert Lane on our way to the grocery store? It'll only take a minute..."


  1. It will not take a minute. Never. Ever.

  2. The estate sale is (most likely) not actually "on the way to the grocery store."

  3. It's never fun to have someone breathing down your neck (or honking the horn from the car) when you're knee-deep sifting through those fantastic vintage Christmas ornaments in an attic somewhere.

  4. Reluctant spouses (or worse yet, squirmy children) = immediate estate sale buzz kill

If, on the other hand, you have an amazing friend like I do who LOVES estate sales (you know who you are out there Mrs. H...!), then by all means, bring her along. Because when you have a partner in crime it makes the hunt all the more fun. And in the end, when you emerge from that basement smelling faintly of mildew carrying a large dusty canvas, it's your friend who pulls you back to reality. You may be convinced you've just found the finest piece of artwork this side of the Louvre (it would look perfect in your living room, right?), but one shake of your friend's head says it all. You realize you've had your 'estate sale goggles' on: The allure of getting a good deal has blinded you. And that piece of artwork? Well, it is pretty hideous, and there's a reason it's been gathering cobwebs in the musty old basement all these years. Thank goodness your friend came along.

So, with that important piece of advice out of the way, I'd like to share 9 more of my top tips to help you get the most out of this estate sale season. Let's get started!

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2. Estate Sale vs. Yard Sale

While we're all familiar with a yard sale, an estate sale is different. At an estate sale, typically an outside company has been charged with selling the entire contents (or close to it) of a home, perhaps because the homeowner has passed away or moved into assisted living, or perhaps the homeowners are simply downsizing and want to unburden themselves from all their “stuff.” An estate sale is typically held inside the house. Certain rooms might be off-limits, but mainly you’ll be able to meander around as you like.

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3. Email Notifications

Sign up for email notifications from these two sites: Estate Sales and Estate Sales. You can sign up to receive notification of sales within a desired mile radius on a daily or weekly basis. Although there is quite a bit of overlap, I like to sign up for both because I find that this Estate Sales site includes smaller sales run by individuals or lesser-known companies. Often items are priced more competitively at these types of sales. This Estate Sales site highlights some of the grander sales and auctions (fun to go to even just to see the real estate!).

Most sellers now post photos of sale items  (often far in advance). This is wonderful because you can preview the goods and decide if it's a sale worth your while. Unfortunately, there is no pricing information available ahead of time.

Definitely sign up to be notified on Thursdays. This is when all the sales are posted for that coming weekend and photos are updated.

Estate Sales also recently added an online "marketplace" similar to Craigslist. You can search for specific items for sale in your region that may not have sold at the actual estate sale. Prices are included. I haven’t really delved into this new feature yet.

4. Make a Friday Plan (if you can)

I know it may not always be possible, but if you're able to get to a sale you really want to go to on Friday, DO IT. Most sales run Friday and Saturday, some run Sunday as well. Even if you get there at exactly 8 a.m. when the doors open on Friday, don't be surprised if some things already have 'sold' signs on them. I have a sneaking suspicion antiques dealers get first dibs and early shopping rights at many sales. It can be frustrating, but you just have to accept that the amazing item you saw online may already be gone. Don't fret, there are still treasures to be had.

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5. Read the Fine Print (or bring cash)

Most estate sales I've attended now allow you to pay by credit card, but always check to be certain before you go. Many companies will not accept a personal check. Companies usually include payment details in the sale listing, but if it's not clear to you, be on the safe side and bring cash. And there is a benefit to using cash even if it might be less convenient than a credit card: It will prevent you from making too impulsive a purchase! Do you really need that chaise lounge for your patio even though you have nowhere to store it off-season?

6. Bring Bags, Blankets, and Boxes

Once you've honed in on a sale, it makes sense to go prepared. You just never know when that perfect purchase might come along. Clear out the trunk of the car, put the back seats down, and throw in some recyclable tote bags, a blanket (in case you get something fragile), and a couple of cardboard boxes if you have them.

If the company running the sale allows it, I usually bring a couple of bags in with me and leave everything else in the car. Often, however, bringing in bags is prohibited. This is to prevent people from pocketing items without paying. If that's the case and you end up seeing quite a few things you might like to purchase, ask whoever is working a certain room (there's usually at least one worker per room keeping tabs on things) if you might stash your potential buys in a corner and put a "sold" sign on them. There's always the small risk that another shopper might walk off with them, but it's better than lugging a porcelain Chinese fishbowl planter and down a crowded stairwell while you hunt (case and point below):

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7. Sign in!

If you're headed to a popular sale, don't be surprised to see a line of people winding out the door. This is especially true if you get there before the sale opens. Estate sale sleuths ALL get there early. Don't be intimidated and don't let them push you around. And believe me, some people can be very pushy. But the vast majority are just like you and are simply excited to sift. Sometimes there's even a fun sense of camaraderie in the wait.

Be sure to make your way to the front of the line first thing to see who's running things. If you just stand at the back of the line without adding your name to the list, you might be out of luck. You have to advocate for yourself--get up there, ask if there is a sign in, and make sure you get your name on it. It can get kind of chaotic at times, and you want to make sure the time you’ve invested isn’t wasted.

Sales will be set up differently, but you may need to write your name on the list and get a number from the sellers. Either that or they'll just read out your names when the doors open.

The sellers don't want a stampede in the home, so they'll let in a portion of people at a time. Usually, the line moves quickly. Another way to avoid the line altogether is to show up a bit later--for me, 10:15 a.m. on a Friday seems to be the Golden Hour: The mad rush of the morning has hit a lull, and you have the run of the roost. Sure, you may have missed out on some choice items, but the atmosphere inside will be much more relaxed.

8. Don't rule out Saturday or Sunday afternoon--let the haggling begin!

Just because you may have missed the first day of a sale, don't let it get you down. Sellers won't budge on prices that first day anyway and deals may not be all that good. If you hold out until the last day of the sale, and that super special set of brass candlesticks is still calling your name, GO AFTER IT! Get your best haggle on and get those candlesticks for what you think you deserve! Because by this point in the game, sellers want to move whatever they can. Sometimes I'll go to a local sale twice. Prices on Sunday can be half what they were on Friday, and you can still successfully haggle from that half-price point.

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Inspect items closely. You can haggle on the price, even on day one, if you notice the piece is damaged. The blue and white garden stool pictured below has a crack in the bottom. It doesn't compromise the piece in any way, but I was able to get it for half-off the asking price when I pointed the crack out to the sellers!

9. Head to the Attic (and the basement)!

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When I arrive at a sale and there's one specific piece I really want to get my paws on, I beeline it directly to where I think it's located in the house. But, if I'm just perusing, I usually do a quick walk through the main rooms to make sure I don't miss anything really good on my first run through, and then I head to the attic. You'll sometimes be pleasantly surprised by what you'll find up there (and things in the attic are typically priced very inexpensively). My favorite thing to hunt for: vintage Christmas ornaments. Shiny Brite is a company that made glass ornaments in the 1940s-1960s. If you're lucky enough to come across some, you'll soon appreciate how beautifully they catch the twinkling lights on your tree, and how they add a rich, eclectic layer to your tree's design.

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10. More Fun things to Find

Other items to keep your eyes peeled for when you're on the hunt:

  • Lamps. You can always update an unfashionable shade

  • Mirrors. I have seen so many great mirrors at sales--I feel like everyone is trying to get rid of their mirrors! Mirrors you buy today at home decor stores are lightweight and poorly made. Old mirrors are usually beautiful. You’ll know it’s a piece worth considering if it’s HEAVY, has beveled glass, and a nice frame.

  • Artwork. Buyer beware, but I have found some pieces I really love--like the James Birdsey watercolors pictured below.

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  • Frames. Even if you don't love the art inside, nice frames can be pricey, so if you see one you like, pick it up. You can always get a mat to fit the frame and use smaller art in it.

  • Planters (indoor and out)

  • Candlesticks, trays, trivets. Small items that are so fun to have when entertaining, but that you hate to spend much money on. They’re also terrific for mantels and bookshelves.

  • China, bowls, glassware. My husband's grandparents collected Shelley china and would gift it to family members each Christmas. I love having an eclectic mix of these delicate teacups and saucers. Shelley can be hard to find and fairly expensive at sales, but be sure to sift through the kitchen and china cabinet for other beautiful less expensive treasures. And you never know, there might be some Shelley in the mix!

  • Wood furniture. Often vintage furniture is of much better quality than what you'll find made today, and adding a piece here or there gives your home an unexpected pop of personality.

  • Book Shelf Objets. Let's face it, it's hard to style a bookshelf! You can find all sorts of interesting things at estate sales to help you artistically fill your shelves: lacquered boxes, baskets of all shapes and sizes, small sculptures, items picked up on world travels... (some of these work double duty for storing clutter too!)

  • Coffee Table Books: I cannot have enough coffee table books for styling tables and shelves. When you stack a couple of them on a coffee table, they create just the right perch for a small sculpture or planter.

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When I look around my home today, I can point to at least three items in each room that I've picked up from estate sales. The origin of these pieces span eras and the globe, yet they mingle comfortably with more modern things I own, creating a space that's rich in texture, color, and history. I wouldn't want it any other way

Now get out there and enjoy the hunt!

And be sure to let me know if you have any other good advice to add, or wonderful estate sale treasure to share. I'd love to hear from you!


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