Tips for Shopping at Estate Sales
I’m sure that as frugal shoppers, many of you enjoy thrifting and shopping at flea markets as much as I do. It is such a rush when you get a great deal on something that someone else doesn’t want, but you recognize as the treasure that it is. In addition to shopping at thrift stores, flea markets, and garage sales, I’d like to draw attention to the estate sale as a great way to get your shopping fix for cheap. (See also: 3 Proven Ways to Save Real Money at Garage Sales)
Estate sales differ from garage and yard sales in that when you go to a house for an estate sale, pretty much everything you see is for sale (unless set aside in a clearly marked area). Usually, the occupant of the house has passed away, or through other factors, is obliged to sell his/her belongings. The amount of sheer stuff at most estate sales can be overwhelming, but there are plenty of hidden treasures to be found.
I was at first intimidated by shopping at estate sales because of the tales of antique dealers lining up at 6:00 in the morning in order to get first dibs on the goods. There was no way I was going to be aggressive enough to compete for the good stuff with the real pros. A few estate sales later, the intimidation factor was gone, and a new hobby was born. If you’d like to try out this fun and rewarding activity, here are a few do's and don’ts to get you started.
Do look for estate sales ahead of time.
Search on Craigslist and in community listings. Don’t rely on driving around the neighborhood, as you’ll probably arrive too late in the morning to get the good stuff.
Do get there early, but don’t stress yourself out if you’re not the first in line.
Most estate sales begin at 8:00 or 8:30 in the morning of a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, and the most hard-core shoppers are there at least half-an-hour before. But even if you get there at 8:30 or 9:00, there will still be plenty of stuff to look at. Most antique dealers and collectors, the most dedicated shoppers, are looking for something specific, so even if you get the second pickings, there will still be many items of interest. If you get there very early, you may have to take a number and wait your turn to go in.
Do bring cash.
This tip goes without saying, but there have been a few times when I’ve arrived at an estate sale only to realize I have just $10 in my pocket. Sometimes, if you see something you really love, the organizers of the estate sale may hold it for you while you go to the ATM, but there’s no guarantee this will be the case.
Do set a limit on your spending.
While you can get great deals for cheap, you don’t want to blow your monthly grocery budget.
Do have a few items in mind, but be open to others.
At an estate sale, there is so much to look at that you may feel overwhelmed, and having a few items in mind can help you to focus your search. However, be open to that perfect item that you may find while browsing.
Do be prepared for sticker shock.
Not everything at an estate sale is a good bargain, and often the prices can be higher than at typical thrift stores and garage sales. Keep in mind that the family or the owner of the items is looking to make some needed cash on the sale. If the sale is run by a company that specializes in organizing estate sales, prices will be higher as they want to make a cut of the money too. If it’s not a good deal, just don’t go for it.
Do consider coming on Sunday.
Usually, most of the best stuff is gone by Sunday (the second or third day of the sale), so prices are typically marked down by 50%. You’ll have to rummage, but you just might find that perfect, overlooked vintage dress in your size.
Don't buy for the sake of buying.
If you don’t see something you really like, don’t buy anything. There will always be another estate sale.
Don't overlook diamonds in the rough.
Just because it’s covered in a layer of dust doesn’t mean that colorful Pyrex bowl won’t be gorgeous when it’s cleaned up. Learn to look for the beauty underneath the dirt.
Don't buy something with flaws.
If something is broken, chipped, or otherwise flawed, it may not be reparable, or it may not be worth your while to repair it. Of course, there are exceptions, like the awesome Herman Miller lounge chair that just needs a few screws to be as good as new.
Don't be pushy.
It’s always annoying when shoppers in search of a deal are brusque and cutthroat. Be courteous. If someone is looking at something, it’s off-limits until they step away. It becomes especially important to be polite if the estate sale is crowded.
Don't be rude while haggling.
While there generally is a little room to discuss the price of an item, typically prices have been set at a level the organizers think is fair. If they’re not budging, let it go, and come back on Sunday when prices are lower and there’s more room for bargaining.
Estate sales are not just the domain of antique collectors and dealers anymore — lots of regular people are finding hidden gems. It’s a great way to give new life to an unwanted item, to reduce the amount of new junk that gets manufactured, and to save yourself a penny or two as well.