Tips for Shopping at Estate Sales

Photo: Luke Larsson

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.

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Guest's picture
Guest in CA

Timely for me! I went to an estate sale this past weekend & snagged 2 crazy-comfortable, perfect condition leather side chairs for less than the price of one new kitchen-type chair. They are the finishing touch in our living room.

For estate sales I also select based on location (i.e., nicer and/or more established older neighborhoods), as I don't have much tolerance for foraging through a lot of discount-store sourced items. Usually the ones being run by an estate sale company are better organized and have better items, even if there's a small price premium.

Camilla Cheung's picture

Ohhh...I LOVE vintage leather. I see a lot of leather chairs at estate sales and always want to pick one up, but alas I have no room in my living room for them.

That's a great tip about choosing based on location. I've definitely found that the neighborhood makes a big difference in the types of items available.

Camilla Cheung's picture

Have you ever found an amazing deal at an estate sale that you'd like to share?

Guest's picture

I've found that estate sales are a great place to find tools. I always check the garage or shop first thing when I get to an estate sale.

And yes, neighborhood is often a good indicator of the quality of items you might find.

Guest's picture

Hi Camilla,
My wife and I go to yard sales, garage sales and estate sales every weekend. We don't go just to buy stuff but rather things that we need.

It's amazing what kind of bargains that we can find at these places. Makes me not want to pay retail anymore.

Camilla Cheung's picture

Hi Justin! I agree! The best thing is, things that were made in the 60s and 70s are usually so much better quality than stuff that is manufactured nowadays. Why would you pay for new junk to be created, when the old stuff works better?

Guest's picture

What about hauling things away... is it presumptuous to bring a U-haul with you to an estate sale?

Guest's picture

Great tips. I agree with "Don't overlook diamonds in the rough." I recently found an old dusty Lawman Thermos (1961) buried away on a shelf in a basement. I paid $2 for it and resold it for $32. I usually try to find a few things at the sale that I can resell to cover the cost of the goodies that I want to keep. I am huge fan of estate sales and recently started a discussion forum where people talk about the finds, post pics, etc. Check it out if you like estate sales:

Guest's picture

i'm so glad to find a kindred spirit when comes to estate sales. I love going with friends but I always have to remind them that not everything is a good deal, etc.