What I Learned From Selling My Own Stuff at an Estate Sale

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A group of dishes at a yard sale.
Twee Art
Estate sales aren't just for dead people -- there are many other fine reasons to call in the experts at turning used stuff into cash. Maybe you're downsizing like I am, or you want to make some money and simultaneously clear out some clutter -- or maybe "Hoarders" is begging to film you. Whatever your story, here's how to hold an estate sale (or shop at one).

Setting Up an Estate Sale

In one sense, an estate sale is basically a glorified yard sale with more stuff and better advertising. But don't try to do it yourself -- an estate sells takes a lot of labor, some of it more specialized than you might think, so contract with a company. Look for listings on estatesales.net (also a good way to find estate sales to shop) and connect with a firm that has a longer track record and good reviews on Angie's List or other review sites. Most estate sales companies won't handle your sale if the goods aren't worth a minimum value -- often $10,000 or more.

If your sale is accepted, an evaluator will look over your belongings and write up a contract. The commission and set-up fees can run 30 percent or more of proceeds to advertise and run the sale, plus contacting collectors if you have specialized items.

I hired a company that has been in business for 40 years. I was advised to lock away anything I didn't want sold -- and I mean anything, from framed children's artwork to the toothpaste tube on the sink -- or mark it "NFS " (not for sale) with blue masking tape. Several weeks after my evaluation, a crew of eight came out and went through my house top to bottom, pricing, organizing and setting up displays. By the end of the day, my house looked like a three-story department store.

I highly recommend being available on set-up day. It helped for me to be on hand to answer questions ("Are there more pieces to this collection?"), provide interesting backstories for some items (it apparently helped my company sell some photographic equipment), share the prices I had found on eBay (EBAY) for comparable pieces, and -- vital -- make sure things you don't want sold are held in a place inaccessible to the public. Also, as unpaid manpower, I helped clear out a room to display high-end items.

Get Out of the House

On the day of the sale, though, I left the house early. Like real estate brokers, estate sale staff advise owners to be away when potential buyers arrive. Customers can be extremely snarky about items that means a great deal to you. Who needs to hear that? I only came home to sleep, shower and make the bed ready for another day of the sale.

On the second day, everything was discounted by 25 percent -- except for items that had minimum prices, such as a few pieces of furniture I knew I'd rather keep than sell at too low a price to replace. On the third day, everything was discounted by 50 percent -- with the same minimum rule. If I had been getting rid of the contents of the entire house, I could also have contracted for a charity pickup or trash clean-out for a fee -- a rather substantial fee -- so I opted out of those.

I received a check for my share of the proceeds about two weeks later. It wasn't as much as I expected, and entire categories of items -- like tableware and clothes -- hardly moved at all. Books didn't sell briskly in this age of e-books. What people will buy and for how much can differ considerably from what you'd expect. You may see reviews online about estate sales from people complaining that their items were sold at bargain-basement prices. If you want top prices for what you're selling, you'll have to do some research, and likely sell the pieces online yourself, or go though an auction house and set minimum bids, instead of holding an estate sale.

And here are a few tips for shoppers:
  • Going early (shoppers lined up two hours before the sale began) is best for collectibles, and going early on the last day offers the best deals.
  • The estate sale company will usually only hold purchases until closing on the last day.
  • If you go to an estate sale in which the owners are moving rather than being deceased, household staples, kitchen equipment and sofas will likely go with them.
The Upshot

All that said, it can be a wrenching experience to sell your things for less than you expect -- or see them not sell at all. My own experience was fairly good. Comic books, records, photo equipment and some furniture (but not the antiques, surprisingly) moved out the door in the first few hours, according to the nightly email reports I got from the company.

I was paid quickly, but because not as much sold as expected, the company took out its minimum cut, which ended up to be almost half of the proceeds. I was still left with a large amount of stuff, most of which moved with me to my new, smaller home, or was carted off to the Salvation Army.

If you don't have the time to run multiple yard sales, trundle everything off to auction, or put up individual items on eBay, an estate sale may be your best option for cleaning out a house fast. In my case, I was left with more than I had hoped for, but tomorrow is another day -- for my own yard sale.
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