Elizabeth Cook, Founder of Domino Media Group, design enthusiast and thrifter extraordinaire shares her best tips on navigating estate sales and how to find the hidden gems for your home.
This past year took a toll on just about every industry for better or worse. For the home industry, the vast majority of interior designers and manufacturers have never been busier. Lead times are pushed due to demand and shortage of particular products (i.e. foam). People are investing in their homes and ready to spend, but are not always prepared for the wait. If this is you, your best method to score that new sofa or breakfast table is at an estate sale. Not to mention, the pricing, and most often the quality, will be the best! Traditionally at auctions, the price goes up based on bids, but at an estate sale the price is clearly marked. Prices are estate sales are flat, with the ability to get discounted everyday an item sits there. This is one of the reasons there has been an major uptick in online estate sale auctions.
For years, I have combed through countless estate sales in-person. As such, I have really honed in on ways that others can save, too! Below are tips and tricks on what to look for, how to find it, when to go, and how to haggle among others.
Happy hunting and remember: these sales are a treasure trove, but you have to comb through the junk to find the gems! If you have any questions, comment below or please feel free to reach out to me over Instagram. I’m always happy to share any insight I can and I’d love to see your finds, too!
24 Best Tips & Tricks to Navigating Estate Sales
- To find estate sales in your area, download the Estatesales.net app on your phone or visit Estatesales.net online. Use the “find sales” search box to find relevant events near you. Input the best zip code in your city to be aware of what sales are happening when and where. The majority of estate sales are posted to EstateSales.net on Tuesday, addresses are typically available on Thursday mornings, and prices are usually slashed in half (50% off) on Sundays or on the last day of the sale.
- When playing on EstateSales.net online or via the app, edit your search to show sales within a 15 day time period and be sure your toggles for “estate sales, auctions, and others” are all enabled. You can save this search for weekly updates and save your “favorite” upcoming sales for easy access at a later date. I like to search for sales within a 10 mile radius of the zip code that I am focussing on, to help narrow it down. However, your preferred search radius may depend on the area you are searching as well as your time capacity.
- After a few months of using the EstateSales.net app or online, you will start to recognize who is organizing the nicer estate sales in your area. This is not always the case but is generally true. In Atlanta, the organizers whose physical sales I gravitate towards the most are VT estate sales and Shirley Wender / Litch Carpenter. Shirley is pushing 90 and looks like Lynn Wyatt.
- Get to know the people that run the physical estate sales in your city. If you do, they are more likely to keep you posted on sales, select items, news on future sales, and cut you deals for items esp. towards the end of sales.
- The address of a physical estate sale is made public the day before the sale occurs or on the morning of the first day. If you google the address, you can sometimes learn about the couple, their chosen decorator, and see additional photos inside of their home. This is a great way to try to get a sense of things prior to arriving, and gives you an idea of what rooms you may want to focus visiting first.
- You truly never know what you will find at estate sales, but sometimes, you can get a good idea within the first minute of walking in a home. One of the best houses I hit for an estate sale had beautiful Zubar panels in the entryway and I instantly knew the owner and I were kindred spirits in style. On the other hand, if you see beat-up boots at the front-door or dirty dishes in the kitchen sink – the house may be a short visit!
- If the house is good and you have done your research, go in with a plan of attack and bring a large tote for small misc. items! I have heard that select sale organizers, will not let you inside with a large tote but I have never run into this personally. A helpful item to always have in your tote bag is a tape measure.
- Demolition sales are organized by the same folks who do the estate sale and are great places to pick-up light fixtures, hardware, electronics, tile and even (surprisingly expensive) items like hardwood shelves. Know your needed measurements and befriend a local carpenter to help with any purchases or questions. I once saw a brand new looking Wolff oven for an absolute steal so I talked with a carpenter on-site who looked at my floor-plan and instantly told me it wouldn’t work in my kitchen without a major renovation. The steal then became a super-expensive indulgence and I had to walk away.
- Ditch the luxury mom mobile if you are pulling-up to a physical estate sale, and borrow your Aunt Linda’s truck if you are planning to negotiate. Furthermore, think more leggings and less Louboutins when you are planning to haggle the price of goods in-person. You can haggle throughout but are most likely not going to succeed until the second half of the last day of the sale.
- Cash in on deals and specials. All in-person estate sales generally discount 50% on the last day. Although most prefer the first day of an estate sale, I lean towards visiting on the last days. Most of the time pieces that I was interested in from the initial photos are still there and everything is that much more cost-friendly. What’s really fun is finding out the $5,000 (retail-priced) George Smith sofa you like is priced at $700 at the estate sale and then $350 on Sunday when you visit. The only exception, is if you are buying for a design client or store, I would consider attending on the first day so you have more flexibility.
- Whichever day you decide to ultimately visit, go early to be in the first group allowed inside. With the pandemic, most estate sale companies are limiting the number of shoppers inside of a house at any given time.
- Use the weather and season to your advantage! For example, if it’s off season in Palm Beach or downpour raining at your local physical estate sale–the better chance you have to score because you have less competition. The laws of supply and demand apply to just about everything in life but esp. to thrifting.
- Be resourceful! I used to own a PR firm and love energizing people around a product, service and/or event. At times, I have traded working hours for product. When we first moved into our prior home and our renovation budget was nonexistent, I worked the week of Christmas for a tile company that needed some PR assistance in exchange for our bathroom tiles. If you know of someone in your area who has beautiful things and a desire to sell them, offer to help them with an estate sale in exchange for a credit to shop items of your own. This is a win-win scenario for both parties!
- Extra hands help. Do not expect for the estate sale organizers to assist you to your car with your finds. You will need to coordinate your own delivery and/or bring your own muscle to move the heavy items. If an item purchased will not fit inside your car, ask the estate sale organizer for a list of their recommended movers. All organizers should have a printed preferred partner list. If their moving quotes seem high, I would recommend investigating further by doing a quick google search or reaching out to a design friend to find out who they like to use.
- I often travel to estate sales with a car that’s capable of pulling a trailer, if the need arises to quickly rent one. Renting a U-Haul trailer is extremely cost affordable. To rent a U-Haul truck, you are paying for the vehicle + gas. For anything that is a distance, the latter can cut into your overall savings!
- Know the market. Never ever buy china, silver, or crystal from a retail store! If you are like me and appreciate these items, you can find them for a steal at estate sales or in droves across the internet. If you are curious about the make or brand, look for a brand name etched. This is usually at the bottom esp. with silver. Do a quick google search to have a better idea of the going rate. Of note, if you see the price tag listed on sites such as 1stDibs be aware that there is a complete hierarchy to consignments. Although it is listed there for a large amount – you should not be paying anywhere close to that in-person at an estate sale.
- Shop smart, geographically speaking.As a general rule of thumb, estate sales and thrift stores in areas of higher average net-worth will have nicer items. This is not always always the case but if your time is tight, I would recommend swinging by these sales first. I have found that the pricing does not vary and if anything may surprisingly cost a little more in a smaller city / lower end homes. This is most likely because the owners in these locales are more motivated to realize a return of some sort on the sale. Estate sales in higher net worth areas or located in cities where second or third vacation homes are common are probably not as interested in making a profit off of their furniture. They most likely also invested in a high-end decorator when originally designing their home. This is a double win for you. Additional insider tip: Kofski’s estate sales in Palm Beach occur only in-season and are full-fledged fire sales from mansions on the island.
- Speaking of shopping geographically smart, right now hoards people are relocating from New York City. The furniture consignment market in the city currently has the highest supply of inventory and the lowest demand in recent history. No one is moving in to shop for these items and the folks in the truly nice homes are often times leaving their apartment or townhome as is for someone to come through and sell their belongings on their behalf so they do not have to return to the city or deal with the headache of selling these belongings. If you find yourself in the city, this is a great time to visit local thrift stores (Housing Works is my favorite) and local estate sales. If anything, it would be fun to see inside of some of these homes esp. if you are like me and love a good home tour!
- To negotiate on the price for items, I would recommend waiting until the last two hours of the sale on the last day and throw out a number that you feel the most comfortable with. You have to be prepared to let it go but more often than not, the person who is throwing the sale will be ready for the show to be over and will be flexible on pricing in an effort to get the larger items out / remove them from needing to deal with an alternate solution. If you don’t ask for what you want in life, it’s unlikely to ever happen. The same applies for estate sales- the worst someone can say is no.
- To find out if the items at your local estate sale are fairly priced, do a quick google search of any seen name brands and/or distinguishing features. This is one where truthfully the more you know about the design world, the better your eye will be trained to look for those brands or design styles that you know are valuable. If you do not know about an item but spot someone seemly well-dressed near you, it does not hurt to bounce things off of him or her. At an Atlanta sale, I did not know a fabric and asked the most stylish man in eye sight if he had an idea of the brand. He turned out to own a showroom at ADAC, our local decorating center, and offered me double on the spot to take it off my hands.
- You should not be paying anywhere close to a price you see listed online. The priced listed online will reflect a retail price either from an online store or second hand site such as Replacements.com. You are skipping the middle man and trade show so you should take an extra 50% – 70% whatever price you see online. If an item you find is not priced accordingly, you are not getting a deal. However, convenience and no shipping or delay time are all factors to consider when deciding!
- Bring cash and checks to avoid an extra credit card processing fee. If you are a designer or shop owner with a tax ID number, let them know for a small discount on your overall total.
- If you pick-up the sold ticket or write your name on one that is left, you are responsible for paying for that item. This is something that the more sales I go to the more conscious I am about as it is just common courtesy to the other shoppers.
- Half of the fun of attending estate sales is the ability to see inside other people’s home. You get such an idea about the homeowners: how they live, how they entertain, etc upon walking through. If you simply enjoy interiors and are fascinated by how people live within a space, estate sales are for you.
my best finds at physical sales
Two large Pierre Frey (Sans Papillons) paneled curtains and nine rolls of matching wallpaper that I stumbled across at a physical estate sale in Atlanta. I believe I paid $400 for the curtains and $10 a roll of the corresponding matching wallpaper. At the sale, I met a man who seemed knowledgeable and had a pair of amazing framed intaglios in his hand. I knew we were destined to be friends, or at least, I wanted to be his. I knew what I had found was nice but didn’t know how nice so I went up and introduced myself and showed him what I had. It turns out he was a well-known decorator and the owner of a great showroom at ADAC, our local decorating center in Atlanta. It would have been difficult to google to find the fabric designer right then. Don’t be afraid to approach others at the sale. He told me the designer, make, and offered me double the asking price to take off my hands right then.
A hand-painted screen scored on the last day of an estate sale in Atlanta for $75 and two large Brunschwig & Fils Carsten Check curtain panels for $150 in great shape.
A box of misc. William Yeoward crystal for $20. I use random cups for toothbrush holders and stir sticks at the bar.
A heavy gold mirror (snagged for $75) and pretty botanicals from a yard sale in Santa Fe, NM. The frame is from an estate sale and vase + topiaries are from Courtland & Co’s sample sale.
Rolls and rolls of designer wallpaper found at an estate sale in Atlanta. They were $10 a roll!
What is your dream find?
I’ll tell you when I find it! If I were more practical and paid full-price, I would maybe concentrate on the items I really need for spaces but my dream finds are those that I love and are at an insane price. If I love the piece or pieces, I figure I’ll find a place for them. Collected > 100% together any day in my book!
Soundtrack song to get in the hunting spirit: Dina Ross’ It’s My House
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