I love estate sales. I won’t go as far as to say that I’ve nearly been in an accident swerving in response to a little fluorescent sign on the side of the road, but I’ve been close. There. My secret is out. It probably isn’t much of a secret that a person who redoes furniture loves estate sales anyway.
Today I want to share my top tips for shopping estate sales. Even though I mostly shop for furniture, primitives, and antiques, I think these tips should be useful to anyone who is interested in finding great deals–in addition to items for my business, I’ve purchased so many things for my home and garden for so much less than retail–usually in perfect condition! So here are my tips if you’re just getting started:
1. Be Nice: I was at an Integrity estate sale in June where a guy was trying to get a bargain on one of those metal windmills that people put in their backyards. It was pretty big—probably 8 or 10 feet tall, and in pretty good condition. Integrity was asking $100 for it, which I thought was pretty reasonable. On top of that, the folks running the sale were saying “everything is negotiable today” to everyone who walked in. It was the afternoon of the middle day of the sale, when you’re likely to get things at 25%-30% off (the final day of the sale things are usually 50% off, and in the final hours of the sale you can really start asking for deep discounts).
I was out in the yard when the guy went over, looked at the windmill, and remarked to his friend that it was way overpriced, even at 50% off (which, by the way, no one had offered him). So he went back inside and I thought that was the end of it. My mom and I shopped around a little more—this sale was packed, so we made a pretty big stack of stuff—and then went to check out. As we were going through everything, one of the ladies with Integrity Estate Sales came back into the house looking frazzled, and announced that everything was now 50% off. We may have done a little arm pump in celebration.
The same lady was holding the door for us as we were making our multiple trips in and out and then followed us out to the driveway as we were loading things onto this vintage wagon we picked up:
Isn’t it the most adorable thing you’ve ever seen? No? Well I don’t have any pictures of puppies or kittens, so just go with me.
Anyway, the door lady told us that she had wanted to give us 50% off all along (my mom had already stopped by and bought a bunch of stuff earlier in the day), but that she was waiting for grumpy windmill guy to leave, because he was being a jerk about the price and trying to get them to basically give it away. She waited on purpose for him to leave! I was a little surprised that she was sharing this with us, but I probably shouldn’t have been. It pays to be nice, friends. I’m not above haggling with people, but there’s an appropriate way to do it, which includes either walking away or paying their price if they say no. It’s their job to run these sales for their company and their customers, and being super rude just because it seems like the price won’t affect them isn’t going to get anyone what they want, least of all you. In fact, you’ll likely be sabotaging yourself, like this guy did.
2. Build Relationships: This takes being nice a step further. While my particular situation might not apply to everyone, I’m going to share it anyway. I go to a lot of estate sales. Like, four or five a week during the summer. I see a lot of the same people over and over. It has paid off to learn people’s names, remember certain epic sales, and even dig a little deeper into their lives. There’s a guy who works for Action Estate Sales that had a baby a little bit after I did, and he still remembers talking to me in line at a barn sale when Charlotte was so little that she was still in the baby Bjorn. I remember his son’s name and ask how he’s doing, and he gives me good deals, even on the earlier days when the same deals aren’t offered by a sign on the wall.
Putting this all out on paper (or the screen) like this might make it seem like I formed this relationship so that I could get something out of it, but the truth is that it actually just formed as I practiced being nice and asking genuine questions about this guy’s life instead of just badgering him for a lower price until he was practically paying me to take stuff. People are nicer to nice people, and you’re standing there waiting for them to make change anyway. It doesn’t hurt to be friendly and admit that yes, this is the 17th time you’ve seen them this summer. Making new friends is a good thing!
3. Ask for Deals: I know this makes some people uncomfortable, and honestly, it made me uncomfortable too at first! It really does take some practice to get the hang of asking for discounts at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way.
First, let’s address the appropriate time. Unless it’s a large piece and you know for sure that it’s at the top end of the spectrum when it comes to being reasonably priced, I would never ask for a discount on the first day of the sale. As a matter of fact, I rarely go to estate sales on the first day of the sale unless it’s something that I really want and I’m prepared to get there early, stand in line, pay the asking price, and muscle through the crowd to make a beeline to whatever it is I want. A lot of estate sales line up hours before the start time, and in the first couple of hours of the sale, they only let so many people in at a time. I like to avoid crowds (you’ll never see me out on Black Friday for example), so unless it’s something special, I generally wait until the end of the second day to go.
Now for the appropriate way to ask for discounts. I’m sure there are any number of ways that people go about politely asking for a discount at these things. I’ve certainly heard a lot of different approaches. The one that I use, and that I feel the most comfortable with is:
“What’s your best price on the…”
Trust me, the folks who run these sales expect customers to ask for discounts. There is nothing rude about it (unless you’re rude). At the end of the day, the estate and the estate sale company are still going to make more money if they sell an item a little cheaper than if they don’t sell it at all. Generally, especially after the halfway point in the sale, people are going to come down on (even already discounted) items at least a little.
One last pro tip: I love going to sales that are packed with stuff—again, I go on the last day, select what I want and make a big pile near the cashier (these sales usually have a holding area for larger items, so you don’t have to try and carry everything around), and then we add it all up at the end, subtract the discount (usually at least 50% on the last day), and then I still almost always ask if they can take another $10-$20 off, which they usually do. Again, this kind of thing takes practice to get totally comfortable with. I started small figuring out my estate sale strategy, and now all these things are basically second nature.
I will say that I don’t always ask for discounts. With the companies I don’t mind, but when it’s a private sale and I know I’m already getting a really good deal on something (companies are a lot better about knowing the value of certain things than sales that are run by individuals or families), I don’t generally ask for a discount. I bought two amazing dressers at a private sale earlier this summer for $25 each—they probably would have been priced at $100 each, at least, at a company sale—and I didn’t ask for a discount on those. That was a living estate sale, where the ladies were downsizing their mother’s things so that she could move into an assisted living facility, and once I know something like that, I just don’t feel right asking for more money off of something that is already basically a steal. Again, you have to kind of feel it out and decide how you want to approach asking (or not asking) for a discount in some situations.
4. Look High/Look Low: Last month I snagged two things in a garage at an estate sale that had several people saying “where’d you find that? I would have bought it!” as I was walking to the car. That actually happens to me a lot. Have you ever heard the thing about how companies pay more for product placement in the grocery store to get their stuff on eye level shelves because the consumer scans those shelves way more often than looking down to the shelves below or up to those above, even if doing that extra scan might save them a couple of bucks?
Doing that extra scan at an estate sale will find you some awesome stuff. One of the first things I saw in that garage was a long, primitive hinged wood box on the floor at the very back. I think something may have been on top of it, but I don’t remember for sure. That box was the first thing that went in my pile. Another item that had people lamenting as I left was a chippy carpenter’s stool that was over in the corner of the garage, holding up a box fan that the estate sale company had set up to get some airflow going in the garage (it was a little musty in there). I think a lot of people just walked by and assumed that the stool wasn’t for sale, since it was being used in that way, but there was a price sticker on it, and I asked as soon as I saw it if I could move the fan and take the stool. I would show you a photo, but it sold in Saline, and I never got a good picture of it.
I typically do two passes at the sales that I go to. The first one I grab anything that obviously has to come with me and stash it in my pile, making sure to look underneath tables, on top of cabinets and shelves, and behind and around any bigger pieces that might have treasures hiding in back of them. On the second pass, I tend to go more slowly, contemplating bigger pieces and examining the questionable ones closely. Waiting on some things until the second pass gives me time to really think about whether I can fix/sell that item, whether it really fits with my brand, and whether I’ll regret buying it in a few months.
5. Shop Strategically: I’ve already touched on this a little bit, but I’ll do a quick recap of my strategy. Depending on what you’re into and what kind of work you do, you’ll develop your own strategy as you go along doing this estate sale thing. Hopefully you’ll only have to develop a strategy for looking for one type of thing (say, furniture). I’m constantly looking for primitives, small vintage pieces for my Etsy shop, craft items, and solid, quality furniture to redo…it gets a little exhausting (but still fun!).
As I said before, I rarely go on the first day of a sale unless I see something in the pictures that I really want that will probably go fast. For example, I’ve been looking for a telephone bench to redo this summer—I almost always have at least one for Sterlingfest—but I haven’t found one anywhere! That is an item that might bring me to a sale on the first day as they seem to be really popular right now.
Typically, I like to find a packed sale and wait until the very end of the second day, when it’s likely that I can ask for last day discounts a little early, without dealing with the last day scavengers.
I use estatesales.net to find the sales that I want to go to—when I know I’ll be in town for any given weekend and I’m not doing a show (or sometime even if I am), I’ll go through the site on Monday or Tuesday that week and write down the sales that I’m interested in. I try to find at least two or three on the site (then, as I’m driving around, I look for private sales that may not have been listed online). I look for a mix of old and new in the photos, a little heavier on the old. If a sale is 80% or more new stuff, I usually won’t bother. It’s just not likely that anything I’d be really interested in will still be there at the end of the second or third day. On the other hand, if the sale is really heavy on older pieces, it’s unlikely that you’ll get the best deals there. Sure, the prices will be better than they would at an antique store, but not as good as at a typical sale. Again, those sales might tempt me if there’s something really cool (I went to one in May that had a letterpress cabinet that I really wanted but knew I wouldn’t buy because it would be too expensive—I did buy a few other things, though), but I go to them more to enjoy looking at the pieces than with a serious intent to buy (at least for now).
6. Avoid Impulse Buys/Examine Pieces Closely: Guys, there have been many times when I saw a piece from afar (or a few feet away—usually when my hands are full of other treasures) and fell in love with it, especially after seeing the price. Embarrassingly, this just happened to me the other day—I was walking out of the Utica Antiques Market, had my hands full, saw a Victorian corner chair for only $20!!!! and bought it without even touching it. Once again, I’d show you a photo, but it’s already gone.
Sometimes this turns out fine, but often, the piece ends up having structural flaws, a smell, or some other issues. My Victorian chair was super wobbly on the top—it needed a lot of extra loving to get it to a piece that I could re-imagine. I bought it to redo and resell, but once I got it home, I discovered that it wouldn’t really be worth the trouble. If it was a piece I was doing for myself, it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but the time it would have taken me to really make it an awesome piece for my booth wouldn’t have been worth it, so I let it go as it was on Facebook, which made me a little sad.
This whole story has a point, I promise. Examine the pieces that you buy! Sit on chairs, test the wobble factor, smell upholstery, open and close drawers—make sure that piece is solid before you invest in it, even it’s only $20.
Do you have any estate sale shopping tips to share? What is your best strategy for asking for deals? Which impulse buys have worked (and which haven’t)? Do you have any horror stories of rude customers making a scene while you’ve been shopping? Let me know in the comments below, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and connect with the community on Instagram using the #metrodetoitmaker!
Thanks for reading, friends. Talk soon,