Money & Retire

Tips for a Successful Estate Sale

In many conversations over the past several years with other women my age, we all ask what are we doing to do with our “stuff?” That stuff might be everything from great-great grandmother’s handmade bed spreads from the 1800s to the Gorham silver service that our mother’s “started” for us when we were babies. Over the years I’ve collected blue medicine bottles, toy tin motorcycles, Western dinnerware and table clothes. Lots of fun.

Turns out most of our children are not interested. There’s no sentimental connection to the quilts and the silverware is too fancy for Millennial tastes. Besides it needs polishing!

So what to do with our stuff? I’ve talked recently with several women who work in the estate sale services business. They’ve seen it all from the siblings who were so mad over how things were being divided that they couldn’t be in the same room at the same time when sorting through mom’s stuff, to hoarding old ladies who were hiding cash and valuables in empty pizza boxes. Let’s hope we can avoid those situations.

Below is my report on estate sale services and how to get the most for your money when you use one. I key the report to the Portland-Vancouver, (Wash.) metro area where I live but the advice applies to most other regions of the country. To me an estate sale sounds like it might be efficient, fun and worth the effort.

Tips for a Successful Estate Sale

1. Trust the estate sale appraisal price. These people know the market.
2. Stay away from the sale. Buyers don’t want to hear about grandma’s tea set.
3. Don’t throw anything away. Old wallpaper is collectible. Same for dusty napkins.
4. Give the kids and your family their shot. Get family and the items they want out of the way before bringing in the estate sale service.

Patsy Rushing is never sure what she might find when she meets with a client who wants her services for an estate sale. “It could be a family that’s cleaning out the home of a favorite aunt who is downsizing to assisted living or a baby boomer couple going to a smaller home,” said Rushing, who owns and operates Always P&P Estate Sales in Vancouver, Wash.

Whatever the circumstances, Rushing advises those thinking of holding an estate sale to “not throw anything out.” That’s because what may be one person’s junk is another’s treasure. Old wall paper rolls, for instance. Or Christmas wrapping paper and magazines from the ‘40s.

“Just because something is old and dusty doesn’t mean it might not have value,” Rushing said. Her “don’t toss” tip is one of many that professionals in the estate sale business offer to those who want to downsize.

Even though the housing slump has caused many to stay put in their homes rather than move to smaller quarters, there’s plenty of demand for estate sale services in the Portland-Vancouver market and throughout the nation. In Portland, the Web site www.estatesale-finder.com lists more than 50 upcoming sales in the metro area scheduled over the next several months. Similar Web sites throughout the country do the same thing.

Karen Rhinehart, Gaston, Ore., who has operated the Portland area Web site for the past seven years, said that typically there are as many as 25 sales on any given weekend. “People are kind of fanatically about estate sales and garage sales here,” Rhinehart said. “There are lots of eBayers looking for re-sale items, second-hand books are a strong seller because of our book stores and we’re kind of an artsy town.”

As many as 100 or 200 people might be lined up to get into a “good” sale on the first morning, she said. Like Rushing, Rhinehart also advises those holding the sale to not toss out anything before the estate sale appraiser has had time to look around.

If you’re cleaning out the house of a dotty old aunt, make sure you check all containers (even old pizza boxes) before discarding them, said Beverly Amundson, who has operated Amundson Estate Sales & Auctions in Brush Prairie, Wash. for nearly 30 years.
“One old lady was eating out of cottage cheese containers and begging her nieces for money,” Amundson remembers. “Turns out she had $30,000 in savings bonds and cash hidden in sock drawers and a pizza box. She was living like a pauper…her nieces were sending her money because they thought she was broke.”

How Estate Sales Work

Typically, estate sale services such as those run by Rushing and Amundson will be conducted over several days. But it may take two weeks or longer to set up a sale with good display, items well-priced, labeled and advertised. Services will price items to sell and prefer to have you off the premises during sale hours. That’s because buyers really don’t want to hear your story about grandma’s tea set. They may feel constrained from making a purchase when the owner is standing around or hovering over the estate sale manager.

“If you have family treasures such as hand-made quilts from the 1800s or sterling silverware, find a family member who will appreciate the items as a gift,” Amundson said. “A 75-year-old woman I know is doing her family a favor by giving these things to them, now. It’s best to have family out of the picture or let them have first opportunity to buy before the actual sale starts,” she said.

Most estate sale services charge a commission in the range of 25 to 35 percent of the gross revenue generated from the sale. Estate agents should be willing to provide a written contract, references from recent sales and guarantee receipts for all items sold with a list. Some services will box or bag unsold items and take them to a donation center. Some will clean the house, readying it for sale or rent, all for extra fees.

What to ask when hiring an estate sale service:
1. Can you provide references from the past six months?
2. Are you bonded and insured?
3. Will you provide a written statement of services?
4. How are you paid: commission or fee?
5. If commission, what percentage of sales will you charge?
6. How long do you take to prepare and conduct the sale?
7. Will you write receipts for all sold items?
8. What other services do you offer: Boxing, bagging, clearing out leftovers, readying a home for sale?
9. How soon after the sale will I be paid the money owed me?
10. Do you prepare a written final accounting with receipts and inventory of items sold?
Source: www.graceful-exits.com. Establish fees with a contract

Most services will not take on a sale unless it will produce a minimum of $1,500 to $3,000.
To generate buyer interest, most estate sale services in the Portland-Vancouver metro area use Karen Rhinehart’s www.estatesale-finder.com Web site where they post up to 20 photos of the most interesting items in the sale. The sale and the photos can be posted well in advance but the address won’t go up until the night before the sale to prevent “early birds” from knocking on your door. Newspaper advertising most often allows for both a print ad and an online posting on the paper’s local Web site for double-coverage advertising.

A New Generation

Chris Palmer of Palmer/Wirfs & Associates, which produces three huge Collectible & Antique Shows at the Portland Expo Center and another in Clark County every year, notes at her Web site that the growing number of collecting-based reality TV shows such as Pawnstars, American Pickers, Auction Kings and even Antiques Road Show have generated renewed interest among younger people in collecting and buying vintage items.

What’s hot among this crowd? Mid-century appliances from the 1950s and ‘60s, colorful ‘50s table clothes, items with strawberry shortcake images around the edges or even old men’s shoes from the ‘40s and ‘50s. Kids like the vintage look. “The small things that are ‘memory triggers’ or are collectible, you can ask a little bit more for,” said Patsy Rushing. “They may sell for $2 or under, but they sell better than say the newer slow cooker that you paid $130 for five years ago. If I can get $300 for a newer living room sofa, I’m on my knees with thanks,” she said.

Reality TV Isn’t Necessarily Reality

Unfortunately Antiques Road Show and other TV reality shows, while generating interest, can also create problems for estate sale people because sellers often have unrealistic expectations of value.

“The Road Show is great entertainment, but it is fairy land when it comes to price,” Rushing said. “Most often what someone thinks they have is not worth what they saw on Road Show.

No matter what route you go to downsize, take time to research the value of what you are selling, say the experts. Do a search at online sites for similar items for sale, check the price of recently sold items in the same category.

You can always go the garage sale route but that means you do all the work yourself and you have to haul off all the unsold items. Who has time for that?


Photo credit: Shutterstock, Photographer Bonnie Watton

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One Comment

  • Troy Blackburn

    I loved the tip about staying away from the sale when it’s going on. Like you said, no one really cares to know about all the old items. I’ve heard, too, that being at the sale could be emotionally difficult for a person. We may need to have an estate sale soon, and I’ll have to keep these tips in mind so that it can be successful!

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