Disclaimer: I live in Tennessee and based a lot of this information on how estate sales are in the Southeast. Your experience could be different in another part of the country, but I still think there is some good information here that you could apply!
The more I’ve shared my estate sale finds on Instagram, the more I’ve discovered that estate sale shopping is not a prevalent part of the larger thrifting community. I see famous Instagram influencers and designers shopping at thrift stores, antique stores, and flea markets, which has made this kind of shopping almost mainstream, and I love it! However, I don’t see any of these high-profile accounts ever stopping by estate sales, and I think they’re really missing out 😉 So today, I want to go over some basic information, debunk some myths, and give some tips for how to successfully shop at estate sales.
First of all, what is an estate sale? According to EstateSales.Net, “An estate sale (also called a tag sale in some parts of the country) is a way of liquidating the belongings of a family or estate.” Generally, these sales are held in the actual house where the belongings resided, which means there is SO much more than you’d find at a garage or yard sale. These sales usually occur when an elderly person or couple is downsizing or moving to assisted living, although sometimes they are held when someone passes away. I have also been to sales where the family was simply moving and wanted to start completely fresh in the new home.
If the estate belongs to an elderly person/couple who is downsizing/moving to assisted living/has passed away, here is typically what happens. The family will go through the items and take what they want. However, there is often so much left that the family does not want or have room for that the family will opt to hold an estate sale. The family might choose to run it themselves, but many choose to hire an estate sale company. The estate sale company will go through the remaining items in the house and appraise them, then offer the family a lump sum for the entire contents of the house. Then, the company will hold a sale in the house to try to make money on the items they purchased.
Now that we’ve established what an estate sale is, let’s debunk some myths and misunderstandings about estate sales.
Estate Sale Myths
Myth #1: It’s all grandpa sweaters and cat figurines.
Estate sales are great places to find affordable and quality furniture. I found these amazing caned chairs for only $24 (for both!).
Think of an estate sale as a cross between an antique store and a thrift store. It’s true that not all estate sales have great, quality pieces. However, today’s elderly people are from a generation in which quality pieces were much easier and more affordable to obtain than they are in today’s IKEA-dominated culture. You’re much more likely to find an amazing vintage piece at an estate sale than you are at a thrift store, and the price will almost certainly be cheaper than an antique store.
If your style is 100% modern, then I don’t think estate sales are for you. But if you love the curated and layered style used by famous designers such as Emily Henderson, Amber Interiors, and Studio McGee, you can easily add more character and texture to your home by mixing in antique and vintage pieces with your newer items. You will find great pieces if you are willing to search!
Myth #2: It’s all furniture or large items.
I mostly find smaller items at estate sales, like this tiny oil painting I got for just 50 cents.
Fact: I have only purchased furniture at an estate sale once, and it was recently two dining chairs and a small pedestal table). All of my other finds have been smaller things such as textiles (blankets, towels, table cloths), kitchen items (utensils, baking items, crocks), art, and tchotchkes (vases, frames, and other small items). Since—in most cases—every item in the house is for sale, there is usually an abundance of smaller items to hunt for. Things as seemingly ridiculous as cleaning supplies and opened printer paper are up for grabs. If it’s not nailed down, it’s for sale. It’s true that estate sales are stereotypically amazing places to find larger pieces, but I strongly encourage you not to rule them out for smaller items!
Myth #3: It’s too expensive.
These alabaster bookends were just $4.
In my experience, estate sales are cheaper than antique stores. I often hear Instagram influencers say they’re going “thrifting,” when they are just going to an antique store. I guess they’re not wrong, but to me, “thrifting” means cheap! And, at least in my area, estate sales are cheap. I often see antique dealers at estate sales sourcing for their shops or booths. Don’t come expecting thrift store prices on very nice furniture, but do expect to get a great deal, especially compared with buying new, quality items. You can’t always expect to find quality items at IKEA price levels, but it’s definitely possible!
Myth #4: Someone died and no one wanted their stuff.
I didn’t purchase this amazing vintage sofa, but I spotted this an estate sale this month. The home was filled with so many beautiful pieces, that the children of the family just hadn’t had room for it all.
Although most estate sales I’ve gone to were simply an elderly person/couple downsizing before moving to assisted living, it is true that sometimes the sale is held because an elderly person has passed away. I assume that the deceased’s family goes through the house and takes what they want, but that doesn’t mean what’s left over is just junk. Likely, the family members don’t need or have room for everything that is left. If the remaining items are of good quality, the family often decides to have an estate sale instead of donating the items to a thrift store to make some money on the nice things that no one was able to take.
Estate Sale Shopping Tips
1. How do you find estate sales in your area?
My favorite way to find estate sales is an app and website called EstateSales.Net. You enter your zip code or city, and the map will show you all the estate sales near you. It will also show you the company that’s running the estate sale and any description that the company wants to add (usually a list of the types of items for sale or instructions on where to park). The best part? THERE ARE PHOTOS! That’s right, you can preview the sale before you even decide to go! More about that in #2.
The EstateSales.Net map will show you all the sales within a certain radius of the area you entered. You can tap on the blue icons to get information about the sale and see the photos.
2. How do you know if the sale will have things that match your style?
I always check the photos in the EstateSales.Net listing. These photos are usually not that great, but it always helps me get a sense of what I might find at the sale. My husband and I like to go together, so if the sale has a lot of tools or a very disorganized garage that my husband can dig through, we always try to go 😉 I also look for classic furniture. If all the furniture is 90s-style orange oak, it’s unlikely that there will also be beautiful mid-century or antique pieces. Also, I think the sales that look unorganized or totally packed in the photos tend to be the best ones. Sometimes, the photos will look kind of bare. Usually, this means the sale won’t be very exciting. I like to dig, and if it looks like there is very little for sale, I usually pass.
I went through a few EstateSale.Net listings and found a good example of what I’m talking about. In the first photo, I can easily see that there will be a lot of neat items to browse. There’s antique furniture, art on the walls, a really nice rug (which means there could me more rugs elsewhere), and some blue and white jars and decor. Most of the other photos in the listing looked just as promising.
Now take a look at the second photo. There is barely anything in the photo, and the items shown don’t look very exciting. The chair looks very 90s, and the other photos showed mostly similar furniture. Based on the photos, I could tell this one wouldn’t be very exciting.
ALSO… I never find a sale that matches my style 100%. In fact, most of the items generally aren’t my style at all. The key is to use your imagination and have a vision. A gorgeous caned dining chair might look totally Grandma at the estate sale when paired with a dated dining table; however, if you imagine it in your home with your more modern table, you might find that it has potential!
3. When is the best time of the day/week to go?
Most estate sales are held on the weekends. In my area, the sale usually starts on Friday and ends Saturday. However, sometimes sales go through Sunday. Just check the listing on EstateSales.Net to find out when the sale is being held. Usually, everything is 50% off on the last day. This is my favorite time to go because I’m always looking for deals deals deals. However, if you’re wanting something specific that you saw in the photos, I would go as early as possible.
4. If you don’t have anything specific you’re looking for, how do you decide what to buy?
Treat an estate sale like going to the thrift store. You likely don’t always have an exact list of things you want or need, but that doesn’t keep you from going often. Frequency is basically the key to discovering treasure! Often, I go in with no expectations, and then I see something like a food canister and think, “Just the other day I was wishing I had a canister for pasta.” Or, I’ll see a piece of art and think, “That is exactly the size of art I needed for the guest room.” Just keep an open mind, and if you see something that catches your eye, envision where you’ll put it before you purchase it.
5. Do you go to estate sales looking for something specific or just to treasure hunt? Do you usually go in with a plan?
I mostly go just to treasure hunt, but I am always looking for a few things: original art, studio pottery, vintage rugs, storage items, vintage skirts, and books. I know it’s kind of a random list, but these are things I see and find frequently at estate sales. My plan is just to enjoy looking at neat pieces 🙂 I would be lying if I didn’t admit that it’s also really fun just to go into different houses and look around, haha.
6. How can you tell which ones are worth going to?
Sometimes you really can’t tell. I recommend going to several in your area at first. This will give you a good feel for the neighborhood. I think estate sales that are held in small retirement communities (where the person has already downsized once) are usually not very good, so I tend to skip those if I drive by an estate sale sign. Also, like I said in #2, check out the photos online before you go!
7. How do you know where to find a good estate sale?
I think location has very little to do with the kind of estate sale you should expect! I have been to amazing estate sales in “bad” parts of town and terrible estate sales in expensive parts of town. I’ll say it again: look at the photos before you go! 🙂
8. Do higher-end areas of town have better estate sales, or are they too expensive?
Since most estate sales are run by companies, I think the companies are usually consistent with their pricing. However, this might not be true in all areas. Also, companies tend to price items higher if they are worth more. So, if the expensive area of your town has higher estate sale prices, it might just be because the items for sale are worth more. However, I haven’t experienced this personally. In fact, I usually find the selection in expensive zip codes to be much worse. I’m not sure why. I recommend paying attention to the company running the sale. You might find that a certain company in your area always over prices things, and since you can see the company ahead of time on the EstateSale.Net listing, you can easily skip those.
Well, this turned into a much longer post that I’d expected! I hope this answers some of the questions you all asked me on Instagram. Feel free to leave more questions in the comments! xo Lizzie