8 Tips for Shopping at Estate Sales

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

My Top 10 Thrifted Finds of All Time

In honor of National Thrift Shop Day, I thought it would be fun to share my top 10 thrifted finds of all time. I’ve been a serious thrifter for about seven years, so I’ve had a lot of time to dig up some gems! Before we get started, I want to mention that I have found way more thrifted clothes than what I’m sharing, but I’m not really a fashion blogger, so I’m mostly focusing on furniture and decor pieces today.

1. Mid-Century Modern Glass Front Cabinet, $50

I probably gasped out loud when I saw this beauty in Goodwill three years ago. The thrift stores I frequent rarely have decent furniture, let alone a beautiful MCM piece. The brass-capped feet were not in great shape, and the finish was looking rough, but the sliding glass doors were in amazing condition! I almost left it behind because it was $50, but I’m so glad I didn’t. Here’s how I have had it styled most recently.

(Also thrifted: the frame, small plant stand, pottery vase, and most of the books. I found the lamp shade next to a dumpster!)

2. Copper Kettle, $3

I am a sucker for vintage kitchen items, especially if they are copper. This adorable kettle immediately caught my eye with its aged patina and its blue and white porcelain handle and lid. I cannot wait to put up some open shelves in our new kitchen so I can display this piece!

(Also thrifted: the adorable Starbucks mug!)

3. Farmhouse Dining Table, $10

(Technically, this find is from a yard sale, but I felt like it still fits with the spirit of National Thrift Shop Day.) You’re probably looking at that picture and thinking, “That looks nothing like a farmhouse table.” And you’re totally right. This orange Spanish-style set was even more orange in person, if you can believe it. But, I could see that the table had great bones. There was beautiful ironwork detail on the legs, and I really liked the X pattern on the top.

So, I purchased the set for $40, then sold the chairs on Craigslist for $30 the next week. Kendall helped me sand and stain it, and the end result is great!

4. Lucky Brand Leather Ankle Booties, $4

Ankle booties are a dime a dozen at thrift stores nowadays. The trend has been going strong for around 8 years, so there are plenty available second hand. However, I was holding out for a pair of genuine leather booties with a short heel, and my patience eventually paid off. I scored these for just $4 at Goodwill, and I’m so glad I didn’t cave and pay $40 or more!

5. Mid-Century Modern Credenza, $50

This poor credenza was in a sorry state when I first got my hands on it. The trim had been ripped off the front edge, one of the legs had cracked, and someone had sanded and painted all six of the drawers an assortment of random colors. It was definitely a sad sight! I’m not the handiest person around, and I knew I couldn’t sand it down and refinish it (at the time, I was living in an apartment and had no power tools), but I did think I could save it with a coat of paint. Here’s how it turned out.

Can you believe that’s the same cabinet? The transformation astounds me every time! With some help from my mom, we filled the dents and cracks, painted it, and replaced the trim on the front. We also did our best to repair the broken leg. It’s not perfect, but I don’t mind. I picked up some gold drawer pulls for a few dollars at Lowe’s, and they provided the perfect finishing touch.

(Also thrifted: the seaglass vase, basket, and all the art/frames.)

6. Camel Peacoat, $6

A tan or camel peacoat is another item I had on my radar for a while, but I couldn’t bring myself to spend even $20 since I already had a winter coat that I loved. However, I got really lucky and found one at Goodwill this spring! It was half off $12, so I finally added a camel coat to my wardrobe for just $6. It’s incredibly soft, and it’s big enough to wear over even the thickest of my sweaters. I can’t wait for some cooler weather so I can wear it!

7. Mid-Century Modern Magazine Rack, $4

If you follow me on Instagram, you might remember the funny story associated with this one. I found a MCM Hollywood Regency-style magazine rack at an estate sale for $10, but I passed on it because I wasn’t in the mood to pay that much for something that was a little beat up. After I got home, I began to regret that I hadn’t gotten it, but it was too late. (Thrift regret, anyone?) However, I found one at Goodwill just two weeks later!!! And it was in better condition, too. You’d better believe I snatched it off the shelf and didn’t let it out of my sight until I’d paid for it. It’s supposed to be a magazine rack, but I discovered it’s the perfect size for holding my vinyl collection. I love the glam it adds to our bedroom!

(Fun fact: One week later, I FOUND ANOTHER ONE!!! I don’t know if the thrift gods were messing with me or what, but I’m here for it.)

8. Nate Berkus Bedding, $6

One of my favorite Target brands is Nate Berkus’s eponymous line. His designs are always to modern and simplistic. However, they are also usually pricey, so I generally just admire from afar. I got really excited when I found this comforter + sham set at Goodwill for just $6! It was originally $12, but it was the color of the day and half off. It was in relatively good shape, so it came home with me.

(We aren’t currently using it on our bed, so please pardon the old photo with crooked art and lampshade, haha.) I’m planning to use it in our guest room once we get a full-size bed in there. I love the moody charcoal color!

(Also thrifted: the tan and grey geometric down pillow.)

9. Antique Oil Painting, $20

Hands down, this is my favorite find of all time. I love this painting. I got it at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore for a steal. It had some white marks on it (you can kind of see them on the right), so they had priced it fairly low for how large a piece it is. I almost didn’t get it because it was a lot of money for a college student, but I’m so glad I did. One of my mom’s friends is a painter, and she offered to repair the white marks for me! She did a great job, and you can’t even tell it was repaired.

The painting is signed, and after some intense research, I discovered that the painter was an Italian man who did most of his work in the 1870s. Another of his paintings (which was also of fishing boats) sold for $300 on an art auction site. So, I guess you could say I scored big!

(Fun fact: After I bought it, I posted a photo of it on Instagram and tagged my local ReStore. A few days later, they sent me a DM saying I had won a drawing for a free $25 ReStore gift card! I had inadvertently entered the drawing by posting about my purchase on social media. So, ReStore technically gave me $5 for buying the painting, haha.)

(Also thrifted: Most of the books, blue pottery vase, picture frame, wood sculpture, blue ceramic planter, swan, brass votive, white ceramic planter.)

10. Vintage Leather Purse

I am a simple but somewhat picky woman when it comes to my purses. I have several rules: It must fit my wallet, it must be crossbody, and it must be versatile. This amazing vintage leather purse checked all of those boxes with flying colors. Everyone tells me it looks like vintage Coach because of the adorable hardware details, and I love that! I haven’t worn it much yet because my current black purse still has a little life left and I bought the leather one as a future replacement because it’s so hard for me to find purses that fit my criteria (does anyone else do that? Haha).

Well, that wraps up my top 10 thrift finds of all time! I hope you enjoyed seeing my favorites, and I’d love to hear about yours!

Xo Lizzie

What are some of your favorite thrifted finds? Do you tend to find more clothing finds or home decor finds? Leave a comment below!