It's no secret that I love estate sales and have since I was a kid. If you loved thrift-shopping before Macklemore wrote a dumb song about it, have a collection of anything from baseball cards to glass mannequin heads (that's me!), or are just in need of a new set of dishes, estate sales are for you! Here is my guide to finding estate sales, getting first dibs at everything, and negotiating great deals. You never know what you're going to find, because every estate sale is different! This is how I get the most out of every weekend.
Firstly, "estate sale" is a broad term that was once narrowly used to define the sale of the belongings of someone who was wealthy and is now deceased. Now, it has a wider range includes all kinds of things — from families that are relocating cross-country or abroad to businesses that are going under. My grandfather recently had an estate sale when he downsized to a smaller house across town, getting rid of decades of stuff that he didn't want or need anymore. However, most often, estate sales occur when a homeowner dies, a homeowner is being relocated to a nursing home or assisted living, or very often, one elderly spouse dies and leaves the other with a house full of stuff that's impossible for them to sort through alone. That's when families either host a sale themselves or hire a company to do it for them!
Just a side note: Out of concern for the privacy of homeowners and estate sale attendees, I don't take photos at estate sales unless I specifically ask for permission to take a close-up of items I find. The rest of the photos in this post are going to be of things I have purchased at estate sales and have made part of my personal collection.
How do shoppers find estate sales? I like to search three websites for estate sales. The first is EstateSales.net (which also has an app), the second is EstateSale.com, and the third is searching "estate" or "estate sale" on Craigslist. I tend to favor the first option. When I search for nearby sales, I input my ZIP code and keep my search radius at 30 miles or sometimes less. I live in Chicago so even five miles can be a half-hour drive (or an hour+ at rush hour) but I also like keeping my options open — I don't want to miss a great item because I narrowed my radius to only ten miles! (You can also try EstateSales.org and EstateSale-Finder.com but they tend to list the same sales as EstateSales.net for the most part.)
I also use the keyword search for specific items; for example, "taxidermy" is one I use a lot. That shows me all of the estate sales on the whole website (regardless of distance) with taxidermy. I can see the locations from that screen and open all of the ones in my state (and near my family members) in new tabs to see photos. If the sales (with my keywords/items of interest) near my family members look worthwhile, I send them the links. My mom has a flexible work schedule and also loves estate sales, and my grandpa is retired and enjoys antiques as well. Sending links to friends and family members is just a nice way to say "Hey, I saw this and thought of you!" and sometimes they'll end up going to the sale. That's how I ended up getting a nice 1934 deer mount for my birthday!
I'm very over-the-top when it comes to searching, finding, and organizing estate sales in order of how important the items are, what day the sales are taking place, what time the sales are taking place, and where they are located. Below, I am going to post an example of the steps I take to route my sales in a given weekend.
First, I open a completely new window on EstateSales.net. I input my ZIP code and look for sales coming up in the next seven days. For privacy's sake, I'm going to use my old ZIP code from when I lived in Ohio.
In case you didn't read the captions on the screen-caps above: After I have the new window open and have searched for estate sales within the desired radius from my location, I right-click each estate sale and open it in a new tab. When I have around ten tabs open, I scroll through each estate sale. If I see something I like, I keep a photo of what I like open as a reminder and I move the tab to the left of the original tab I used to make my search. This keeps my stuff straight (because at minimum I ALWAYS have two or three windows with at least five tabs each on my computer). Once I've peeked at a batch of ten, moved my desired tabs over, and exited the ones that I'm not interested in, I open another ten tabs and repeat the process until I've seen every estate sale in my desired timeframe.
Once I have gone through all of the sales in my area for a given weekend, I look at the days each sale is happening and plot all of the sales with the same start date in Google Maps. I usually prioritize the sale with the coolest stuff and then try to map the rest in a route that makes sense and doesn't back-track. Most sales start between 9 AM and 11 AM on Fridays, but some companies only do Wednesday and Saturday and so on. Make sure you pay attention to this! The actual address for most estate sales isn't available until the day before, but you can still plot the ZIP code on your map if you're making plans a week or so ahead of time.
Take notes on everything: the location, the rules of the estate sale (like when the sign-up sheet will be posted — more on that below), and a list of the items you really want. You can ask the workers as soon as you get there where the ______ is, rather than wandering around the house looking for it. Usually they can tell you where it is, or if it has sold already.
What should shoppers be looking for at an estate sale? Whatever you want! Seriously — anything. Once, I found a ponytail in the bottom of a box of wigs. You can bet your ass I bought it. It was only two bucks and I have plans to put it in a cool antique bubble frame someday. Whether you're trying to add to your collection(s) of stuff (I collect taxidermy, rare globes, glass mannequin heads, working rare cameras, fossils and minerals, and nature books among other things) or you're looking to furnish a new home, every estate sale has something for just about anyone. Want a dozen half-used old dead ladies' lipsticks? You can buy that. Need a very expensive antique gold-plated microscope with prepared slides? Estate sales have got you covered there, too. Look for stuff that catches your eye and remember to buy stuff you love and will use (or plan on reselling and know it will fetch a fair market price for you) — don't just stock up on junk because it's there and it's cheap! There are no returns, so inspect everything and make sure you research its value before you buy, not after.
The first day of a sale, the largest amount of items will be available (in case that wasn't obvious) but it will also be very competitive (waiting to get in, people grabbing stuff you wanted, etc.). The last day is always the most calm, but things are usually picked over. The good news for the last day of a sale is that they typically mark everything half off (or more) and take offers on everything, so if you're just looking for something to do with your day off, have at it.
How do shoppers get in when it's competitive? Estate sales typically take place indoors, in people's homes and businesses. This means that only a certain number of people are allowed inside at once, rather than a setup like an outdoor garage sale or flea market where people are free to roam about. Every estate sale company is different regarding how they handle entry, so you have to make sure you read the fine print on their listings. I usually keep my tabs (referenced above) open and refresh the pages the day before the sale, then re-read the rules for that particular sale in case new information has been added. This is also when I get the actual address of the sale rather than the general ZIP code.—
Here are examples of wording from different listings I've seen recently and what they mean:
- "A sign-up sheet will be at the door by 4 a.m." This means that the company putting on the sale is providing a sign-up sheet and they will put it outside the home at 4 o'clock in the morning (this is pretty rare, usually if the company provides a sheet it goes out the evening prior) and people are admitted in the order that they are signed up.
- "We will honor a watched list." This means that the company will honor a list, like the one mentioned above, that is started by a customer (at the sale at any time the day of the sale) that is constantly kept track of. This means you cannot just write your name on a piece of paper, tape it to the door, and walk away.
- "Our numbers at 9:30 on the morning of the first day of the sale." This means that the company will hand out numbered cards the day of the sale and admit people in that order. If there was a sign-up sheet of any kind (watched list or company-provided list) they will usually give people numbers in that listed order and then proceed to handing out consequent numbers as more customers arrive.
These new phrases may sound intimidating but once you know what they mean, it's very easy to get used to. Basically, if you're able to sign up on a company-provided sheet the night before, you should do it! I just went to a sale that allowed me to sign up the night before. I was #19 and Jason was #20 but because many of the people on the list before us didn't show up on time, we got to go in with the first group of people.
On the flip side, which is my only estate sale horror-ish story, we also went to an estate sale last weekend involving four different lists including a stolen company list from the evening prior, two "watched" lists, a new company-started list, a fist fight, and a LOT of yelling. After waiting more than an hour and a half, the lady skipped over me and Jason completely! We had to pretend my name was Amanda (a person who had come and left, so we didn't steal anyone's spot or anything) just to get in. Moral of the story: not every estate sale company is going to have their shit together. I cannot stress this enough: if you sign up for any kind of list, whether it is provided the night before, posted the morning of, or a "watched" list started by another customer, take a photo of it on your phone WITH the house number in the photo as well. Then there's no disputing!
What should shoppers bring to an estate sale? It depends on when you're going! If you're planning on being the first to arrive, bring coffee, dress appropriately for the weather, and headphones for a podcast or something are advisable — or just bring a friend! I would suggest bringing someone who has different taste than you, otherwise you may end up fighting or arguing with each other, or even resenting each other because you were both coveting the same item. I also like to have a bottle of water with me, but remember to use the bathroom before you arrive because you can't use the restroom inside the house at most estate sales! Snacks are a good idea too.
Regardless of whether I'm trying to get in first, I like to fold up a reusable shopping bag in my purse for every estate sale. Most sales do not allow you to put items into your own bag while shopping, but will provide shopping baskets. I also bring change for parking meters if needed. Always pay attention to permit parking signs, street sweeping, and utility work being done! The last thing you want is to get stranded in an unknown suburb with no car. Cash is a must — it's faster than using credit cards (and not every sale accepts cards), allows you to haggle a bit (notes on this below), and helps out the estate sale companies with their costs and provides families of the deceased or homeowners (for moving sales, etc) with a bit more money. Most companies have a minimum purchase requirement for credit cards and charge a "convenience" fee. (I put it in quotes because paying more certainly isn't convenient to me!)
One more luxury item that's nice to bring when going digging in a really old house, garage, or warehouse is a head lamp. Holding your phone flashlight is okay, but the light isn't great and a headlamp leaves you hands-free!
The last thing I'll leave you with is how to negotiate a deal when the sale is being held by a professional company. Just like anything, no means no and you'll just need to move on — no pressuring anyone to do anything they don't want to! But the easiest thing to do, especially if there's (a) no price tag on an item or (b) there's a sign saying "OFFERS WELCOME" is to make an offer. It's easier to negotiate a good price if you've got cash in your hand, and I like to have small bills on hand so I can say "I'll give you $35 for these three items" and then hand them $35, rather than handing them $40 and watching them make change (especially because the whole time they're making change, they resent you for being "able" to pay $5 more). Even if there are price tags, if you buy a lot of items you can always say "Would you be willing to take X amount for this?" because the worst thing they can do is say no. This weekend I got more than five dozen rolls of refrigerated film for $10 just because I asked. Don't try to haggle if you're only buying one item on the first day of a sale.
You can also save money by subscribing to estate sale company mailing lists in your area. Search EstateSales.net to find them, and sign up through their websites! Sometimes they send out secret "codes" which you can whisper under your breath to the cashier (like an elementary school boy with a treehouse) to get a discount.
Keep in mind that not all estate sales are held by professional companies. Some are held by family members of recently deceased people — meaning it could be hurtful to try to haggle for more ways than one. Often (a) the objects belong to someone and has sentimental meaning so haggling with a grieving family member could be a slap in the face and (b) often the funds are going towards funeral services and more. Please be tactful if family members are around!
Remember that estate sales are supposed to be fun! If you're like me, you'll enjoy the thrill of going to sales, meeting other junkers, pickers, and collectors in your area, and making some really good discoveries. Keep your cool, be kind to others, and enjoy yourself! If you have any other tips or if you've blogged or Instagrammed about your own estate sale finds, feel free to leave tips and links in the comments. You can find photos of my estate sale finds on Instagram under the tag "#mickeygoespicking" or just follow me for updates on all kinds of things. Thanks for reading this post! I hope it helps you find something cool!