11 Estate Sale Shopping Tips From an Expert

Advertising Disclosure: When you buy something by clicking links on our site, we may earn a small commission, but it never affects the products or services we recommend.

Estate sale sign
stockphotofan1 / Shutterstock.com

Exploring estate sales has been one of my favorite summertime activities for more than 20 years.

For this professional picker, roaming through old houses with the possibility of hidden treasure around every corner is a thrill like no other.

But in a world of big-box stores and online shopping, navigating the unique world of estate sales is practically a lost art.

So, here is my best advice to help novice estate sale shoppers buy better and enjoy the experience more.

1. Know what to buy

Estate sales can be exciting. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and make a few buying blunders. Remember, not every deal at an estate sale is a good deal.

Before you head out the door, check out my article “7 Things You Should Buy at Estate Sales” and research prices on specific items you’re looking for.

To avoid buyer’s remorse, ask yourself two clarifying questions before buying anything:

  1. “Would I buy this item if it were for sale in any other context?”
  2. “Am I buying this just so I don’t go home empty-handed?”

If your answer to question No. 1 is “no” or your answer to question No. 2 is “yes,” take a deep breath and move on.

2. Arrive early

Well-advertised sales can be competitive affairs. Arrive early on the first day of the sale, claim your spot in line and savor the anticipation.

Don’t be afraid to strike up a friendly conversation with other early birds. They often have the inside scoop on upcoming sales and can even keep an eye out for items you’re looking for once the doors open.

3. Chill out

While it’s smart to be early, don’t get ahead of yourself.

Some aggressive shoppers try to pressure organizers into making early sales — sometimes knocking on their doors the night before the event begins. This sort of tactic is never successful and always offensive.

Relax. You’ll miss some bargains; you’ll get some bargains. It’s a dance, not a race.

4. Travel light

Don’t arrive at an estate sale carrying a large purse, tote bag or backpack. It’s nearly impossible for sale organizers to monitor the entire home, and big bags only arouse suspicion.

Bags and boxes are usually available on site for buyers who purchase multiple items.

5. Bring cash

It’s the question that launches a thousand eye rolls: “Can you hold this for me while I run to the ATM?” Don’t be that guy. While professionally managed estate sales often accept credit cards, cash is still king.

Carry cash, including an assortment of smaller bills so proprietors don’t have to struggle to make change. (Ones and fives are especially appreciated.)

6. Haggle strategically

Though haggling is usually acceptable at estate sales, it helps to brush up on the basics of good negotiating before hitting the estate sale circuit.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Haggling is less successful on the first day of the sale and far more successful late on the last day, when organizers are trying to clear out all remaining items.
  • If you’re going to haggle, avoid low-ball offers, have cash in hand and be prepared to take the item with you immediately.

7. Don’t snoop

Since most estate sales take place at someone’s home, respect boundaries. Resist the urge to enter rooms that are cordoned off, and don’t make offers on items that are marked “NFS” (Not For Sale).

Remember, your hosts are probably juggling dozens of tasks related to settling an estate — packing, dividing sentimental possessions between friends and family, selling the home.

8. Listen

Particularly in small towns, estate sale hosts are eager to share the backstory of the items they’re selling.

This is part informational and part emotional. In other words, sellers want to know their treasured items are going to a good home where their histories will be appreciated.

Though it may sound quaint, allow some room for this type of personal exchange. It’s part of what makes estate sales unique and fun.

9. Check upholstered furniture

Upholstered furniture that’s been exposed to cigarette smoke, pets or damp conditions can hold those odors for years.

Some less-scrupulous estate sale organizers attempt to mask these noxious smells by burning scented candles or using heavy aerosol sprays.

Before buying any piece of upholstered furniture, give it a quick smell test — a nose-to-the-fabric sniff. If something seems off, avoid that piece of furniture or be prepared to invest in reupholstering.

10. Mind your measurements

Looking for specific dimensions in furniture, drapery or picture frames? Keep those measurements in your wallet or smartphone.

It takes some of the guesswork out of buying and helps avoid investing in items that ultimately won’t work in your home.

I also carry a small tape measure in my car, since not all sellers have one handy.

11. Be kind

And, finally, the most important tip of all: Be kind. Since estate sales are often prompted by a death in the family, be sensitive to the bumpy emotional journey your hosts may be on.

Stifle critical comments about decor, clutter or housekeeping practices. Remember, everything you’re casually perusing represents the life of a lost loved one.

Get smarter with your money!

Want the best money-news and tips to help you make more and spend less? Then sign up for the free Money Talks Newsletter to receive daily updates of personal finance news and advice, delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for our free newsletter today.