How Do Estate Sales Work? A Simplified Guide

Amy Pawlukiewicz
Written by Amy Pawlukiewicz
Updated March 1, 2022
small grey house in neighborhood
Photo: tab62/ Adobe Stock

Highlights

  • Estate sales involve selling all (or nearly all) items in a home.

  • Estate sale companies usually charge a 25% to 45% commission.

  • Pricing appropriately is key to ensure your items sell quickly.

  • After the sale, you can donate unsold items to charity.

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Garage and yard sales are great if you want to sell a few odds and ends, but what if you need to empty everything in your or your loved one’s house? That’s where estate sales come in. Here’s everything you need to know about how estate sales work.

What Is an Estate Sale?

An estate sale, or a tag sale, is the sale of someone’s entire estate—hence the name. This type of sale usually happens after a major life change that happens suddenly, such as a death, divorce, or moving.

Whether you’re liquidating an estate for yourself or a loved one, everything in a house is tagged with a price, and people walk through and buy things. Estate sales typically take place over the course of several days and are usually open to the public.

Should You Work With an Estate Sale Company?

The short answer is probably. Organizing an estate sale is a long and sometimes tedious process, as everything needs to be cataloged and priced appropriately.

Keep in mind that you may be emotionally attached to certain items, whereas an estate sales manager will be objective about the value of the belongings and furniture. However, hiring an estate sale company will cut into your profit because they usually charge between 25% and 45% for commission.

How Does the Estate Sale Process Work?

To ensure your sale goes smoothly, follow these steps to the estate sale process.

Preparation

When preparing for your estate sale, you’ll begin by helping your estate sale professional sort through and price the for-sale items. Any high-quality or antique pieces are usually featured prominently and protected during the sale day.

Jewelry is usually placed in locked cases and handed to buyers one piece at a time by request. Less expensive items might be sold in groups, like three items for $10. Your estate sale manager will tag every item with stickers, hanging tags, or perforated tags where the buyer can rip off the bottom to indicate that the product is no longer available.

Once the estate sale manager looks through your inventory, they’ll be able to advise you on the length of your sale. Some estate sales are one-day events, while others last for three days if there are a lot of items.

Advertising

To get people excited for your estate sale, you’ll want to do more advertising than you would for a garage or yard sale. Estate sales companies usually have a list of clients they can notify, and these lists can include hundreds to even thousands of people in the surrounding area. The company will usually also list your sale on their website. Online classifieds or paper newspaper classifieds are a good way to go if you’re looking for more reach since sale searchers often look in those places.

Day of the Estate Sale

The night before the estate sale starts, you and your sale team should put up signs indicating where the sale is happening. If you live in a neighborhood, you may want to put up directional signs from any nearby main road. During the sale, some companies will limit the flow of people coming into the home, only allow a certain number of people in at a time, and have the traffic flow in one direction.

Checkout happens at designated spots, usually only one place, and the company will keep an inventoried list of items so they can mark off what sells. Some companies limit the payment options—some are cash only, many do not take personal checks, and credit card payments, if available, usually have a service fee.

The estate sale company may provide boxes, bags, or other packing materials for customers, or this responsibility may fall on your shoulders, so it’s a good idea to prepare in advance. Customers usually cannot bring in large bags or bulky coats to reduce the incidence of shoplifting.

How Does Estate Sale Pricing Work?

couple looking at furniture
Photo: Sidekick/ Adobe Stock

Pricing your estate sale items can be tricky, which is why it’s a good idea to bring in a professional. You want to make sure your items are appropriately priced for their value but not priced so high that people won’t want to buy them. Checking online comparables and talking to an antique dealer are useful methods for getting an idea of general pricing. If you’re holding an estate sale for multiple days, marking items down on the second or third day may drive more sales.

What Happens to Unsold Estate Sale Items?

At the end of an estate sale, you may have a few unsold pieces leftover. If you have room to store the items, you could continue selling them online via classifieds or auctions. Donating to charity is another way to get rid of any items that don’t sell, and some charitable organizations will allow you to arrange a pickup at the end of your sale.

How to Find Local Estate Sales

Looking to browse for items at a local estate sale? Check out the following resources where people advertise estate sales, including:

  • Website of estate sale companies

  • Online classifieds

  • Newspaper ads

  • Social media

  • Posters around your neighborhood

Can Buyers Negotiate at an Estate Sale?

It’s very common for buyers to negotiate at any type of non-retail sale. Decide in advance what you’re willing to negotiate on and what prices are firm in case this happens. Don’t accept any offers that are lower than you’re comfortable with, but be reasonable. When in doubt, defer to your estate sale professional to guide you on negotiating.

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