How to Win Big at Estate Auctions and Furnish Your Home on the Cheap

An estate auction can be as much of an opportunity to fill your home as it is to empty someone else’s.

Estate auctions buy items either from the estate sales of people who have passed away or from willing sellers looking to unload excess stuff. Items up for sale can range from small lots of blankets and kitchen wares to larger offerings like cars, boats, and mobile homes, but it’s the items in the middle that offer some of the biggest bargains.

Five years ago, my wife and I purchased our first home: A more than 2,400-square-foot, 19th-century Oregon farmhouse on two acres that also included various outbuildings, an English garden, and a sprawling goat pen complete with two goats (who were given to us as part of the terms of sale).

We’d bought it as a short sale, and the previous owners were kind enough to leave some furnishings behind, but we’d moved from a 650-square-foot apartment and had never lived somewhere with more than 900 square feet of space.

During our first week in the house, as we watched television in a largely empty room and sat on delicate antique chairs left behind by the previous owner — each chair creaking as if to warn us that they wouldn’t see another century — we knew we needed some help. Our old couch wouldn’t fit through the narrow doors and was relegated to the basement (where it remains), our living room was now one of two largely empty living rooms in the house, and our bed frame was propped up with remnant lumber after two moves in two years — including one 3,000 miles across the U.S. — had taken a toll.

My wife’s cousin, who lives just a few miles away, informed us of an estate auction near our house and took us to a low grey building in Hillsboro, Ore., that resembled a bingo hall. We signed in, got our number and, in our first night, came home with a large pine dresser ($35) that matched an armoire left by the previous owners and a swiveling armchair ($45) for my wife, who vowed to enjoy her next evening in the living room on a stable chair produced within the last century.

Over a span of three years, we went back to the Friday-night auction on an almost bi-weekly basis. We bought a sofa, two latch-front end tables/media cabinets, a coffee table, a tobacco cabinet (now just an odd end table), a record cabinet (used to store games and puzzles), a gate-leg side table, a wingback armchair, matching liquor and cocktail-glass cabinets, a bookshelf, a credenza, assorted lamps, a new bed frame, and a lingerie chest. We also purchased smaller lots that included items like Pendleton blankets, a label maker, assorted glassware, and a whole lot of kitchenware.

Within that three-year period, we spent $2,456 to fill two living rooms, a dining room, a kitchen, our bedroom, and multiple guest bedrooms. That’s roughly $819 a year, which we still considered a sizable sum. However, when even a cost-conscious furniture store like IKEA proposes simple, no-frills rooms for $1,419, spending less than $300 per room feels pretty cheap by comparison; we were able to stretch our dollars further than we imagined.

When we more recently furnished an attached guest quarters with a floor-model sofa ($1,255.80), recliner ($1,362), and coffee table ($299) that, on their own, exceeded the cost of three years at the auction, we wondered briefly why we hadn’t just gone back and started placing bids again instead.

The answer is that estate auctions, while inexpensive, are fickle. Natalie Prinslow, business manager at our local auction house — Estate Sales Unlimited in Hillsboro, Ore. — has worked at the auction house founded by her parents for 33 years and notes that items typically sell for 25% to 50% of their original retail value. She also notes that said value can fluctuate from week to week.

During an auction held earlier this year on Super Bowl Sunday, Prinslow says a couch on the auction house floor sold for $375. The next week, a couch of the exact same brand, model, and condition sold for $1,100.

“Every auction is different,” she says. “It sometimes just depends on who shows up.”

Within the last two decades, Prinslow has watched the auction crowd shift from farmers coming in to buy equipment and inexpensive home goods to tech-savvy employees of Hillsboro businesses like Intel, Genetech, and SolarWorld who are less likely to take items that need some work and more interested in ready-to-use hidden gems. It’s why nights at previous auctions have featured modernist Eames lounge chairs and ottomans selling on the same night as Mantis gas-powered garden tillers and old Sears Kenmore basement refrigerators.

Typically, however, the demographics of the auction matter far less than the actual attendance. As Prinslow pointed out, there were far fewer buyers at an auction that competed directly with the Super Bowl than there was the following Sunday when there were fewer distractions. My wife and I paid considerably more for our second auction armchair ($85) than our first ($45), simply because we bid for the former at a well-attended midsummer auction and won the latter at a sparsely attended winter auction in late February.

While the price of some goods rarely changes — Prinslow says tools typically sell for close to their original retail price, while most jewelry gets a steep discount — there are some steps worth taking to ensure you’re getting the most value for your money.

1. Check with the Better Business Bureau: If you’re going to an estate auction for the first time and want to make sure you’re getting what you’re paying for, check with the BBB for reviews and complaints.

2. Ask the auction employees for help: Employees at a reputable auction house work the auctions regularly and can tell you who owned the product, what kind of condition they found it in, and how it’s holding up.

3. Test before you bid: Estate Auctions Unlimited allows potential bidders to start cars, fire up motors, plug in appliances, and get some idea of whether or not an item is worth buying. However, even Prinslow acknowledges that it’s difficult for staff to check every item themselves in estate auctions with hundreds of lots.

Beyond that, I’ll just let you know that you’re going to make mistakes. I ended up with a dead $20 hedge trimmer simply because I didn’t take the time to test it out. We bought a tiller in January that was useless when we finally went to fire it up in April — with our mower repairman declaring it dead on arrival.

You’ll also get really excited about items and end up with adrenaline-driven purchases you didn’t know you wanted. Some work out (a label maker in a box of old Nintendo games), and some just end up back at resale (we were never going to need 16 oil lamps, even at $10).

Just remember that you’re ultimately in control of what you spend, and you can always just walk away when you’re feeling rushed or cash poor.

“It’s up to you whether or not you want to bid that high,” Prinslow says. “It isn’t like the estate sales, where you pay a certain price for something whether you like it or not… it’s in your hands.”

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Jason Notte

Contributor for The Simple Dollar

A former personal finance reporter at TheStreet and columnist for MarketWatch, Jason Notte’s work has appeared in many other outlets, including The Newark Star-Ledger, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and The Boston Globe. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S. and the layout editor for Boston Now, among other roles at various publications.