Some Simple Advice for Estate Sales and Auctions

One of my favorite things to do on a lazy Saturday is check out an estate sale or estate auction. These types of sales occur when someone passes away, the family removes personal effects and neatens up a house, and then it’s partially opened so that people can go in and buy or bid on the items.

Estate sales exist in a wide variety of formats. Sometimes, they’re like yard sales, where everything has a sticker price and there’s a little room for negotiation. Sometimes, it’s an auction with an auctioneer. Sometimes, it’s a silent auction where you drop bids in a box for each item you want and then you’re contacted if you’re the winner.

In the past, I’ve come home from estate auctions and sales with all kinds of strange items. A decent portion of my home brewing equipment came from an estate sale, as did a bunch of my oldest tabletop RPG books. I bought some very solid gardening equipment at an estate sale, most of which is still in use around our property. I’ve also flipped a few items I’ve bought from estate sales, including some vintage records and magazines that no one seemed interested in that I got for pennies.

In any case, the purpose of an estate sale of any kind from the perspective of the buyer is to seek out bargains, and there are a few strategies that work well regardless of the style of the sale. Here are some things I always do whenever I take the time to check one out.

Set a budget before you go and bring the means to easily pay for the items you win. This way, you can be sure that you’re not exceeding what you can afford in the heat of the moment. My strategy is to simply take cash to an estate auction. I’m not usually looking to buy extremely expensive items, so a reasonable amount of cash is usually more than enough for the few items that I might bid on. Plus, cash in hand means that I can handle the transaction easily.

If I happen to not spend the amount I budgeted for the estate sale, I just deposit it right back into my bank account the next time I’m near the bank or an ATM.

Show up as early as possible to examine the items and get first choice. Be there at the first moment people are allowed to view the items, if not earlier. If you get there earlier, get in line.

If it’s a sale, the first people in the door get first pick of the items on sale. If you’re late, the items are often picked over, with some of the best items already sold.

If it’s an auction, getting there early gives you more time to examine the items before bidding begins. This means you have a little more time to do some research on your phone and settle on a bid.

Figure out which things you might have an interest in personally and which items you feel very confident you can flip, and ignore everything else. If it’s not something you personally want to own and it’s not something you are completely confident you can quickly flip for a profit, just ignore it. Pretend it doesn’t exist.

You might see an amazing price on a riding lawnmower, but if you don’t need a riding lawnmower and you don’t think you can quickly flip it for more, skip it.

The key for buying stuff for yourself is to make sure you really have a use for the item or whether it’s just “more stuff.” The key for buying stuff to flip is a strong confidence that you can sell it off quickly and earn a nice profit for doing so.

If it’s an auction, set a “target number” for each item that represents your maximum bid, write it down, and stick with it. Whenever I’m checking out items before an estate auction, I write down any items I’m interested in along with what my maximum bid will be for that item.

The thing is, I’m not going to pay a lot for an item at an estate sale where all sales are final. If I’m buying something for my own use, I recognize that the item is used and that it would be utterly silly to buy it for any more than I could find it elsewhere used. If I’m buying something to flip, it needs to be really easy to flip and secure a significant profit margin for my efforts, so I’m going to set a low target number here, too.

Make that target number uneven. This seems like a strange tactic, but it often works. Many people set their target number at a very even amount, like $50 or something. I’ll often settle on a target number that’s uneven, like $53 or $46. That way, I often beat the people who make very even bids by just a little bit.

This tactic is most effective at silent auctions, where people quite often submit round number bids. I pretty consistently make $11 and $21 bids during silent auctions because that extra $1 is often the difference maker, netting me the item for only $1 more than someone else’s bid.

Don’t be intimidated by crowds. Sometimes, estate sales will have just a few people. Sometimes, there will be tons of people. Don’t sweat it either way.

The most important thing to do is to not alter your “target number” for items just because there are a lot of people there. Don’t spend more just because you think there might be more competition for the item you’re interested in. If you hit your ceiling, stop. There will always be another opportunity to get that item.

Another factor worth noting is that, quite often, the crowds aren’t even looking for the items you’re looking for. I went to an estate auction once where there were several people bidding like mad on old signs, but when other items came up, you could hear a pin drop. I walked away with multiple bargains from that auction because I didn’t inflate my target prices due to crowds.

Do not get caught up in the heat of the moment! Stick to your plan! It can be tempting during an auction to get caught up in the moment and try to win rather than sticking to your game plan. Don’t let that happen.

Here’s the truth: if you’re still bidding after exceeding your starting price, you’ve already lost. You’re paying more than you intended for an item you can likely find elsewhere, or else you’re eating directly into your profit margin from the flip and reducing the value of your time invested in flipping that item. Don’t do it. Only regret lies down that path.

Don’t buy anything that you can’t thoroughly clean before taking it into your house. If I buy something from an estate sale, I want to be able to thoroughly clean it before taking it home, especially if it’s any sort of cloth item. Clothes, linens, curtains, and other cloth items can often harbor bugs and other unwanted elements, so if I’m unable to easily wash the item before taking it home, I don’t bid.

The last thing you want is to get bedbugs or other items in your home because of an estate sale “bargain.” Just don’t bring items home that could potentially be harboring such things.

Ask about items in other locations, such as sheds, barns, or outbuildings. Sometimes, estate sales are split up with items in multiple locations around the property. Usually, most of the items can be found in the house, but there are often many items for sale in sheds, barns, cellars, outbuildings, and other places.

It never hurts to ask the person running the sale whether there are items to be found elsewhere on the property. Are there items in the barn? The shed? The worst case situation is that they say, “Nope, everything for sale is right here.” On the other hand, it’s quite possible that you’ll be directed to a treasure trove of items that other buyers have completely missed.

Estate sales are a great way to find an occasional amazing bargain on something you can flip or something you actually need. The items are typically much more varied than a usual garage sale. Plus, if nothing else, it’s an interesting way to spend a lazy Saturday.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.