Estate sales are a highlight of every summer and a definite must go pit stop on my vintage road trip. It's the one experience I cannot find here in Hong Kong; not with lack of space, high rents and superstition being such a central part of the local culture.
I love estate sales because everything comes with a back story, an occasion for which each piece was worn and a memory from someone's personal history. I often find myself being reminded of my childhood or stories my parents have shared of theirs. One summer, we found an old View Master from 1956 which made me remember the red one I had when I was just seven or eight.
Estate sales are different to places like Goodwill or Savers and should not to be confused with vintage boutiques and charity shops either. There are varying degrees of curating involved in all of these shopping experiences and when that aspect is done well, they'll likely have a healthy clientele of vintage hunters. Estate sales belong in their own class of description and shopping them requires a certain etiquette, too.
A few years ago, I wrote a little guide which I thought I'd revise for my vintage road trip this summer.
Here it is, Estate Sale Shopping 101: The Basics.
Here it is, Estate Sale Shopping 101: The Basics.
First off, let's do a little review.
What is an estate sale? Simply put, an estate sale is a liquidation of the entire estate of another person. Everything must go, from large and small appliances, clothing, jewellery, shoes, furniture, antique toys and games, old pictures, linens, kitchenware, fine china and silverware, etc. Naturally, each estate is unique because each person's estate reflects that person's lifestyle and their own sense of taste, so you may find that there are some sales where you don't find the items matching with your taste, while other sales are loaded with pieces you love. Sometimes estate sales are called tag sales because of the way items are marked and priced. Contrary to what people often think, estate sales don't have to take place after a person's death. Fairly often, they take place after a person moves into a home, or in with their extended family, as well. Estate sale companies do not accept donations or one off items, rather companies who manage estate sales will help families to liquidate entire estates, hence the reason they are called estate sales.
Next, what to expect for those considering shopping at an estate sale.
What you can find? Aside from the items I mentioned above, estate sales often showcase specialty items, too. It really all depends on the person whose estate is being liquidated. There can be some really unique collections being sold as well. Antique stamp collections, baseball card collections, porcelain figurines, antique beer steins, old instruments, etc. Really, anything. Usually, the estate sale company will post a list of the kinds of items to be showcased. Do check this before you go to decide whether or not the sale will have the kinds of items you're looking for. Usually bigger, higher priced items are reserved for auctions (an entirely different way of shopping, but often found in the same places as estate sales). This might include farm equipment, old bicycles, artwork, etc.
Where are they? Estate sales commonly take place in the homes of the people whose estate is being liquidated. These days, however, families are also selling their homes and are trying to downsize quickly. Estate sale companies go into homes to view the items and then transport those items to a big warehouse to be tagged and sold. This is what happens at the place I visit each summer. This company is called Main Street Estate Sales in Ottawa, IL. Each weekend, new estates are added and multiple estates are represented, which is why their showroom is so huge.
How often do estate sales take place? In my experience, they usually happen on weekends, typically Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The company I visit will list a particular estate over three weekends in order to move all the items. The process of setting up an estate sale is an extremely intricate and timely one. All items have to be priced, tagged with a color to denote which estate it's from and catalogued so the company knows what inventory they have to move. Once this happens, the items are placed in the showroom. It's easy to see why sales only take place on weekends since it must take the majority of the weekdays to prepare.
Estate sales can be overwhelming, so it helps to have a bit of guidance before walking in the door to make your shopping experience more enjoyable.
Tips: You definitely want to get the most out of an estate sale, so pay close attention. Please note, these are not tips for how to pay the least amount of money for what you find. You should not go into an estate sale with this expectation. Estate sales are unique and what you are privileged to browse through are the mementos of a person's entire life. Walking through an estate sale is like browsing through the personal history of a different era and taking a trip through someone else's memories. I often find myself getting very nostalgic and wondering about how life was during that time.
- Get to know the people who are managing the estate sale and the volunteers who are there to help. I've always found these people to be super sweet and helpful. They'll take note of what you're looking at and suggest other items that are similar. Volunteers are there quite often because they share your interest in finding new homes for beautiful pieces from the past. As such, they won't be hustling you for a sale. They'd rather see a treasure go with someone who will enjoy it. Chat with them and find out what they know. Service like this is hard to come by anymore.
- Ask questions. If you've seen a particular item advertised in the announcement, you should ask the people who work there about it. I'm always amazed by their ability to know what's already sold and where certain items have been placed in the showroom. There is so much represented, yet they seem to always know what you're looking for. Also, their goal is to help move the estate so often items come priced in sets. Though they'd prefer to keep them that way, I have found it doesn't hurt to ask if you want to buy things separately.
- Pay attention to signs. Everything is marked very clearly. It has to be because the estate sale company must make sure the money from each sale goes to the correct family. There are often unmarked items which are all priced generally, for example, jewellery can be priced the same and will have a sign denoting "All unmarked jewellery is five dollars." When in doubt, ask.
- Be decisive. With any kind of vintage or secondhand shopping, you have to remember that every item is a one of a kind. When you see something you like, don't hesitate. Don't count on it being there when you circle around again because you're likely up against some collectors who will snap it up in an instant.
Equally important to these tips are the things you need to avoid.
Don'ts: I mentioned before that estate sales are special because they're part of someone's personal history and as such, this should afford them a great deal of respect. This means there are a number of things you just shouldn't do:
- Don't haggle. I have found that the prices at my estate sale place are really competitive. The quality of items is top notch and the prices are even better than many thrift shops. The money goes back to the family of a person's estate with a percentage going to the company managing the sale of the estate. If you go trying to get a bargain, you may just be cheating a family of some of their inheritance.
- Don't remove tags. The tags are different colors to help the estate sale company make sure the correct family gets the money to which they are entitled. The process of tagging items is tedious and timely.
There you have it, a little guide to estate sales to give you a boost in confidence. Keep in mind, these are observations based on my own experiences and you may likely develop your own helpful tips along the way. Experience is your friend in these places.
Good luck and happy shopping!