By Aleksandra Todorova Published: September 14, 2006
ON A RECENT SATURDAY morning, visitors and residents of Long Island’s tony Hamptons were up for a special treat: a 15,000 square-foot ocean-front home normally behind closed gates at the end of a private road, opened its doors to the public.
Dozens of cars lined up against the perfectly-groomed hedges as casually-dressed Hamptonites hurried in. Those already leaving lugged random objects: an outdoor clay pot. Two pillows and a sham. An oversized pepper mill.
Inside, women gathered at the kitchen bar – a CorningWare casserole and a coffee machine were quickly snapped up – while the men gravitated toward the garage where handyman tools were available for browsing. “Sold” stickers appeared on furniture pieces next to price tags displaying between 50% and 60% off the items’ original cost.
Amid the mayhem, some couples took a moment to admire the spectacular ocean views, while others wasted no time trying out the designer patio furniture.
It was your typical upscale estate sale: The owners had sold the house and commissioned a local consignment store, the ClearingHouse of Southampton, to sell everything in it. Between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. that day, deals were available on everything from designer furniture and swimming pool equipment to pots, pans and Tupperware.
Estate sales – often called “tag sales” because all items have predetermined prices – have a religious following among collectors, antique dealers, interior designers and your basic bargain lovers. Typically held in “old” homes – many sales take place when the household owner dies or moves to a nursing home – they’re an excellent opportunity to find antiques or collectibles at 30% or more below what they’d sell for on eBay or in antique stores. The discount is an incentive for dealers and collectors to attend the events, explains Diane Hudec, vice president of Auctionbay Estate Sales, a Chicago-based estate liquidator.
The chaos of estate sales can be difficult to navigate if you’re a novice. You’re competing with estate-sale veterans – even professionals – for a limited number of deals that are gone in no time. So some prep work is needed if you want to come home with a great find. Below is a guide.
Finding the good sales
Your local paper may be chock full of estate sale ads, but here’s a little secret: That estate sale you drive to in the wee hours of a Saturday morning may turn out to be nothing more than a garage sale, says Harry Rinker, antiques and collectibles expert and host of the nationally syndicated radio show “Whatcha Got?” The difference: People have yard sales to get rid of their junk, so while inexpensive finds may abound, you’d be hard-pressed to find higher-quality items.
“In a true estate sale, you’d expect higher-end merchandise: jewelry, higher-end home appliances, collectibles,” Rinker says. And as estate-sale regulars are perfectly aware of that, many homeowners shamelessly upgrade their yard sales to “estate” or “tag” status simply to attract more customers.
The easiest way to avoid the fakes is to stick to estate sales run by professionals. They typically list estate sales on their web sites at least a week in advance and post pictures of some of the sale pieces. Professionally-run sales tend to be in higher-end houses that have more antiques, explains G.G. Carbone, an antiques expert and author of “How to Make a Fortune With Other People’s Junk.”
The downside? Professionally-run sales may have higher prices. After all, estate liquidators do try to price all items to sell quickly, but they are paid on commission.
Have an action plan
Being an early bird pays off in estate sales: The best goods are typically snatched up within the first couple of hours. “It happens fast and furious,” says James Nicolino, co-owner of the ClearingHouse in Southampton that hosted the Hamptons estate sale. If a sale starts at 9 a.m., for example, “by 11 a.m. about 60% to 70% of the stuff is gone.”
Estate-sale goers typically start lining up an hour or more before the doors open, Carbone says, to make sure they get first dibs on the best items. Because of space constraints, many estate-sale companies actually give out numbers to the people in the line and let in 10 to 20 shoppers at a time.
Some estate liquidators also hold previews for their regular customers, so they get to choose and buy furniture a day or so in advance. If there’s a consignment shop in your area that handles estate sales, be sure to get on their mailing list.
If you have full run of the house (not uncommon, particularly in family-run sales), consider heading to the basement to hunt for collectibles or interesting memorabilia, says Tom Zarrilli, a school librarian in Atlanta, Ga., who spends his weekends at yard and estate sales, snapping pictures for his Yard Sale Addict blog. “You could find anything, all the unusual things people put down in the basement,” he says. “You may find souvenirs from the 1950s, you may find brochures for high-end hotels from the 1930s.”
Estate sales are great places for hagglers, but there are rules. For example, prices are generally solid in the first few hours of the sale, Rinker says. The owners or estate liquidators will be a lot more flexible toward the end of the day, but by that time, most of the good stuff is gone.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try negotiating at any time, Nicolino says, but don’t be pushy. At the Hamptons estate sale detailed above, he had to ask one aggressive negotiator to leave. His “ridiculously low” offers got to the point of insulting. “We told him, ‘That’s it, we’re done with you. You need to leave now,'” he says.
Asking nicely, on the other hand, can take you places. “Throw it out as a question,” Nicolino says. “What’s the best you’ll do on that?”
If you’re still turned down, consider leaving a bid with the sellers. That can be as simple as a note with the price you’re willing to pay. If the item isn’t sold by the end of the day, it’s often yours.