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  • Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine

What Happens at Estate Sales?

By Kathleen Reynolds

“Estate Sale Today” – what does that sign mean exactly? Intriguing, perhaps, but what’s being sold? Will it only offer items I can’t afford? Will I look foolish because I don’t know what I’m doing? Estate sales professionals, with 50 years of staging sales between them, along with a seasoned estate sale shopper, are happy to share their knowledge.

Karen Ross and her husband, Peter, have spent 30 years conducting estate sales and as owners of the Antique Shoppe ( Karen explains the basics.

“An Estate Sale is selling the contents of a home, after the family has removed any items they want to keep,” says Karen. “In contrast, a garage sale has random items that a family no longer wants or needs and is usually held in their yard, driveway or garage. Our business will sell anything in your home, from chandeliers to cars, boats or trailers. We bring in tables and display cases for smaller valuables and jewelry.”

Usually, families conduct an Estate Sale due to the death of relatives or if an elderly relative is moving into assisted living, doing general downsizing, divorcing or paying debts. Items for sale may be fine antiques, paintings, silver, watches, vintage jewelry and rugs to household utensils and small appliances.

Prices vary for hiring an estate sale company, Karen explains, “Usually they charge 40 to 50 percent of what sells.”

Sometimes, estate sales professionals will ad fees for necessities such as advertising, research time, staffing or security.

How do you know how much it will cost? What will happen to items that don’t sell? Will they clean up afterwards?

“Get a written contract,” says Karen. “Make sure it states the percentage of sales for each party and when the sale will start and end. It should state what will be done including research and appraisal if necessary, pricing and staffing if needed. It also should detail what the parties want to do with unsold items. Will the items be donated, picked up or hauled away? Is clean-up included?”

Karen suggests before hiring a firm to conduct the sale, families check that they have a business license and insurance, ask how long they’ve been in business and get references.

“If a family doesn’t know if there is enough in the home for an Estate Sale, we offer a free consultation. Sometimes, the house doesn’t have many things, or the dollar amount would be too small for us to conduct an estate sale.”

Marsha Taylor has been an Estate Sales professional for 20 years.

“The value we bring is that we take the emotions out of disposing of a loved one’s property. This is a labor-intensive business. We’re saving our clients a minimum of 40 to 80 hours of work. The best clients are the ones who let us do what we know how to do. We have empathy for the clients, but we aren’t emotionally attached to any of their items. I advise people not to put anything in the sale that they don’t want sold. Their relative’s treasured vase is probably not going to be valued as highly as they think it should.”

“When the sale is over, the most efficient way is to turn the leftover items to us and let us determine the best way to dispose of them. We may sell them to a reseller or donate them, but we also don’t want the clients to be upset if we put out the useful items on the lawn marked for free. The objective is to have an empty house at the end. If the person wants an unsold item back, that’s fair enough if we know ahead of time. We also tidy up and clean the floors afterwards.”

The experts say that an estate sale at a moderate-sized home takes two to three days, usually Friday through Sunday.

Bartering is expected. “That’s the fun of it,” says Marsha. “I usually bundle things for a price. The goal is to sell it all. We are flexible and friendly; that’s how you sell everything.”

Seasoned shopper, Mary Ann Evans, says there is a variety of reasons to investigate an estate sale.

“I go to estate sales because it is like going on a treasure hunt looking for something I didn’t know I wanted or needed, and getting it for a bargain. Each person is unique and therefore, everyone looks for something that is unique to them. That is what makes each sale so different. The space reflects the personality and treasures of the original owner. When you go into an estate sale, it needs to be treated as a sacred space that once belonged to someone who loved it and not somewhere to go and just rummage through everything as some people do.”

Many shoppers go to sales to find a bargain and resell it on eBay or Craigslist.

“Estate sales are entertaining,” says Mary Ann. “I look for good deals for myself or something that I can sell and make a little profit. However, I have bought impulsively at an estate sale and have had buyer’s remorse. That is when I either sell it for less than I paid for it just to move it along or donate it to Community Projects. Either way is a win because it goes to someone who really wants it.”

Does she have advice for would-be buyers?

“Don’t go unless this is something that is fun for you. You will learn as you go. Everyone has something that they are really interested in. I love china, but it has a limited resale market. Some people love jewelry. My husband likes tools. Finally, there are treasures everywhere, sometimes you must look closely, and many times others have overlooked them. We usually go through a house twice because there is so much to see, there are things that you miss the first time around.”

If you want to venture into the world of Estate Sales, they are listed in the newspaper, on Craigslist, or by following signs on the street and on websites such as Good luck in your hunt.


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