Estate Sales 101
*This was one of the first articles I wrote for the Ampersand blog. I thought, since it is prime estate sale season, it would be worth re-posting. Enjoy! –Andy
Before we decided to pursue Ampersand Vintage Modern more seriously, I had been to maybe two estate sales. They always seemed a little intimidating. I mean, here you are, rifling through a person’s home and their lifetime of possessions, more than likely, after they’ve died. Did I mention, it’s kinda sad?
Regardless, we’ve quickly realized that estate sales are a valuable resource for building (and, presumably, maintaining) an inventory. Just in the past month, since we began to work at Ampersand full-time, we’ve been to at least half a dozen estate sales. While each one is as unique as the life the contents of the house represents, there are some basic groundrules and tips we picked up on right away.
Do Your Research Beforehand. This newfangled gadget called the internet has made it so easy to find and track estate sales. No more combing through the classifieds in the newspaper (although, some old-schoolers still list there). Through Craigslist and estate sale directories, you can search online for the sales in your specific area. Usually, there is a pretty comprehensive description of the merchandise available and most sites offer many photographs for you to peruse. This way, if you spot something you can’t live without, you’ll know to add that sale to your list.
The Early Bird Gets the Worm. For the most part, this is true. If you want the best selection–that is, of everything available–then you need to be one of the first in line. Yes, I said, “in line.” When you arrive at an estate sale, there will usually be a sign-in sheet or numbers (like at a deli counter), and a line already forming. Depending on the size of the house, and the number of staff running the sale, about 5-10 people are let in the front door at a time. It is a horrible feeling of anticipation after the first 10 people go in, and you’re standing there holding number 11.
Keep Your Eyes and Ears Open. Even while you’re waiting on queue, make sure you look around to see what is available around the yard, front porch, and entry way. Most people are so preoccupied with what’s going on inside, that they miss out on that amazing find that could be right under their feet. Plus, be aware of conversations between other people in line. Collectors can be chatty and social by nature, so listen up. Your anxiety will be assuaged when you find out that cute couple is on the hunt for antique hat pins. On the other hand, your eavesdropping could also alert you to that person in front of you who is also looking for mid-century furniture.
Have a Game Plan. Before you walk in the door, decide where you’re going to go and what you’re going to look for first. Here is when having a partner with you is key. Be strategic. Since most people mill around the main floor, head to the attic, basement, or garage right away and work your way backwards. Also, if you know what you’re looking for, don’t be afraid to ask the person manning the door where you can find such a thing in the house.
Dress Accordingly. More than likely, you’re going to be trudging up and down stairs, so flip-flops or heels may hold you back. Also, there’s no guarantee that the air conditioning will be on in the summertime, so keep that in mind as you prepare to dig through boxes in someone’s third floor attic in July. Lastly, some of the rooms in these estates look like they’d been featured on an episode of Hoarders, so you probably don’t want to wear your nicest sportswear, and having a pair of gloves with you might not hurt.
Be Polite, Yet Assertive. I’m sorry, but niceness counts. Chances are, if you are planning on consistently hitting up estate sales in the same area, you are going to run into the same collectors/dealers just as often. If you’re both eyeing a vintage camera, and you push someone over to get to it, or snatch it out of their hands, then you’re going to make enemies pretty quickly. That being said, if you see something that you like, pick it up and hold on to it. Unless, it’s too big to carry, then you should stay by your find—or sit on it, if it’s a chair—and wait for a sale staffer to come by. If you let it out of your sight, someone else could easily grab it! Which leads me to my next tip…
Bring Shopping Bags and/or Boxes. Those reusable Whole Foods bags are perfect for collecting your treasures as you shop the sale, and you probably already have a stash in your trunk.
Never Pay Sticker Price. Unless it is the first hour of the first day of an estate sale, you are never expected to pay the asking/sticker price on an item. Even if they did just open the door, don’t be afraid to negotiate. Another way to get a deal is to ask for a quantity discount if you’re buying a bunch of things. And, then, after you’ve exhausted all other avenues, see if they’ll knock the price down even more if you pay with cash.
Good Things Come to Those Who Wait. If selection is not what you’re hoping for, and you’re more interested in a bargain, then you should plan to stop by the last day of the sale, just before it’s over. This is when you’ll get the best deals on whatever is left.
Make Connections. Finally, remember to be friendly and ask for a business card from the service running the estate sale. They may have a website where you can check for upcoming sales or sign up for e-mail notifications. Likewise, pass your business card around to staff and fellow patrons alike. You never know, it’s a good way to establish a rapport with other collectors/dealers and inform future customers of your business.