How to Hold an Estate Sale

An estate sale is more than a big garage sale because of the legal and emotional issues. Is holding an estate sale worth it? For a fast reality check, count the number of pieces of ordinary furniture and multiply by $10. Count the kitchenwares and multiply by $.50 or $1 per piece. Even at those low prices, the sale of an estate full of ordinary things can add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Should you use an estate liquidator?
It's best not to commit to an estate sale unless you have at least three weeks to devote to the project. It's time-consuming and exhausting. Consider your work and family obligations, and ask yourself if you can do the sale yourself or if you should hire a professional estate sale agent. Hiring a professional instead of doing it yourself may make emotional sense. A death in the family is stressful, and holding an estate sale may be more than you want to deal with. Unlike a garage sale, estate sales can't be postponed until you can cope.

Beyond the emotional issues, there are financial reasons to consider hiring an estate liquidator. These professionals have a good knowledge of what sells and can price the items in the estate accordingly. An estate liquidator will make sure your estate sale is advertised to draw potential buyers and may have a mailing list of contacts. You'll get receipts for every item sold (helpful at tax time) and some will even provide a credit card reader.

If you go the estate liquidator route, talk to a few liquidators and ask for past references to be sure you're getting an experienced professional. You'll also want to find out how the estate liquidator gets paid; payment could be an up-front fee, a percentage of the total estate sale or a combination of both. If the estate sale includes valuable antiques or artwork, you'll want to find an estate liquidator who is well-versed in these collectibles, but be aware that commissions for high-end liquidators can run as high as 35% of sales.

What to sell
Before the sale, you'll want to thoroughly clean and inspect the home, getting rid of any trash and perishables. Be very thorough; people often hide money and valuables in drawers, books, ice cube trays and other odd places. If there are several beneficiaries of the estate, give everyone a chance to select a few things to keep. If there are disputes over family heirlooms, put them in storage so that the dispute can be resolved after the estate sale.

After that, it's time to decide the pricing, advertise the sale, borrow or rent tables, set up the sale displays and, during the sale days, transact the sales. After the sale is over, anything that did not sell can be donated to charity. Any expenses should be reimbursed by the estate's executor, and the profits from the sale will normally be paid to the estate. Ask the executor how to handle the sale proceeds and who is to be paid. Keep good records of what was in the estate and what happened to it.

Good items for an estate sale: Kitchenwares, linens, appliances, ordinary furniture, decorative items and tools will sell well if the prices are reasonable.

Bad items for an estate sale: Rare books, art, fine antiques, sterling silver and fine jewelry will seldom bring anything near market value at an estate sale unless the estate is of a person who was well known for having fine possessions and collectors of these things know about the sale. An auction house or local dealer is the best place for high-value items. If you go the dealer route, get several offers before you choose one, as some dealers will deliberately lowball you to get a better profit. Most often, you'll get the best prices by auctioning fine art, collectibles and antiques.

How to price
Setting prices begin with identifying each item. Having some experience in collectibles helps, because the difference between a 40-cent costume-jewelry bracelet and a $40 bracelet can be tough for even the experts to spot. You can get books from the library or look up brand names on the Internet to identify what is in the estate. Work through one category at a time and keep a list of what you have identified. If you get stuck, consider hiring an appraiser to help you determine the value of items.

Estate sale customers expect bargains. No one will care that a five-year-old toaster cost $83 when it was new, so if you price it at $50 it won't sell. It's a used toaster. Keep reminding yourself that your goal is to sell everything at the sale. Your prices should match the local thrift stores for most things and be lower than the local consignment stores for furniture. If you are selling collectibles, the prices on completed auctions at eBay are more realistic than the prices in printed guides.

Advertising the estate sale
The words in ads that bring shoppers are tools, collectibles and antiques. Newspaper ads should be placed for Friday, Saturday and Sunday for a weekend sale. The organized customers will see the ad on Friday and place it on their list of sales to check that weekend. The impulse shoppers will look at the paper on Saturday or Sunday

Neighborhood signs placed the day of the sale are effective for attracting the shopper who cruises an area looking for sales. If you can, hold the first day of the sale on Friday, and place ads on a street commuters use.

Online ads, such as ads on, are most effective if you list representative items and have well-lit, uncluttered pictures. Expect some buyers to show up at the crack of dawn no matter what time the estate sale actually starts or how many times you put "No early birds" on the ads. Don't feel bad if you're not ready and need to make them wait.

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Estate taxes are varied and complex, but they typically affect only 2% of Americans with high estate values. If you think your estate is valuable enough to be subject to estate taxes, you may want to learn more about the rules and consult with an estate tax attorney to help you maximize your estate.

Estate sale companies can be extremely helpful if you find yourself in need of holding such a sale. Estate sales can be a fun hobby, a serious business, a home-based business or a part-time sideline for those looking to invest in low-cost estate sale lots for potential turnover.

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