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6 Tips for a Successful Estate Sale

An expert's suggestions on how to sell your late parents' stuff

Next Avenue’s Richard Eisenberg recently wrote a post called “Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents' Stuff.” He’s right, generally speaking, but it also kind of depends on what stuff your parents had. If there’s value — or at least value in the eyes of others — an estate sale could be worth trying.

Simply put, an estate sale is a sale of virtually everything in the house. An estate sale is probably way more stuff than you’d be able to haul outside for a yard sale. If you hire a professional estate sale company, which is a smart idea, the business will take a commission of typically 35 percent to 50 percent of the sale’s gross proceeds.

2 Types of Estate Sale Buyers

An estate sale needn’t have high-dollar items in order to be successful, though.

As William Oliva of Babe & Snooks Estate Sales  in Chicago says: “There are two types of buyers: Dealers or re-sellers and regular folks. Of course, having high-end items draws more people — the curious and those hoping to negotiate for a lower price.”

6 Tips for a Successful Estate Sale

If you’re thinking about selling your parents' possessions through an estate sale, follow Oliva’s six tips below:

First, you’ll want to see if the stuff even warrants an estate sale. So, find a reputable estate sale professional to do a walk-through and to give you an assessment. “There should be no fee for the initial consultation, ever,” said Oliva.

To choose a good estate sale company near you, start by asking friends and family members for references. Alternatively, look for companies online. Sites like and let you locate firms locally or will contact them for you. You’ll want to be sure any company you hire is bonded and carries liability insurance.

Interview multiple estate sale firms and check them out on the Better Business Bureau site to eliminate ones with legitimately negative reviews. Ask for references you can check before committing to an estate sale company.

Second, do not throw away anything. Sometimes, what may look like junk to you may be a treasure to someone else. Estate sale staffers are trained to know what is desirable and can help you determine what to junk or give away. After a loved one passes away, family members usually want mementos in remembrance of the deceased. It's important not to allow the family to take only the valuable stuff and leave rubbish.


Third, allow a window of about a month in advance of the sale to properly set up the home. An experienced estate sale team should take about five days to get things ready. Thursdays through Sundays are prime days for estate sales; the only days that sales don’t happen are Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Fourth, make the estate sale presentable and enticing. Tidy up the house and be sure you’re selling clean, undamaged items. People will pay more for a set of china with nine undamaged pieces than a set with 12 undamaged pieces and three chipped pieces; the chipped pieces lower the overall value of the entire set. It’s also useful to offer a balanced mix of items for sale — high-end items or collectibles and “garage sale” items priced for the general public.

Conversely, here’s an example of what you don’t want to do: “Let’s say the homeowner who passed away was a stained glass artist,” Oliva says. “The basement is filled with material for making stained glass, with thousands and thousands of dollars worth of glass and tools. In the rest of the house, there are a lot of rusty lamps and some dirty kitchen appliances and dishes.” Only the material and tools for making stained glass would probably be of value, and then only to someone who made stained glass.

If the items do include specialized equipment — such as stained glass-making materials — and they don’t sell at the estate sale, you might then want to get bids from a dealer or store specializing in such things. And if that doesn’t work, try donating them to a nonprofit, such as a local art program or college.

Fifth, get lots of pictures taken of what will go up for sale. You then post the photos on an estate sale site. “We average about 350 photos per ad,” said Oliva. “You will need to have a professional photographer on hand to take the good photos.” Bear this expense in mind when considering holding an estate sale.

Sixth, be sure that signs get put up in the area where the home is located. They’ll be ones like those used by real estate agents.

Ultimately, somebody may want some of your parents’ stuff and be willing to pay you something  for them.

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