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The Curse of the Brown Furniture

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Some furniture just isn’t selling well right now, especially what is being called “brown furniture”, such as mahogany china hutches, oak dressers, maple coffee tables and the like (read this article about why it isn’t). Or if it is selling, it is going a rock bottom prices.  This can be a big disappointment to estate sale companies who need to sell it to make a profit, and an even bigger disappointment to their clients who had long believed that they harbored treasures in their homes only to discover that nobody really wants them–not their children, not their friends and sometimes not even the buyers who “settle” for something they don’t love just because it fits their small budget.  Don’t panic: there is hope yet!  Here are some ideas that might help change your customers’ minds (or your own!) about buying:

  1. Give them some ideas about how to make an out-of-date or ragged piece into something more contemporary and fun!   Post photos of something similar that has been transformed by paint, updated upholstery, new hardware, or perhaps a totally new shape and function. (Here are some before and after ideas in this article by Better Homes and Gardens)
    Before

    Before

    After

    After

  2. Make it a gift idea.  Everyone knows someone who is just starting out.  Maybe it’s a newlywed, or a college student, or your brother who has been living in your parents’ basement but is finally venturing out into the world.  With usable older furniture prices at an all time low, here is your chance to help out for very little.  Encourage your customers to buy for someone with a limited budget that could use a desk or a much needed storage item.
  3. Educate your customers about the value of older, better made furniture.  It’s still around in abundance for a reason!  It was made to last for generations.  Too often today’s furniture, especially the stuff bought from big retail stores known for cranking out cheap and momentarily attractive pieces, are made with built-in obsolescence in mind.
  4. Encourage green living.  Buying used furniture means saving our natural resources, and it also assures that the furniture that isn’t purchased doesn’t find it’s way into a (gasp!) landfill.
  5. Suggest that buying might be an investment for the future. Antiques are cheap NOW, but they probably won’t always be so.  Trends are cyclical, and what is out of fashion now may be all the rage next year.  For instance, Victorian furniture (previously so popular and expensive) is out, while mid-century modern furniture (once the bane of younger boomers maybe because it reeked of the boring bourgeoisie world of their parents) is still highly sought after several years of booming sales. But MCM furniture sales are slowly waning in popularity.  What will be the next trend?  Maybe, just maybe, it will be all those Victorian pieces full of frills and curlicues that someone was smart enough to buy a lot of while the prices where low!

All that you need are some helpful ways to help customers recognize the benefits of buying the furniture that you know is still fantastic and useful.  They want it, they just don’t know it right now.

If you want more ideas about buying, read 18 Tips on Shopping at Estate Sales.

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Choosing an Estate Sale Company You Can Trust

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Most estate sale companies, just like most people, are reputable and honest.  A few are not.  Sometimes we need a little help in decided which is which.

Someone recently bemoaned the dishonesty found in estate sale companies.  They had read the headlines about some company that bilked their client, so it must be true that all of the companies are out to cheat you, right? Those articles don’t, of course, point out that the vast majority of estate sale companies across the nation are good, reputable and trustworthy because that wouldn’t make an interesting story.

How can you trust a company to do what’s right? As with any other aspect in life, some people are honest and some aren’t. There are no guarantees that whomever you choose will be honest (though I truly believe that you usually get what you expect.  Read here for more info), but there are steps you can take to help increase your odds of finding a suitable company. Here are some helpful tips:

  • Interview a prospective company in person.  They will want to see the property to be sold anyway, so set an appointment to get to know them.  Have your questions at hand so you won’t forget important issues.
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  • Make sure they are a legitimate company: do they have a license, insurance, experience?
  • Can they provide references?
  • Do they charge a reasonable percentage for your neighborhood/city/state?  Estate sale companies usually make their money by charging a percentage of all that they sell.  That percentage differs from job to job, from company to company, from location to location.  Some companies, perhaps those in areas with a low cost of living, can charge as little as 20%.  Other companies, many in high population density areas and high cost of living zones, can charge as much as 50%.  The degree of difficulty of a job can also influence the percentage charged.  Picking the company that charges the lowest percentage might work fine or it might be a catastrophe waiting to happen.  Often, you get what you pay for.
  • Do they charge sales tax? Perhaps not all states require sales taxes to be collected, but many do.  Find out how the prospective company handles this.
  • Note how long they have been in business and if they have any other qualifications that show they are serious professionals and not just a fly-by-night company.  Are they a certified appraiser (this is NOT necessary for an experienced estate sale professional, but it does show their level of commitment)? Do they have business cards? Do they have the necessary tools of the trade (many tables, display cases, etc).
  • Do they have a contract for you to read and sign?  If yes, read it over careful.  Have someone else read it, too.  Can they explain what it all means in a way you can easily understand?  Don’t sign the contract until you are comfortable with all the clauses.  If they don’t have a contract, I might be concerned.
  • Trust your instincts when you meet them. If you don’t trust them, don’t hire them. There is bound to be another company to hire instead that you might feel better about.
  • Check with the Better Business Bureau to see if there have been any complaints filed against them or their owners (keep in mind that not all legitimate companies are members of BBB).
  • Check with Yelp or other customer review sites.  Keep in mind, though, that anyone can file an anonymous complaint–even the competition.  Nobody checks to make sure the complaints are fair or legitimate.
  • Most professionals would not risk their reputation by doing shady deals because it could obviously affect their futures in the industry. Do they suggest ideas that sound risky or unorthodox to you that another company would refuse to do?
  • If you are really a careful person, you can try running a background check on the company owner.  This might at least show whether they have ever been convicted of a crime, though it doesn’t prove that they are honest and honorable.

With a bit of caution and care, and a modicum of trust, you should have little difficulty finding a company that will handle your sale in a professional and upright manner.   To find such a company, ask someone you already trust– lawyer, real estate agent, someone you know who has already used a professional they liked — to suggest companies you can contact.  Or visit one of the websites that supply lists of potential companies in your area, such as estatesales.net.

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The End of the Line

I see the end stories to the lives of way too many people. The following poem really struck a nerve for me.  If it doesn’t for you, then maybe you are doing things the right way.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

~ Mary Oliver ~

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Vindication At Last!

I’ve been called a fool more than once.  I’m okay with that for the most part.  My beliefs have often been called naive and unsophisticated (yes, I DO believe in ghosts, so deal with it).  At last, though, I’ve been vindicated in at least one of those wild and childish beliefs!  Science itself has proven me to be correct when I’ve asserted that Trust begets Trustworthiness!  You read right: through complex and thorough scientific procedures and testing, it has been proven that the level of oxytocin found in our blood “creates bonds of trust not just in our intimate relationships but also in our business dealings, in politics and in society at large.”  Furthermore, to trigger this bond of trust, “all you have to do is give someone a sign of trust.  When one person extends himself to another in a trusting way –by, say, giving money–the person being trusted experiences a surge in oxytocin that makes her less likely to hold back and less likely to cheat.”  You can read more about this miraculous discovery in the Wall Street Journal, if you want, but trust me!  I’ve always known that this was true, and this is one belief I’m ecstatic to have validated.  And you don’t even have to give me money to get me to trust you (but it wouldn’t hurt)!

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What I Hate About Running Estate Sales

The last few entries were a bit schmaltzy and people are starting to complain (Okay, nobody complained; it was just my opinion.  Either nobody else thought so, or nobody else reads my blog.).  With that in mind, let me tell you what I hate about estate sales:

  1. Clients who want to control everything.  They hired me, but I’m just a front, just a conduit for their ego displays.  They already have prices in mind for most of their belongings, usually greatly inflated above their resell value.  Maybe they just want to show off about what great taste they or their parents had.  I don’t know their reasons, all I know is that the sale will most likely tank and I will sell very little.
  2. Complaining neighbors.  I try to ensure that all my customers and workers obey the posted street signs and don’t hassle the people who live around my sale, but there always seems to be one person who loves to break the rules. That person is usually matched by one neighbor who is chronically unhappy, and the estate sale in their neighborhood is a great excuse for them to vent.  If someone is truly being bothered, please come talk to me and I’ll do whatever I can to solve the problem.  But please don’t call the property owner or the police before you’ve told me about the problem.  I’m not hard to find:  I’m almost always right at the front of the sale so that I can more easily handle whatever problems I see.  I want you to be as happy as I can help you to be.  It makes my job more pleasant, too.
  3. Thieves.  I don’t get them too often, but when I do, it breaks my heart and possibly even breaks my budget.  I take it personally when people steal from my sales; it feels like such an insult.  I’m a trusting person and I like it that way.  When someone steals, it hurts my image of myself and of other people  I don’t want to go through life being suspicious of others.  Besides, you may be stealing from a dead person’s family!  Maybe they need that money more than you do.  And if it is a foreclosure or downsizing sale, they almost certainly need all the money they can get.  For that matter, so do I!
  4. People who don’t play the game right.  If you ask me the price of something and you don’t like my answer, there’s no need to get huffy about it.  I’m not trying to pull a trick on you or to steal your hard earned money.  I’ve priced that item that way because I believe it is the correct price to ask for it.  Possibly I’m wrong, but its more likely that I will inadvertently price it too low than too high.  What you think is a outlandishly priced purse could be a Louis Vuitton that retails for thousands of dollars  or maybe that ordinary looking set of wineglasses is really a hand-blown set by Stueben that actually sells for several hundred dollars.  Even if it IS an ordinary item that I just priced higher than you want to pay, there is no reason to get angry or (just as bad) to slam it down and walk away.  If you are confused about why I priced something as I did, or if you just don’t want to pay the price I put on an item, just ask me.  I might tell you why it’s so expensive, or I might stand by my price because I think it’s fair, or I could possibly be willing to negotiate with you.  You won’t know unless you ask.
  5. Working hard on a sale and not making enough money to make it worth my time.  It happens.  I’m sure you can figure out why I hate this.
  6. Working on a boring sale.  I rarely get these kinds of sales, possibly because I choose carefully. Probably, though, it’s because I love digging through people’s lives and finding out about them, which makes most sales at least passably interesting.  However, occasionally sales have only ordinary items because the family has already mined the estate for all its gold (both literally and figuratively).  All I can hope for then is that the family at least kept the interesting stuff and didn’t just throw it away.
  7. When people tell me that I’ve got a great job because it’s so easy.  It’s not easy.  It requires heavy lifting, it’s dusty or dirty, we work long hours, and often it is messy and smelly.  It looks easy because I have years of experience doing it.  And it has taken me years of experience plus college courses in appraising that have given me enough knowledge to price ordinary items with confidence, or recognize my ignorance so I know when to do more research.  By the time the customers come in, the chaos we started with has been partially tamed and cleaned. If I’m being honest, though, I don’t really hate this part of the job, I just hate being told it is easy.
  8. People who can’t wait until a reasonable hour before calling me to find out the price of an item they want.  I know you are excited and want to get first dibs on that special thing, whatever it might be, but chances are good that I haven’t even priced it yet. And please don’t ask me to let you buy it early.  You always have some excuse about why you can’t come to the sale, but I know you probably made it up.  You just want what you want when and how you want it, and at the price you like.  While I’d love to sell you as much as you want, I have other customers who have seen the same pictures but are willing to wait until the sale to try to buy it.  Think about how rude that would be to them to just up and sell the item before they have a fair shot, and all just because they followed the rules and waited politely.  Also, I have a life outside of doing estate sales.  Waking me by calling at dawn or after I’ve gone to bed will not go in your favor.  But it does let me know that the item is of special interest so I know to price it just a little bit higher than I might have otherwise.  Hey, maybe I should thank you for calling and warning me!  Nah!
  9. Finding a treasure that turns out not to be one.  I’ve gotten excited about something before and been disappointed.  That Louis Viutton purse turned out to be a phony; the original oil painting turned out to be by an unknown family member; the gold necklace wasn’t a gold necklace.
  10. Worse than #9 above is having a customer find a treasure that I didn’t find first.  That hurts.  The worst one I’ve witnessed fortunately happened to someone else back when I was just a peon assistant: she had priced something in a hurry; a customer came,  grabbed it and laughed in glee as he explained to me just how rare his find was and how much it was really worth.  I never told that pricer about her mistake because I knew it would haunt her more than it did me.

Overall, it looks like there isn’t much I hate.  That’s a good thing.  I’d better stop now before I get schmaltzy again.

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What We Carry With Us

This is just for those who run sales or are interested in running them. Or just for the curious. Here is a list of the stuff I often take with me to an estate sale:

Tape: cellophane, blue painter’s, duct, red or yellow warnings. We use many kinds for many different jobs: hanging signs with prices printed on them or signs that warn of steps and other dangers or signs encouraging you to come this way for more treasures; weighting our outdoor estate sale sign stands with rocks so that the wind doesn’t blow them over…again (lame, right?); marking uneven areas on the floor or jutting overhead cabinets so that people will notice them and therefore hopefully not trip or not bump their heads; closing off cabinets or doorways into rooms or portions of rooms where the public is not invited to enter.

Price tags: many sizes and styles. Lots of blank stickers upon which I can record prices; various size tags with strings so that I can mark big items like furniture or tiny items like jewelry. I haven’t tried the print-as-you-price type; they seem so impersonal, even if they do look more professional to some.

Hammer: claw hammer, for pounding in an occasional nail when needed or removing an occasional nail that isn’t needed.

Nails: for pounding with a hammer (see above) if needed to hold something up or to keep something else down.

Rubber mallet: for pounding in stakes, for pounding on walls to get attention (never have, but maybe should have).

Rubber gloves: for wearing when I need to stick my hands into unpleasant or scary places.

Face masks or air filters: disposable one that can be worn when air quality is poor. This job can be hazardous to one’s sense of smell; these help.

Locks: for locking places that can be locked and where I don’t want customers to enter. I use them mostly on gates and garage doors, but have used them on attic doors, basement doors and a few cabinets.

Flashlight: for peering into dark spaces: attics, basements, closets. Get the picture? We usually find plenty of need for this item.

Folding canopy: to provide shade outside when needed. I don’t always bring it with me, but I have it in my warehouse if I need it.

Folding chairs: as with the folding canopy, I only bring them when I need them.

Folding tables: lots of them, usually. How many I bring with me varies from sale to sale. I use them to display product upon and for my checkout area.

Tablecloths: I put them on my folding tables to make them look prettier.

Apron: for keeping my clothes from getting dirty and/or dusty.

Paper towels: for cleaning messes, etc, because you never know when you might need some messes cleaned.

Toilet paper: See Paper Towels. It is not pleasant when you arrive at a house to begin work and you find there is no toilet paper. It happens too often to overlook.

Measuring tape: to measure items, of course. Some items are only differentiated from reproductions by their measurements. Sometimes one just needs to make sure an item will fit where one wants to place it.

Safety pins: just in case.

Plastic bags: for putting stuff in; for giving to customers to put stuff in once they’ve made a purchase. I find that all I really need are the grocery store bags I get when I shop. I get a lot.

Sharpies: Yes, that specific brands and No, I’m not getting a kickback. They last the longest and keep their point the best, or at least that is what I’m convinced of until proven wrong.

Pens: for writing notes or lists or doodles.

Sticky notes: (Okay, I know you all know that I mean a specific brand, but one product placement per article is enough). For quickie notes to customers (Don’t enter HERE either!) or to staff members (Don’t tell customers that the tree is for sell!). Also good for reminders to self (Don’t forget to bring cash for the check-out!)

Trash bags: for the disposal of trash or for the collection of stuff to be donated. Lots of them.

Cash box: For holding cash when customers make purchases so that I can give them change.

Cash: See above. I usually find that small bills work better than big ones for the initial pot. I also always put a note with the cash with the starting amount, which keeps me from forgetting how much I started with so that I don’t inadvertently split MY cash with the client (it’s never happened yet, but best to be prepared).

Receipt book: To write receipts. I usually only give them when they are requested.

Notepad: Every company runs their sales a different way. During a sale, I write down every thing I sell and what it sold for. I don’t want to be bothered with using a computer for this because electricity isn’t always available. And when it is available, it isn’t always handy.

Clipboard: for holding notepad or notes or just to make me look official.

Electric cash register: I only use this occasionally. I have found it to be more of a bother than it is worth. However, at times it comes in handy.

Smart Phone: A must. Good for looking up values of many items one finds in an average household or for calling an expert who can identify that weird doohickey one of your staff just found hidden in a closet. Also great for calling friends to talk them into bring you lunch when you’re working too hard to take a break. I also use it to keep track of employee hours. There is also a camera, a calculator, a calendar, my address book, and Scrabble for your break. Oh, and Facebook because, you know, you might want to tell your multitude of friends what you just found while organizing the garage. It’s advertising, right?

Digital camera: I have a camera on my phone, but I still prefer to use my digital camera because I feel that it takes better pictures.

The Square: fantastic app on my smart phone that lets me take credit card payment wherever I am. Has a device you plug into your phone so that you can slide credit cards, but can also let you enter the numbers manually. Magic!

I think that’s it. I always seem to forget to list something, but this is enough to get you started. Perhaps your company always takes something that you think I might find handy. I’d appreciate the suggestions, since that is part of why I’ve started this blog: its a great way to share.

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