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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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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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18 Tips on Shopping at Estate Sales

This is a companion piece to my earlier entry about how NOT to shop at estate sales.  If you haven’t read it, you can find it here.  Shopping at estates sales is not only economically sensible, but it is also ecologically responsible and possibly financially rewarding.  You get great stuff at low, low prices!  And you can either use them yourself, give them as gifts or sell them at a profit.  Whatever your reason, here are some ideas about how to go to an estate sale:

  1. If you’ve never been to an estate sale, then expect a learning experience.  Estate sales are for everyone, not just the rich, or the poor, or whomever you had once thought they were for.  They are for you.  You are not being intrusive by entering someone else’s home.  You have been invited in.  If it is in the home of someone who has died, don’t feel like you are being disrespectful by going through their stuff.  They won’t care.  They would rather you buy their treasures than to have them go in the trash.  Their family would also like you to buy things.  They have already removed the items they want to keep.  What’s left are things they would rather you buy.  You are helping the family by buying as much of the things in the home as you want and can use.  And the staff at the sale also want you to buy a lot.  You are helping them, too.
  2. Estate sales are not just for shopping for antiques and other expensive stuff.  Most estate sale also have lots of ordinary items for sale, like clothes, pots & pans, ironing boards, vases, cleanser and garden tools.  In fact, usually you will find any possible type of item that you would normally find in your own home.  So why pay retail for laundry detergent when you can get it for a margin of the cost.  Need a coffee table?  What about bathroom rug?  You’ll likely find them at an estate sale.
  3. If finding something specific is important to you, plan to get to the estate sales early.   Some items will go fast at a sale.  If there are photos of the household goods available, look them over carefully and plan what you would like to buy before you go to the sale.  Remember, though, that not everything will be photographed.  What you really want to buy may still be in the house, but may not be in the pictures.   If possible, contact the company to be sure the item is still available.  Some companies sell items before the sale, if they can,  because that is often the best way to get the best price for their client’s property.  Knowing the company’s policy will help you decide what is the best way to get what you want.
  4. Come prepared to pay cash.  Some companies do take checks and/or credit cards, but you shouldn’t count on it.  Bring plenty of cash with you; you can always take the money back home with you if you don’t find something you want.  Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, my company can and does take credit card payment, but it’s not what I prefer.  There is always a fee to be paid for the service and it also means that I have to put my own dollars into the client’s fund because the credit card charge goes directly into the company’s account.
  5. Be respectful of the neighbors.  Don’t stand in their yards, block their driveways, or otherwise be rude.  I know that you think it won’t hurt to park in front of their drive because you are just going to run in for a second and there is NO other place to park.  Don’t do it.  It always takes longer than you think it will.
  6. Make sure you follow the rules that the estate sale sets up.  Every estate sale company has their own way of handling a sale.  Maybe they put up a sign-in sheet, or give out numbers, or run their sale on a first-come-first-in basis.  Whichever they choose, you need to follow it.  Don’t put up your own sign in sheet even though they’ve specified they don’t do that.
  7. When you finally get inside, don’t just randomly grab anything and everything that you think you MIGHT want to buy.  When a customer does that, it prevents others from having a chance to purchase some items.  I’ve had customers bring up a ton of stuff for me to hold that I thought they planned on buying, only to have them come back after shopping an hour and then have them go through their pile and discard half of it.  Not only do I lose potential sales from them, but nobody else was able to buy the stuff either.  And if they’ve had me hold stuff while they shop until the crowd dies down, then the potential that someone else will come along to buy their discards is less too.
  8. Be considerate of your fellow shoppers.  Don’t bogart the good stuff unless you actually plan to buy it; don’t grab stuff from someone else’s hands (yes, I’ve seen this happen); don’t push in front of another customer to reach something before they can; don’t dig through someone else’s pile of goodies; smile a lot and complain rarely.  This should be a fun experience for everyone.
  9. Try to shop in an orderly manner.  See above, but also: walk, don’t run; don’t create a mess if you can help it (and you know you usually can); while waiting in line (either to get in or to pay) talk with your neighbors or stand quietly, but please don’t grumble.  The staff are trying their best to move the line along quickly.
  10. DON’T STEAL.  That says it all.  You know what’s right.
  11. Never leave unattended any items you plan to purchase.  While above I admonished people to not dig in someone else’s pile, you shouldn’t tempt them by leaving a delectable selection sitting unguarded.
  12. Feel free to bargain with the estate sale professional, but don’t get angry if their idea of a proper price differs from yours.  And be reasonable.  Don’t offer a dollar for something marked $20.
  13. NEVER be rude to the estate sale professional.  It’s never profitable for you.
  14. Get on the estate sale company’s  email list.  Even though you might find out about their sale through another source, being on their email list is usually a better idea.  Sometimes companies will offer a pre-sale open only to their followers.
  15. Take your time at the sale.  Those who hurry often miss things.  It takes a while for you to see beyond the clutter of stuff so that you can see the individual items.  A sale can feel overwhelming at first.  Take a breath and wander for a bit.  Try to ignore the people rushing past you and just be in the moment.  Sounding a bit zen?  It is.  Your treasure will often find you when you least expect it.
  16. Look in less obvious places.  Everyone will search on the tables and counters, but it takes little effort to look under the tables, in the corners, in odd gaps.  Is there a garage?  What about under the house?  Any place that isn’t strictly forbidden is fair game, in my opinion.  But on that note:
  17. Don’t enter where you’ve been forbidden to go.  I know it’s tempting to open that door that says KEEP OUT.  Who knows what treasures may be hidden inside!  Unfortunately, those treasure need to be kept from you for a reason, whatever that reason may be.  Probably it has the family’s items that they plan to keep, or maybe it contains the estate sale crew’s personal belongings, like their purse or coat.  Be respectful and leave it alone.  The same goes for drawers and cabinets marked as areas to leave alone.
  18. Enjoy yourself.  Life should never be so serious that you can’t enjoy the experience of shopping, or even just being among other people or interesting stuff.  Look around you and see how someone else lived their life.  Admire their belongings and appreciate their interests.  Or just be glad that you didn’t have to live with that avocado green refrigerator or that brown shag rug.    Think about how much money you are saving by not buying retail.  Or think about how you are helping the environment by not letting the stuff be added to the landfill and how your carbon footprint has been reduced by reusing and not just buying new stuff that had be manufactured, thus using up even more of Earth’s precious resources.  Whatever.  Estate sales can be lots of fun if you approach them the right way.

As always, I’m sure I missed some tips.  Please feel free to add your own.

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Filed under December 2011

How to Shop at Estate Sales (if you are shopping for trouble)

Have you ever shopped at an estate sale?  Well, here is some advice to help you get the most out of the experience.  Granted, it might also get you banned for life or arrested or beaten by your fellow shoppers,  but what do you care!  For REAL tips, read 18 Tips.

1.  Make sure you get there early!  In fact, get there the night before to make sure you are first in line.  If sleeping in front of the door isn’t feasible (like maybe you have a really great party to go to and will be too drunk to drive to the house), start a sign in sheet the night before and pin it to the door.  If there is already a sign-up sheet started and your name isn’t on the top of the list, toss it out and start another one!  Tip:  if you forget the sign-in list idea (maybe you got way too drunk) and can’t get there the night before, just bring a list with you in the morning.  If others are there before you, wave the list at them to prove that your name is on the top. And don’t worry if the estate sale company has its own way of doing things; rules are made to be broken.

2.  Don’t worry about the neighbors.   I’m sure  the neighbor will understand if you park in front of their driveway.  I mean, you have to park somewhere, right?   It’s not your fault that those people who got there way too early have already taken all the good spots, so go ahead and park where you can.  You’ll only be there for a few minutes anyway.

3. Once you’ve secured your proper place at the front of the line, guard it from all possible usurpers!  Don’t let others try to shame you or bully you out of your god-given place; be assertive and stand your ground. Fight for your rights!

4.  Get in quickly and grab as much as you can.  Don’t worry about whether you grab things you actually want to buy–you can figure that out after you finish shopping.  If it looks good, hoard it from other greedy shoppers.  If anyone tries to rifle through your stuff, a quiet yet intense threat of violence will work wonders for sending them scurrying away.  Once you’ve worn yourself out and have looked through every possible hiding spot and torn through every neatly piled table, then you can go back and sift through your own pile.  Don’t waste your precious time putting anything back where you got it. Just toss any unwanted items to the side; the staff is there to clean up after you.  You’ve got other sales to rush to and shouldn’t waste any time.

5. It’s every shopper for themselves!  Keep an eye on your fellow shoppers because they may find something you might want before you can.  If that catastrophe should occur, be prepared to use subterfuge, if necessary, to get the prize.  If they have an unattended pile, it’s an easy matter to grab the desired item when they aren’t looking.  Otherwise, trick them into setting it down for some reason.  Setting their purse on fire might work.  Or try grabbing the item from their hands and claim that they had stolen it from your pile.  All’s fair in estate sale shopping.  They’d do it to you, too, given the chance.

6. If the sticker price is too high, remove it.  That’s right, be a sticker picker. You deserve a better price.  And they won’t likely remember what they put on it before.  Chances are good that they’ll price it lower this time, especially when you utilize the ideas listed below.  Of course, in the off-chance you run into one of the many estate sale professionals who DO remember what they priced things at, be prepared to pay more than otherwise because they obviously can’t take a joke.

7. Insist that the cashier give you a lower price than what is marked.  You know they are trying to cheat you by pricing way too high.  Once they know you are on to their scheme, they will lower their price some.  If not, here are some ideas to force their hand:

  • Offer them a dollar for the item.  This lets the cashier know that you are nobody’s fool and that you won’t pay their outrageous prices.
  • Even if the prices are reasonable, offer them three-fourths less (that’s 75% off, in case your math is bad)  just to get the respect and low price you deserve.
  • Pretend to be buying a lot of items.  Many estate sale people will offer a discount if you buy a bunch.  Once they offer you a good discount on everything, pick out only a few items and demand the same discount on those.
  • Tell them you’ve seen the same item sold at a tenth of their price at the last sale you were at.  It doesn’t matter that this isn’t true.
  • Tell them you are only going to cut it up or tear it apart to make something else anyway, so why should you have to pay the full price for the whole thing.
  • Act like you know more about the item than they, or you, do.  If they claim that it is a Fenton carnival glass cruet and they’ve priced it at an inexpensive $15, tell them they’ve been smoking crack because YOU know it’s a cheap glass thingy that you’ve seen for $3 at the local discount store.  Offer them a dollar.  If they point out the Fenton mark, stand your ground.  You can’t back down in the face of facts.  Remember, show no fear.
  • Point out that you can’t make any money reselling the item at the extravagant price they are offering it at.  After all, if you can’t make any money, why should they?  Once again, it doesn’t matter if this is true.
  • Demand to see the person in charge.  The cashier is a nobody that you shouldn’t have to deal with anyway.
  • If all else fails, be extra rude and obnoxious.  Announce loudly that they are trying to cheat you.  Say you know the property owners personally and you know they would be shocked by the way the sale is being run.  Refuse to leave until justice is done. In other words, just be your usually self. If you make a big enough fuss, they might give you a lower price just to get rid of you.  Whatever works, right?

8. If you don’t get a reasonable price, steal it.  Wait until the item has been returned to the display and then slip it into your purse or backpack.  Tell yourself that it’s stuff the family doesn’t even want anyway, so why should you have to pay an exorbitant price for it.  And you know that it will be given to a charity or maybe even thrown away if nobody buys it, so go ahead and take it.  You have needs, too.  In fact, why go to the trouble of trying to negotiate with those greedy idiots in the first place?  Rip them off before they try to do it to you.  Who do they think they are, trying to rob a hard working person like you?  They’re probably rich anyway.  Right?

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If any of this advice sounds good to you, or if you already know all of this but were hoping for some new tricks, then my next advice won’t please you: stay away from my sales!  Please!  For more serious tips about shopping at estate sales, read 18 Tips for Shopping at Estate Sales.

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Filed under November 2011