If you are considering the heavy task of holding an estate sale, you probably have even heavier things weighing on your mind. Someone close to you has just passed away or transitioned to a care home. You may be about to uproot and start life again in new surroundings.
It’s a challenging time to go through to figure out how to have an estate sale. Many heirs and loved ones feel a particular sense of responsibility. The contents of the house are the owner’s legacy. Sometimes a life’s work of collection lives in those walls. It’s an overwhelming commitment to do right by the owner’s legacy. They feel obliged to dispose of possessions in a way that the owner, living or deceased, would have approved of.
Many heirs hire a professional estate sale facilitator to do the hard work. This can make a lot of sense. If you read on, you will discover that an estate sale has a lot of moving parts. If it sounds like too much of a burden, professional help can be a godsend.
Here’s the thing, though—estate sale managers take a big chunk of the proceeds. Commissions range from as little as 20% to as much as 50%. You just won’t pocket as much money by hiring a facilitator. Auction or consignment of goods is an option as well, but only if the estate has enough value.
The sad fact is, many estates retain little value. The antique resale market is limited. True treasures can be few and far between. There may not be enough value to warrant an estate sale manager’s time unless he or she is also listing the home for sale. (PRO TIP: If the estate sale facilitator gets to list the home for sale, he or she should charge a far smaller commission on goods sold at the estate sale!)
Other heirs figure they will just dump everything on eBay or Craigslist and make a killing that way. Easier said than done. Listing items on eBay requires the seller to take well-lit photos from every angle, write a compelling description, wait out the auction, ship the item when it sells…and eBay still takes a cut of about 13% including PayPal fees! That whole process…multiplied by every item in a lived-in house.
Craigslist is a different set of problems. The listings take less effort and quality control. Buyers may come to you. However, that process could stretch over weeks or months, whereas you can have an estate sale in one week, including the advertising time.
In many cases, it may be easier and more lucrative to just donate everything and get a tax write-off.
If you decide that a DIY estate sale is the way to go, prepare yourself! This is going to be an intense couple of weeks. By educating yourself and knowing what to expect, it is possible to have a successful estate sale on your own. These ten steps form the basis of how to have an estate sale:
- Invite family members to take mementos.
- Take inventory.
- Clean items and make repairs.
- Set prices.
- Prepare for traffic.
- Mark off-limit items.
- Arrange security measures.
- Advertise your sale.
- Recruit helpers.
- Plan for unsold items.
Make sure to take into account the cost of having an estate sale when estimating how much cash the sale might generate.
Here is more detail on how to have an estate sale in 10 steps.
1. Invite family members to take mementos
This step is critical to avoid fights and hard feelings. The owner’s loved ones should have a set day or series of days to pick through the house for keepsakes.
With a little luck, the process will be peaceful. Gird yourself for drama. This is family and emotions may run high. Siblings may fight over cherished items. Cousins may claim that they alone can speak for Nana’s wishes. Aunts or uncles may question why you get to be in charge.
Try not to take it personally. Hold a family meeting. Draw lots, take votes, do what needs to be done to build consensus. The family has to be on your side. Make sure they know what date the sale is and understand that anything in the house unclaimed by that date may go up for grabs. If proceeds of the sale are to be divided among heirs, the split needs to be agreed upon before the sale.
2. Take inventory
Walk through the house and make a list of everything. Yes, everything. Every trinket, knickknack and bauble. Write a detailed description. Alternately, snap pictures with your cell phone and sit down to sort through them, writing it out. Organize your inventory by category and by room so you can find everything easily. Rate its condition on a scale of “mint condition” to “practically destroyed.”
You will use this list to price items. At the sale, you will cross or check off from this list everything that sells. This is how you will track the progress of the sale.
Take note of items that are not for sale. Make sure you know where they are so you can gather them up later.
3. Clean items and make repairs
You will sell most items as-is. A few items may benefit from a dab of super glue or a quick scrub. Polish tarnished silver or steel goods to fetch a higher price.
4. Set prices
Of all the tasks involved in holding an estate sale on your own, this is one of the most daunting. What are things worth? Unique items may seem impossible to price.
Dig in. Start researching. Online is a great place to start. Search for similar items for sale on Craigslist or in the “sold items” section of eBay. Browse antique stores or thrift stores.
Remember, estate sale shoppers are bargain-hunters. If you see a range of prices, feel free to choose the higher price and expect to haggle. In general, however, less haggling happens at an estate sale than at a garage sale. Consider being conservative. Estatesales.org publishes a useful pricing guide.
Consider hiring a professional appraiser. An appraiser can usually breeze through the house and quickly identify items of value. Rates range from $75 to $500 an hour, but it shouldn’t take long. For that investment, you get the peace of mind that you will not sell a mint-condition Batman comic book for $5 when collectors value it at $5,000.
Once every item in your inventory has a price, go back through the house and mark that price on every item. This is where the inventory categorized by room and the detailed descriptions pay off! Stickers with handwritten prices are fine.
5. Prepare for traffic
With luck, lots of people will be coming and going, browsing goods with intent to buy. Make it easy for them. Clear traffic lanes throughout the house. Bedrooms are now “showrooms.” Rearrange them a little. Position goods against the walls with an open center area. Alternately, set goods on a table in the middle of the room so that customers can surround them.
Consider what nooks buyers can use to linger and consider items. You don’t want them to feel rushed along by another buyer “in line” behind them.
Check that no table is too cluttered. Buyers will become overwhelmed with options and skip over items they might otherwise be interested in.
6. Mark off-limits items
Slap a “NOT FOR SALE” sign on anything you want. Buyers will still heckle you about them, trying to get you to sell. If you really don’t want to be bothered about your chosen keepers, stash them in a separate room or closet behind a locked door. If the door doesn’t lock, rope it off with a “DO NOT ENTER” sign.
7. Arrange security measures
Strangers will be coming into and out of the house all day, possibly for several days. We can’t stress this enough—no entrance or exit should be left unattended. You’re just asking for people to walk out the back door with items they haven’t paid for. As much as possible you need to keep an eye on your visitors. The honor system is in short supply at an estate sale. Watch for people tucking items in the folds of heavy jackets. Be prepared to handle or deal with shoplifters.
Cash and coins should be kept in a secured lockbox. Any small and valuable items, like jewelry, should probably be kept with the cash box. Customers can sort through them right in front of your eyes.
8. Advertise your sale
This is the most critical step. You won’t sell anything at your estate sale if no one shows up. No one will show up if no one hears about it. Start advertising it a week or more in advance.
Where should you advertise? Local papers are a great place to start. Online bulletin boards and forums attract estate sale shoppers as well. Look for forums specific to estate sales in your area, especially on popular forums like Reddit.
Post an announcement on Craigslist in the “Garage Sales” section. Make sure you specify that it’s an “estate sale” and make sure you understand the difference!
Don’t forget social media. Members of local resale Facebook groups might be very interested in your estate sale. Post on your own social media accounts, including Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat. Encourage your followers to “share” the notice with their own social media.
Old-fashioned signs work as well. Put signs up at least a week in advance as well. Signs should clearly specify the date, time and address in big, easy-to-read letters with arrows pointing in the direction of the sale. Check city signage ordinances and/or HOA rules on signage to avoid a confrontation.
On social media or forums, you have the opportunity to add pictures to your ads. Don’t skip this step. Pictures build excitement around your estate sale like nothing else. Take high-quality, well-lit photos of key items. Large pieces always get attention as do collectibles like antiques, comic books or sports memorabilia.
9. Recruit helpers
Don’t try to have an estate sale on your own. You will need people on hand to watch after customers, guard exits, cash out customers and possibly help move or load out heavy items. Friends and family may work for food. Pizza party in the empty estate during the cleanup, anyone?
10. Plan for unsold items
If every item in the house sells, you got lucky. More likely, there will be leftovers. Hopefully, everything anyone wanted was picked out in Step #1. You can just trash leftovers, but the departed owner may not have preferred that.
Donating to a foundation like Goodwill or the Salvation Army is often a worthy recourse for unsold goods. You get a tax write-off and the items contribute to a good cause. If you plan ahead, donation centers may be able to send a truck or van. Otherwise, you or a helper may need to plan the transport of the unsold items to a donation drop-off center.
The cost of having an estate sale
You will recoup more money by having an estate sale on your own than by hiring a professional. Nevertheless, there will be some expenses. Now that you know how to have an estate sale, consider the following costs you may face:
- Advertising fees charged by newspapers and online forums
- Materials (pricing stickers, cash box, signs, etc.)
- A professional appraisal (if applicable)
- Labor (food and drinks for friends and family helpers)
- Transportation or trash-out costs
With these ten steps, the task of holding an estate sale on your own becomes far more manageable, giving you the peace of mind to adapt to the inevitable changes that come with major life events.