It feels like arguing over apples versus apples. Estate sale or yard sale…isn’t it all just emptying the closets and cupboards, slapping a price on the used goods and pocketing cash from haggling trespassers?
Don’t jump to conclusions. Distinguishing “estate sale or yard sale” is not a distinction without a difference. They are very different things. Shoppers show up to each with vastly different expectations.
Describe your “yard sale” as an “estate sale” and you could wind up with some angry glances and snippy comments.
Alternately, if what you need is an estate sale, but you advertise a “garage sale,” you may shortchange yourself. Not nearly enough of the right kind of buyer will show up to make your sale successful. Alternately, so many savvy buyers may show up that you find yourself overwhelmed.
Let’s clear up the confusion. In this article, we summarize the distinguishing features of estates sales versus yard sales. The purpose, character and clientele of these events are different in many ways. Those differences can best be broken down into five categories:
- The fate of the house
- The length of the sale
- The price of the goods
- The conduct of the buyers
- The person running the sale
Here are the 5 key differences between an estate sale and a yard sale.
1. The Fate of the House
Someone who holds a yard sale is typically keeping their house.
…or the seller might be moving, but keeping most of his or her possessions. A big moving truck is probably in the seller’s near future. Bottom line—the seller just wants to downsize a little. Get rid of some unused junk. Free up storage space or make moving a house a little easier.
This may go without saying, but the seller is alive and plans to stay that way.
As such, operators of yard sales or garage sales get prickly about the prospect of strangers inside their house. They still live in that house; the house contains possessions that they love and want to keep; stuff that is not for sale. This is why everything for sale is splayed out on tables in the garage or on the yard (hence the names). Shoppers can browse the goods without invading on the seller’s private space.
An estate sale is intended to liquidate an estate, meaning everything must go, including the house.
In the event of an estate sale, whoever owns or owned the house either no longer owns it or won’t own it for long. The house is about to go on the market, and everything in it is for sale.
This can happen for a variety of reasons. Some of the most common reasons include:
- The owner has passed away. The heirs intend to liquidate the estate to cover probate costs, funeral arrangements or to distribute as cash among the inheritors.
- The owner faces a significant downsize, perhaps to move into a retirement community, assisted living, hospice care or to relocate abroad.
- The owner has been foreclosed upon. In this case, the foreclosing bank or note-holder conducts an estate sale to prepare the collateral property to go on the market and recoup their investment.
This key differences vastly affects the character of the sale. Shoppers usually get to prowl the hallways, bedrooms and bathrooms of the house, picking up anything they like and inquiring “how much?” It’s of no concern to the owner. He or she is either deceased or on the way out with whatever crucial keepsakes fit into a suitcase or storage.
Visitors to an estate sale may even offer a bid to buy the house. They expect that once everything inside the house sells, the house itself is next.
If you advertise an “estate sale” to free up a little storage space in your home, expect peeved guests asking why they can’t come into the house or why such-and-such trinket is “not for sale.” Estate sale shoppers assume that everything is for sale.
2. The Length of the Sale
Yard sales typically last one day.
A yard sale or garage sale usually spans one morning or afternoon on a weekend. The seller may advertise on Craigslist or with homemade signs placed around the neighborhood, anywhere from a few days to a week in advance.
Estate sales typically last two days.
Most estate sales last Saturday and Sunday of one weekend. These sales are big deals and attract a devoted clientele of deal-hunters and antique collectors. As such, advertising for an estate sale is much more extensive. Signs and Craigslist ads may still play a role, but estate sales are also advertised in the local paper. Signs or fliers may be distributed around town. Notices may be placed on dedicated estate sale tracking websites, social media groups and forums. An estate sale can get 600 to 800 people through a house where a garage sale will not do that much activity.
An estate sale is an event. If you find yourself holding an estate sale, expect a lot of heat from the resale-and-antique crowd in your town.
3. The Price of the Goods
Yard sale shoppers expect to haggle.
People go to yard sales or garage sales to find bargain-basement deals. Homeowners are typically getting rid of worn-out cookware, clothing and toys that their children have outgrown, old books or knickknacks taking up space in closets and attics. Typically they just want the stuff gone. Garage sale shoppers have no shame in offering to pay a quarter for something advertised for $3. Don’t like the offer price? You can always counteroffer.
Some shoppers show up late in the day hoping sellers will prefer pocket change over nothing. They might intend to flip the second-hand goods on eBay for a profit. Some people earn a full-time income that way. They run the risk of the good stuff already being taken.
Still, “good stuff” is a relative term. No one expects to find a long-lost Monet or original Wells Fargo stock certificate at a garage sale.
Estate sale prices are usually set.
Since estate sales are usually run by professionals (see #5), items have typically been appraised so no $1 million baseball cards get sold for $5. Items are typically marked with a price, but bargaining with shoppers still goes on.
Estate sale brokers may accept offers on a “best offer” basis. If at the end of the sale the lowball offer beats all other offers, the bidder may have scored a bargain. Shoppers run the risk that someone else will offer full price and get the deal.
Goods at an estate sale often represent a lifetime’s worth of collection, representative of the departed owner’s taste. As such, price tags at estate sales tend to be higher. Estate sale shoppers arrive looking for fair deals on unique, antique or high-end wares. They still may flip the wares on eBay, but they expect to pay closer to fair market value.
4. The Conduct of the Buyers
Yard sales are free-for-alls.
Why restrict them to the yard or garage, after all? Visitors at garage sales often have their dirty hands in the same bin of dusty goods at the same time. Screaming kids or rambunctious dogs may be in tow. Negotiations get heated. On rare occasions, fights break out over the good stuff.
Usually, the neighborly spirit prevails, but buyer (and seller) beware.
Estate sales have rules.
Befitting the old-timey title, people expect decorum at an estate sale. Buyers may line up outside the estate before opening hours, hoping for the first crack at choice goods. If anyone tries to cut in line or rush the entrance at doors-open, they can expect to be asked to leave. For high-end estate sales, security guards may be retained.
Some estate sales choose a numbering system rather than a first-come, first-served queue. Numbers are distributed prior to the estate sale, with lower numbers (closer to #1) getting an earlier look at the estate.
Once inside the home, buyers are expected to mind their manners. The owner may be deceased or on the way out, but someone still owns the house. They intend to sell that house in the very near future. Trespassing is still a thing, as is destruction of property. Buyers who don’t behave themselves may be asked to leave.
5. The Person Running the Sale
Yard sales are DIY affairs.
People usually run their own yard sales or garage sales. Attendees expect to negotiate with the owner and final decision-maker. For this reason, buyers feel empowered to haggle aggressively. It can backfire, though. At any time, the holder of a yard sale may feel a swell of nostalgia over some old keepsake and decide that it is “not for sale.”
Estate sales are conducted by professionals.
The property owner or heirs to an estate can hold the estate sale, but they usually don’t for a couple of reasons.
- As mentioned, estate sales are big events with a lot of moving parts. An experienced professional may be needed to run one smoothly.
- The heirs of a deceased estate-holder may be grief-stricken and in no headspace to shepherd an estate sale.
- Emotional attachments come into play. A professional will not decide at the last minute that a treasured keepsake is “not for sale.” During the liquidation of an estate, “not for sale” is not an option. Heirs must pick everything they want to keep as mementos well before the sale.
- A professional eye can catch the aforementioned $1 million baseball card and prevent it from being sold for $5.
- Time may be of the essence. An estate sale facilitator can get the whole process done in 10 to 14 days. Some even facilitate the process from end-to-end, including a quick sale of the house at auction, on the market or as a pocket listing.
Professional estate sale brokers can help heirs or estate owners get the maximum dollar value out of the estate sale. This may justify their fee—as much as a 30% to 40% commission. Estate sale brokers charge such rates if they run the estate sale and nothing else.
A few companies that offer end-to-end estate liquidation may charge lower fees overall than the commissions you would pay for obtaining these services piecemeal (estate sale, renovation, home sale).
Estate sale coordinators have a sensitive job. Facilitators must keep in mind that the house must remain in good condition to sell.
Accidentally selling a cherished heirloom could cause serious drama. He or she may need to respect the wishes of heirs that property be disposed of in a manner that the decedent would have approved.
All of these considerations are critical when selecting a facilitator for an estate sale.