Estate sales are gigantic undertakings.
Within a few days, a successful estate sale will liquidate the entire contents of a house into cash and donation receipts, leaving behind a clean house that is ready for sale.
In reality, the process takes a lot longer than a few days. A successful three-day estate sale is the culmination of several weeks or months of estate sale preparation.
If a relative or acquaintance has passed away or relocated and named you the executor of their estate, you have a lot on your plate. From disposing of antiques to keeping other heirs happy to minding the estate owner’s wishes, it can become overwhelming.
You might consider holding the estate sale yourself. Hiring a professional estate sale liquidator might also be on the table.
Whether you decide on a DIY estate sale or to enlist professionals, certain estate sale tips are universal. Several tasks will fall to you before you can hand over the reins to an estate sale service provider.
In this guide to running the ultimate estate sale, we layout those tasks. This is your go-to estate sale checklist to avoid costly mistakes, logistical pitfalls, and family showdowns.
You need a plan. This checklist lays out the crucial steps of that plan. We cover the following essential tasks:
- Search the Home
- Secure or Remove Personal or Sensitive Items
- Photograph the Contents of the Home
- Create an Organizational Binder
- Consult an Appraiser or Do Your Own Appraisal
- Arrange the Home
- Determine a Disbursal Strategy
- Hire a Professional
By following these steps, preparing for an estate sale becomes much more manageable. Your estate sale is far more likely to:
- Generate maximum revenue.
- Run smoothly and efficiently.
- Build satisfaction and consensus among heirs.
- Respect the wishes and legacy of the departed estate holder.
1. Search the Home
When preparing for an estate sale, every corner of the house needs to be thoroughly searched. Do not delegate this task! Even if it means inhaling some dust and encountering a roach or two, as a responsible executor you need to know what is in that house.
Otherwise, priceless monetary or sentimental treasures could “disappear,” be misplaced or stolen by various contractors or service providers.
The estate holder may have burrowed into that home for decades. Things will be hidden. Check behind furniture, in nooks and crannies of closets and attics, under loose baseboards and between studs in damaged walls. Turn over carpets. Check every drawer and cupboard. Put on some old clothes and shimmy into crawl spaces and basements. Sift among clothing, boxes, and books.
You never know what treasured keepsakes might turn up, lost for generations. Some of it may be for your eyes only. It’s dirty work, but someone has to do it. That someone is you.
2. Secure or Remove Personal or Sensitive Items
Heirs might have no business accessing certain items. These include:
- Diaries and journals
- Financial records
- Personal correspondence
File sensitive papers away and determine which can be discarded, archived or shared with relatives and the public.
Firearms require special care. Make sure they are unloaded and secured. Consult specialists if need be.
Other sensitive items to secure include:
- Family photos
- Gold, jewels and other precious substances
- Food and alcohol
- Sexually explicit materials
3. Photograph the Contents of the Home
Take the best photos you can. They may be useful later to advertise the sale. The purpose of the initial photography run, however, is to document the contents. Photograph every item individually. Pictures can help heirs quickly decide what they might want to keep versus what can be sold.
Estate sale tips for the photographic archive:
- Take photos in order by category (all the china, all the furniture, etc.).
- Upload digital photo files to a cloud-based folder or download them to an external hard drive.
- Share photos with heirs using optical discs (CD), email attachments or shared cloud drives like Dropbox or iCloud.
4. Create an Organizational Binder
Getting organized is essential to estate sale preparation. The more details you can collect before speaking to an estate sale liquidator, the better.
Start a binder of actionable lists. It will come in handy when coordinating with heirs, contractors and the estate sale liquidator if you ultimately hire one. The binder should include:
- A general inventory
- Your photographic inventory (photo prints in sleeves or printouts on basic paper)
- Items that could be valuable
- Items specifically bequeathed to heirs
- An estate sale checklist of tasks
- A list of professional contacts, including liquidators, real estate agents, contractors, attorneys…everyone who might be involved in the estate sale.
5. Consult an Appraiser or Do Your Own Appraisal
This might seem like the job of the estate sale liquidator. The liquidator will make a final appraisal, but you need to know in advance what certain items may be worth.
An appraiser can do a quick inspection of the house at rates ranging from $75 to $500 per hour. You can also research prices of comparable items at antique stores, swap meets, thrift stores or the “completed auctions” and “sold items” sections of eBay.
Why do you need to estimate the value of your items before the estate sale? Because heirs will likely have the first crack at keepsakes and mementos. If a will does not explicitly state who gets what, this can lead to fights. The will may specify, or heirs may generally agree, that valuable items should be disbursed equally or according to a plan of percentages. How do you make an equitable distribution of goods if you don’t know what the goods are worth?
You might need an appraisal prior to hiring a liquidator for other reasons, such as:
- if an attorney requests one.
- if you suspect some items might have a high value.
- if contesting heirs come forward.
6. Arrange the Home
The liquidator will ultimately be responsible for turning the house into an organized marketplace. Since heirs will have the chance to browse the inventory for keepsakes, you will need to do some organizing beforehand.
Get everything out of those drawers and dusty corners, into the open where heirs can inspect them. You don’t need to create a Williams Sonoma store. Just get things visible and somewhat organized.
This will make the job of the liquidator a lot easier, too. Yes, you are hiring the liquidator to make your life easier, but the easier the liquidator’s job, the more profitable a sale he or she can conduct.
Clear away debris, establish walking paths through the house and post the general inventory on a sheet of paper several places throughout the home.
7. Determine a Disbursal Strategy
It is almost time to invite the heirs to descend on the estate. Before that happens, double-check your strategy. Make the strategy public to the heirs before they arrive to sort through the departed estate holder’s belongings.
If the estate-holder left a will that clearly stipulates how goods are to be disbursed, your job just got a lot easier. Follow the instructions in the will.
In some cases, the will might not be clear. There may be contesting heirs—that is, people who claim that the will is invalid and that they have a right to some portion of the estate. Contested heirs are a headache for the estate attorneys. In the event of an unclear will, you as the executor may be responsible for the disbursal plan. Options include:
- Drawing lots for first pick.
- Picking numbers out of a hat for first pick.
- Holding a lottery for first pick.
Set a date for the disbursal and communicate it to the heirs.
8. Hire a Professional
Once the heirs have had their chance to claim mementos, it is time to consult an estate sale professional. Even if you plan to hold the estate sale yourself, get professional eyes on your inventory.
Some items may strike you as worthless. Why not donate old dishes or toys? Who will want them?
Estate Sale Tips: The meat of an estate sale is not the high-ticket items like artwork or antique furniture. Estate sale shoppers show up for the variety of pricing points.
They actually want those toys and dishes. Prices may be low, but it adds up. Thousands of dollars of your estate sale revenue will come from the brick-a-brack that you were going to throw away, including but not limited to:
- Kitchen utensils and small appliances
- Bedding and linen
- Outdoor or garden items
- Small decorations
- Broken jewelry
- Obsolete stereos
- Cleaning supplies
- Office supplies
- Craft supplies
- Old papers, magazines and advertising
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you may not know what items carry disproportionate value. A collection of dusty records could contain rare first pressings that fetch thousands of dollars on the collectors market!
#1 Estate Sale Pro Tip: Do not throw anything away! Without having participated in many estate sales, you don’t know what will add value to your sale.
Whether an appraiser or a liquidator, get someone to advise you before you throw out or donate anything.
If you decide to hire an estate sale liquidator, the binder you compiled in Step #4 will come in handy. To compile a list of recommended estate sale liquidator candidates to interview, consult:
- Friends and family
- Attorneys and CPAs in your network
- Yelp.com, Google or other testimonial sites
- Estate sale liquidator service associations like the American Society of Estate Sale Liquidators (ASEL) or the National Estate Sale Association (NESA)
Before interviewing estate sale liquidators, make sure you know:
- What you intend to sell and what you intend to keep
- What the most valuable items are worth, generally speaking
- A list of questions to ask candidate liquidators
This estate sale checklist provides a roadmap to a successful estate sale. Click here to learn what questions to ask when interviewing an estate sale liquidator.