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How to Hold an Estate Sale
At a glance
When you hold an estate sale, your goal is generally to sell most of the belongings in a home all at once. While estate sales usually take place after a death, you may also explore this option following a family member’s relocation to a nursing home, a divorce, a quick move, or a major downsizing.
We know that estate sales often happen in the midst of difficult circumstances—and we’re here to make the selling part of this experience as easy (and worry-free) as possible.
There are two ways to go about an estate sale: you can have a professional estate sale company handle it for you, or you can do it yourself.
Organizing and hosting an estate sale without professional help will require you to balance a lot of emotional and financial factors. You may find some closure in handling the estate sale on your own. But hiring an outside company can give you the time and energy you need to focus on other important parts of the moving process.
5 steps for hosting a DIY estate sale
If you feel up to tackling an estate sale task yourself, there are five important steps:
- Create an inventory
- Prepare your inventory for sale
- Advertise your estate sale
- Run your estate sale
- Clean up afterward
Estate sales require a lot of preparation. While the whole process takes about a month (if not longer), the sale itself is best done over one to three days. Just remember the more stuff you have to deal with, the longer it will take you to liquidate it all.
Two other things to keep in mind when you’re preparing for your estate sale: first, you’ll need a junk removal plan for whatever is left over after the sale ends, and second, you may need a few extra hands (friends or family members) to help you run the sale itself.
1. Create an inventory
Decide what is definitely not for sale
The easiest approach to creating an inventory list is to first identify what you don’t want to sell and remove it from the estate. Family keepsakes are usually at the top of this list. Shoppers often assume everything they see is for sale, and you won’t want to disappoint someone who is determined to buy an heirloom you want to keep.
Decide what will sell
Next, build a list of what you are putting up for sale. You can commission an appraiser to walk through your home and tell you what will sell and what won’t, which items antiquers might pay serious money for, what could go to an auction, and what you’ll likely have left at the end of the day.
If you have just a few pieces you want appraised, try an app like Value My Stuff to get pricing estimates.
…and what won’t
Anything that doesn’t sell will have to be donated, thrown away, or otherwise disposed of. You can do some of this work ahead of time for items you know will end up in the dumpster.
You don’t want your estate sale filled with unsellable clutter that will distract from the more buyable items. But you probably don’t want to get rid of anything that could bring you a decent profit. If you think an item isn’t worth much or simply won’t sell, remove it beforehand so you can focus on more valuable inventory.
Find a professional appraiser
An appraiser’s reputation is everything. You’ll often find the best appraisers through a personal recommendation, but if you have to start from scratch, do thorough research—and be sure to look into each appraiser’s reviews, methodology, and what training they’ve had.
To get the best, most qualified appraiser (and to sell more property at the right price), ask these important questions:
- Are they trained in the uniform standards of professional appraisal practice (USPAP) or certified by any other professional organization?
- How much do they charge by the hour?
- Do they have expert knowledge of any particular property types, such as paintings, entertainment equipment, or furniture?
Your appraiser should have a set hourly rate for their services. They shouldn’t ask for a percentage fee of their valuation. (If they do, kindly show them the door.)
To get the best bang for your appraisal buck, be prepared to answer any and all questions the appraiser may have about your inventory items. Your combined knowledge could land you a better price at your estate sale or get you a few good bids at an auction.
A final word on inventories
Write. It. Down. If you don’t make a detailed list, you’re sure to forget something, whether it’s the price you set for the collection of porcelain cat statues or the year in which that fancy armoire was made. But if you do write everything down, you’ll be prepared when a buyer comes along trying to negotiate for the stainless steel kitchen equipment.
2. Prepare your inventory for sale
To prepare your inventory for sale, you’ll need to collect a few supplies. Here’s what we recommend:
- Stickers for price tags
- Nonsticky price tags
- Cleaning supplies
- A camera (for inventory pictures)
- A mobile card reader (for credit card payments)
- Signs, fliers, or other advertising tools
Clean your inventory items
You can prep for an estate sale by going all in on spring cleaning. Or, if you have limited time, taking care of some basics can have a big impact. A quick fix for a shaky table leg or even just rubbing the dirt and fingerprints off of a gilded mirror can take it from the “won’t sell” category to the “I could spend a couple of dollars on that” category.
In fact, try to have the whole house in good shape before the sale starts. Any sprucing up you can do will help shoppers remember that they are in someone’s home, not at a public store.
Price your inventory items
You probably won’t be able to sell most of your items at retail prices—most shoppers will be looking for bargains.
But you can set a starting price to keep buyers from getting away with paying $5 for a $20 item. If you don’t use an appraiser or a site like Value My Stuff, you’ll have to do your own pricing research. If Google, Amazon, Ebay, and Craiglist searches all fail you, take a good look at the item and ask yourself, “How much would I pay for this at a garage sale?”
For most items, a plain-colored sticker with the price written on it in marker will do just fine. Other items—such as leather furniture or delicate artwork—may require paper marking tags. Just be sure all price tags are easily visible.
Your sale will look more professional if you use as few different types of price tags as possible and the same handwriting for every tag. Some people will think of an estate sale as a garage sale, but it’s more like the godfather of garage sales—and it pays to be a little classy.
Arrange your inventory items
Place every item in its natural habitat: ceramic mixing bowls in the kitchen, books on the bookshelves, clothes hanging in closets—you get the picture. This will make it easier for potential buyers to see the value of these items and imagine them in their own homes.
You may want to keep any smaller, more valuable pieces like jewelry, collector's items, or paintings near your cash register. If you advertise well, there will be quite a few strangers coming in and out, and you don’t want anything to be stolen.
3. Advertise your estate sale
To hold a successful estate sale, you have to persuade people to show up. This means you’ll have to “sell” the estate sale itself before you can get to actually selling any of your inventory.
Advertising your estate sale is not as simple as putting out a few signs on intersection corners (although that’s not a bad idea).
We recommend you start advertising well in advance. Make sure the public has a couple weeks’ notice before your sale, not just a few days. Remember, you are trying to get rid of everything left in the house. Small crowds won’t do.
Here are a few tips for maximizing your advertising:
- Choose some of your best items and take well-lit pictures of them to attract buyers.
- Include these pictures in a detailed Craigslist or online classifieds post about your estate sale.
- Get an ad in your local newspaper, and get the word out on social media.
- Advertise with websites like EstateSales or Yard Sale Search.
4. Run your estate sale
You’ve posted the time and place of your estate sale, and all the for-sale items are clearly marked and waiting for buyers to arrive. Now what?
First, consider posting a sign out front about estate sale etiquette. You want customers to know right off the bat that this isn’t a free-for-all, that all sales are final, and that they need to be respectful of you and your neighbors while shopping.
Second, keep an eye on how quickly items are selling as well as what’s sticking around. Here’s a handy pricing trick: sell more by reducing prices by 25% halfway through the estate sale and again at the three-quarter mark. People will jump at bargains, and those discounts could help you get rid of a lot more stuff.
Of course, you can mark items as “fixed price” if you are certain of their value.
If you’re holding your estate sale in a large home with multiple exits, you’ll want a few helpers (try bribing your friends and family with free dinner) to keep an eye on shoppers and guard the doors so no one tries to slip out with free stuff.
It also isn’t unheard of for shoppers to, ahem, “lose” the price tag and try to set their own price. This is where your detailed inventory list may keep you from getting scammed.
Tax rules vary from state to state,1 but more than likely you will be legally responsible for some sales tax on your estate sale proceeds. You may find a sales tax calculator handy—you can even use this to help you price your items with tax factored in.
5. Clean up afterward
For most estate sales, everything must go. You can donate many unsold items and get a tax deduction. But anything you can’t give away you’ll have to pay to dispose of. Strange to spend money on things because you don’t want them, huh?
Depending on how much stuff you have and how much manpower you can recruit, you can either haul it away yourself or hire a junk removal company. Most full-service junk removal companies’ prices range from $100 to $800, although the average is about $250.
Another option for getting rid of your unwanted items is to rent a dumpster and fill it yourself. Dumpster rental will still cost a few hundred dollars though.
Move.org’s top junk removal companies
Once you’ve thrown everything out or found it a new home, it’ll be time for a final cleanup. Wipe down the counters, sweep up the dust bunnies, hand the keys to the realtor, and leave with your fond memories—and knowing that you’ve done justice to the home where so many of those memories were created.
Should you hire a professional estate sale company?
If this DIY process is sounding like a little bit too much, consider bringing in a professional estate sale company to handle the event. These companies can take care of everything from organizing, pricing, and advertising to hosting the sale itself.
*Some companies charge less if your overall profit passes certain benchmarks.
Start by googling for estate sale companies in your area. EstateSales.org might be a good place to start.
Once you find a company you think you could work with, here are a few boxes a good estate sale company should check:
- Good reviews
- A clear contract
- Lots of experience
- Adequate staff for crowd control
- A method for taking credit cards
Also, find out if the company’s contract includes junk removal and a final cleanup of the estate so everything is ready for the realtors.
Estate sales are very hands on, especially if you take care of all the details yourself. You may need a few extra sets of hands to get it all done in a reasonable amount of time, so we’ve put together some moving resources to make your cleanup process a little smoother:
These helpers can assist with everything from junk removal to small repairs around the house. You’ve got this.
Top product picks
- EstateSales.net, "Sales Tax: What’s My Responsibility?"