How Do Estate Sales Work? Experts Reveal Top Treasure-Hunting Tactics

Seasoned estate-sale shoppers share how to avoid junk and score the best deals.

If you enjoy discovering secondhand treasures, estate sales should be at the top of your shopping list. An estate sale is a public sale, often held on-site, where items inside a house are available for purchase. Many people associate them with a homeowner passing, but that's not always the case. "Sales can occur because homeowners are downsizing, simplifying, moving, bankrupt, or if the homeowner is deceased," says Elizabeth Cook, marketing consultant and estate sale connoisseur. "They are usually a two- to three-day event where buyers can go into a home and shop a large percentage of the belongings inside."

Often, items at an estate sale are more personal, plus you can shop a variety of items in one day rather than searching store after store. "Estate sales allow you to find unique items that might have a story," says Molly Blankenship, design consultant and seasoned estate sale shopper. It gives each item a context and imbues it with narrative, allowing you to see where it came from and maybe even learn a bit about the person who previously owned it.

"I relish storied objects with history and personality, which is why those with a second, third, or sometimes fourth life are often that much more intriguing to me," Cook explains. "From the price tag to the item's quality, there are so many incredible advantages to sourcing pieces for your home from estate sales."

wooden cart with vintage decor
Adam Albright

How do I find estate sales?

The address and time of estate sales are often posted in a local paper or on estate sale websites a few days before the sale occurs. You can also find estate sales on Facebook, either through the Marketplace feature or by simply typing "estate sale" in the search function.

Both Cook and Blankenship recommend using to discover estate sales in your area. Enter your zip code to find out about future sales happening in your neighborhood.

It's also important to note that many estate sales fall during the week. "The majority of sales are posted on a Tuesday and occur on a Thursday," Cook explains. She recommends checking out the preview photos or searching online for the address to learn more about the house to determine whether the sale is worth your time. "If the house is good and you have done your research, go in with a plan of attack and bring a large tote for small miscellaneous items and a tape measure."

After a few sales, you'll likely be able to tell which sales are best suited for your shopping style. "After a few months, you’ll start to see who is organizing the best estate sales in your area," she says.

How do estate sales work?

Once you've found an estate salee, it's time to shop. After doors open, buyers can walk through the home to see what’s for sale and for how much. It's essentially one huge garage sale, so it can be overwhelming if you aren't prepared. "If you see an item you like, pick it up and carry it with you. If it’s too large, get an employee to tag the item," Blankenship says. "Upon checkout, you can try to negotiate the price, but be aware that you may have a competing buyer in whatever you purchase."

green cabinet shelves books coral butterflies jars
Nathan Schroder

What to Look for at an Estate Sale

Because an estate sale is generally items from around the entire home, there's no telling what you might come across—which makes it difficult to go in with a game plan. "You never know what you’ll find at an estate sale," Cook says. "I often pick up things like picture frames, flower vases, china, and crystal."

She recommends paying attention to the structure of furniture, as old pieces can easily be rejuvenated with a good clean, a coat of paint, or new upholstery. "I love physical estate sales because you can snag everything from hardware furniture to useful things like cleaning supplies or a Dyson vacuum at a drastically reduced cost," Cook says.

Both shoppers recommend steering clear of kitchen pots and pans, electronics, or anything too large to fit in your car or home. "Think outside the box and go with an open mind," Blankenship suggests. "You most likely won't find what you're looking for if you have something specific in mind."

How to Distinguish Treasure from Trash

You never know what you'll uncover at an estate sale, and that’s part of the thrill. But how do you know if you're getting a good deal or spending money on junk? Blankenship says one of the perks of an estate sale is that you can see the items in person and get a good idea of their quality and condition before committing to buying them. "Pick up an item, inspect how it is made, and its condition," she says. "Look for manufacturing labels and feel the weight of the materials."

You can often get a good idea of the quality of the finds in a home within the first minute. "One of the best houses I hit for an estate sale had beautiful Zubar panels in the entryway, and I instantly knew it was most likely going to be good," Cook says. "In general, I recommend checking the bottom of the furniture or decor piece for the name or brand and having a quick Google to compare the retail cost."

mirrors and art in entryway

Dana Gallagher

The Secret to Scoring Estate Sale Finds

"Get to know the people that run the physical estate sales in your city," says Cook. By creating a good relationship with the organizers, you’re more likely to get a heads-up on sales, select items, and great deals. Most people pounce on the first day of the estate sale, but the last day is when you’ll get the best deals. "I often find the items I am most interested in are still there on the last day, and it gives me much more power to negotiate," she adds. 

Another easy way to save money at an estate sale is to go when the weather is bad. "If it’s off-season in Palm Beach or downpour raining, the better chance you have to score because you will have less competition," Cook explains. 

"I often find the items I am most interested in are still there on the last day, and it gives me much more power to negotiate."

While an estate sale is a good place to find home furnishings and household items, there are better places to shop for certain products. If you're in search of light fixtures, hardware, electronics, tile, or shelving units, head to a demolition sale instead. They’re usually organized by the same people who put on estate sales, so they can clue you in on upcoming events.

And if you're in search of furniture or decor for your own home, bring a tape measure and a detailed floor plan. "Know your measurements and befriend a local carpenter to help with any purchases or questions," Cook says. "I once saw a brand new-looking Wolf oven for an absolute steal, so I talked with a carpenter on-site who looked at my floor plan and instantly told me it wouldn’t work in my kitchen without a major renovation. The supposed steal would have been a super-expensive indulgence, and I had to walk away."

The secret to finding the best deals is to keep showing up—even if you don't find anything at your first few sales. "Don’t give up after your first visit to an estate sale," says Cook. "These sales are a treasure trove, but combing through the junk for gems takes time."

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles