Collectors, bargain hunters and vintage aficionados alike find some of their most prized possessions at estate sales. But these events aren't just the purview of hard-core shoppers. They're open to everyone. It just takes a little insider information to get the most out of the hunt.
But what exactly is an estate sale? Answers vary. Randy Kolhoff, 46, owner of Black Swan Antiques in Sag Harbor, says an estate sale generally refers to a sale that offers most contents of a home up for liquidation. Usual circumstances for an estate sale involve a home that needs to be cleaned out because it's been sold, or a family is moving. Sometimes the homeowner has died, and sometimes a divorce agreement requires that a home's contents be liquidated and the proceeds divided.
Unlike outdoor yard sales or garage sales, which are more casual and less comprehensive, estate sales tend to have more vintage and antique items, which makes them especially appealing for collectors. "An estate sale is interesting, because it offers a lifelong collection of goods," says Bryan Reif, 60, owner and publisher of Garden City-based website LISaler.com.
Because every sale is different, it’s impossible to categorize what's available at every sale. But experts say there's almost nothing you can't find. Oftentimes, sellers post photos of many of the items that will be for sale. "You can find anything from tools to records to books to furniture to jewelry, glassware China, lamps, televisions, and radios," says Mona Scavo-Scopo, 61, owner of Tag Sales by Mona and cleanout company Junkbuster, both based in Freeport. "It's all the stuff that's in people's houses. And you never know what you're going to find. You might go in for a couch and walk out with a lamp. We have a lot of spontaneous buyers."
Denise LoSquadro, 58, owner of Hauppauge-based Sisters in Charge Tag Sale Professionals agrees. "Estate sales are like department stores," she says. "It's a mini mall. You have everything and anything you would imagine finding in a department store." Still, there are a few exceptions. "Most of the time, we don't sell the refrigerator or the washer-dryer, because that comes with the house," she says. "And we sell the curtains, but never the blinds, because we don't want people looking in and knowing the house is empty. And we might sell the lighting fixtures, but I won't sell built-ins whose removal might damage the property."
The nature of these sales means they attract shoppers as diverse as the items on offer. "You have the sports guy, the jewelry guy, the China guy, the furniture guy," says LoSquadro. "And you have a lot of people who just bought new houses and need new furniture."
"One man's junk is another man's treasure," says Reif. "Everything is collectible, from buttons to bottle caps."
How to shop the sales
The first step toward shopping at estate sales is finding them. Reif's website, LIsaler.com, has been in business for 10 years and advertises sales run by many of the best-known firms on Long Island. There also are listings in the classified section of Newsday and most local shopper publications, as well as comprehensive lists and even mobile apps available on estatesales.net and estatesales.org. In addition, companies such as Scavo-Scopo's and LoSquadro's offer email mailing lists for their companies' hosted events.
Do remember that most sales will have rules, and you'll need to abide by them. People often arrive at sales before they begin, to get their pick of the best stuff. "My rules are," says LoSquadro, put your name on "the sign-in sheet at the door, and go wait in your car until we arrive at the sale." She also has a rule against bringing in large bags. "We don't like people hoarding items while they're shopping," she says. "Decide what you need. Also, I supply stacks of baskets, so you're not allowed to bring your own. And nobody else collects money, except at the register."
Many antique dealers get an inside track on sales, and they may arrive ahead of the public to shop. That's in part because some sales feature specialized items that may fetch a higher price than most people are prepared to pay. "I have most of the larger estate sale companies approach me when they have product that fits my aesthetic and requires a higher purchase price," says Kolhoff. In addition, he gives appraisals, and he works with a few estate sale companies to help families determine prices and make the most profits.
Not all estate sales are run by companies or shopped by pros. "Every sale differs," says Geralyn Lang, 58, a real estate broker in Cutchogue who has been shopping estate sales for decades. "Sometimes it's run by a company, and sometimes it's a homeowner. Sometimes things are priced, and sometimes things aren't priced, and people say, 'Make me an offer.'"
Prices can vary, too, and almost everything is up for negotiation. "We bump up the price, because we know we're going to get haggled," says LoSquadro. "But everything is also priced at fair market value. We sell for half or a little less than half of what the [homeowner] paid."
You're likely to get a better deal if you buy multiple items, and if you bring cash. "I always bring cash, unless it's a big, big sale," says Lang. "Some people take a check or credit card." Another tip? Lang says not to worry about being first in the door. "And as far as prices, I always go the second day," she says. "The antique dealers go the first day, but prices are better the second day. If you have to have something, buy it then and there. But if you're willing to take the risk, it might be worth the wait."
Finally, keep in mind that if you don't find what you're looking for at one sale, there's always another. In fact, for many estate sale shoppers, the chase is as fun — sometimes more fun — than the catch.
Estate sales 101
Some expert tips and tricks:
• Be respectful. "You're a guest in someone’s home," says Randy Kolhoff, who owns Black Swan Antiques in Sag Harbor. "Act like a guest. Say please and thank you, and use your inside voice."
• Haggle. "We want you to bargain," says Mona Scavo-Scopo, owner of Tag Sales by Mona and cleanout company Junkbuster, both based in Freeport. "If I price something at $100, and you come in and you ask for it for $10, that's unreasonable. But if I say $100 and you say $75 and I say $80, that's haggling. Just be reasonable. We want it out, but we also want to make the homeowner money."
• Be fair. "Never offer half the price of an item," says Kolhoff. "That’s rude. If the price is fair or a good buy, I pay it. The money you're spending is going to a family, usually a neighbor or fellow townsman. Don’t hammer the people. There's often a stressful event that leads to these sales. Keep that in mind and don’t lowball the family, or behave as if you're doing them a favor to give them pennies on the dollar for an item."
• Bring cash. "Cash is king, and will get you a better buy than with your checkbook or a credit card," says Kolhoff.
• Bring a flashlight. "Bring a small flashlight with you to search those hard-to-see areas, such as attics, basements and garages," says Bryan Reif, who owns and publishes Garden City-based website LISaler.com.
• Be rude. "Even if something is shabby, never say it’s a piece of garbage," says Cutchogue resident Geralyn Lang, an avid estate sale shopper. "And don't push and shove. It's not Black Friday."
• Impulse buy on the first day. "The second day of the sale is also good," says Denise LoSquadro of Hauppauge-based Sisters in Charge Tag Sale Professionals. "Don't assume all the good stuff is gone in the first day, or the first few hours."
• Ignore the rules. "Don't go into areas that are marked off 'do not enter,'" says Scavo-Scopo.
• Disturb the neighbors. "While waiting to enter the home you do not want to disturb the neighbors," says Reif. "Be quiet and park in designated areas that do not block neighboring driveways."