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How Do Estate Sales Work?

Preparing for and conducting an estate sale is not easy, but it’s a wonderful way to sell residential contents to those who will really enjoy them.

Some may not realize that an estate sale is usually held on-site at an actual estate.  An estate sale professional will go into the home after the family has selected and removed what they want to keep.  This estate sale professional will organize and set up the home in a special way to be attractive to buyers, research items, highlight and advertise the best items that are for sale, pull out sellable items from attics, closets, etc., price appropriately, handle advertising, and conduct this sale for anywhere between 1 to 3 days.

An estate sale professional will handle each and every detail of coordinating, organizing, setting up, dealing with the staff, the client (decision maker), and – toughest of all – the public.


The preparation for an estate sale starts long before the public even knows about it.  The estate liquidator and team will go into the home, preferably after family has vacated and taken what they want to keep.  They begin the tedious process of pulling out and sorting everything that can be potentially sold.  It is important for a professional to do this, as hasty mistakes are often made by family, who do not understand what is sellable, what is collectible, what may have value, etc.  You would be amazed at what is found in garbage bags when the family leaves!  Things are thrown away every day that can easily be converted into cash.

Higher dollar items or collections are usually featured prominently and displayed in such a manner to be attractive, as well as protected during the sale.  Similar items may be grouped together on the same table(s).  Jewelry is handled differently by liquidators; many have locked cases for sterling and gold, while others will use individually priced bags for costume jewelry or they will display them.  Enough staff is present to watch over the smaller items that have value; a staff member will hand fine jewelry to a buyer one piece at a time for control purposes.


The estate sale can be advertised in several ways.  The liquidator usually has a list of clients who sign up for their estate sale notifications on their websites or at sales, so they will send out at least two email notices prior to the sale to hundreds and even thousands of people.  The liquidator will also list sales on their websites and link to other sites, such as Facebook, Linked In, etc.  The local newspaper (both the physical paper and online) is a good way to reach people who love to find weekend sales. is a favorite among estate sale professionals to use to advertise their sales, and,, and Craig’s List are also used to advertise.

The estate sale professional will write a creative advertisement with photos to attract people to the estate sale.  A well-written advertisement, coupled with a good liquidator reputation, will have buyers waiting in line to gain access.

Day of Sale

The night before a sale, or even in the early morning hours prior to the sale, directional signs will be put out on the streets/corners by the estate sale company to show people how to get to the estate and drive traffic.

Many, but not all estate sale professionals, will control how many people can enter the home.  They will control the crowd to avoid any “bumpage and breakage” and to keep the flow of people running smoothly throughout the sale, especially the first couple of hours that are usually the most hectic.  The professional will advertise ahead of time that numbers will be handed out or a sign up list will be provided at a certain time on the morning of the sale.  The early bird will get the worm.  Those that are tardy usually have to wait their turn in line. Some form of control is a good idea, because the energy of a newly opened sale is quite frenzied.

Each estate sale company does things differently from the next.  When it comes to pricing items, some liquidators will use pre-printed adhesive pricing labels, plain labels, string hang tags, and some even use masking tape.  Others will use perforated tags; when the bottom is ripped off, the item is considered SOLD.

The checkout at an estate sale may entail a card table where they have one or two check out people, a calculator, and cash register or a computer with the numbered inventory of the items in a spreadsheet.  The items are added up, tax collected if necessary in their state, amounts are documented, and the cash, check, or credit card is accepted for payment.  Some companies will no longer accept checks, and take only cash or credit.  An additional fee is imposed on the buyer if they are using a credit card.

The estate sale company may have boxes or packing material set up and available for you, or they may not.  Boxes, baskets, large bags, large hand bags, big coats, etc., are often not permitted in a sale to minimize the potential of shoplifting.  A professional also knows how to organize the sale to avoid any shoplifting.  Most liquidators will post signs both outside the front door and throughout the estate that state their policies.

As buyers depart the sale, others are let in, until there is no longer a waiting line.

An estate sale can be for 1, 2 of 3 days, depending on how much is in the home and how the estate liquidator feels about the duration.  There are some who feel a shorter time is equally as productive; the liquidator uses several factors to guide their decision, including the location of the estate, quality and quantity of the items, etc.

While this sounds very straight-forward and logical, conducting an estate sale is not for the faint of heart.  There is nothing easy or glamorous about this process and there are numerous things to know about how they are run, including the reputation of the company running them.  When done correctly with the right estate sale team and cooperative clients, the estate sale will be a great success.


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