Estate Sales vs. Garage Sales: Which One Best Fits Your Needs?

A father and daughter look at the toys offered at a garage sale put on by a mother and her son who has Down syndrome.
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On any given weekend, you may see a variety of signs posted around town. Estate sales, garage sales, yard sales and tag sales seem to be everywhere, and it can be easy to lump them all into the same category.

But while garage and yard sales may be the mostly same thing, an estate sale, also known as a tag sale, has its own unique features. If you’re looking at an estate sale vs. a garage sale, here are a few key differences, as well as some tips for making the most of each.

What Is an Estate Sale?

An estate sale is a large short-term sale of sometimes valuable items typically held to clear out a household quickly. Estate sales tend to be arranged by survivors to get rid of a deceased loved one’s entire estate, but they’re also popular with retirees looking to downsize.

Estate sale shoppers are often willing to travel to find great deals on rare items like collectibles and antiques. The prices are higher than a garage sale, which is why sellers will use an estate sale company to make sure the pricing is accurate.

What Is a Garage Sale?

If you’ve never attended a garage or yard sale, it’s easy to imagine. Think of all your unwanted household items. Now picture yourself dragging them all to your garage or front yard, slapping price stickers on everything and inviting the community to shop.

Unlike an estate sale, a garage sale has no expectations as to quality. You can set out everything from old spoons to broken Barbie dolls and buyers will sort through it. That doesn’t mean garage sales don’t have bargain hunters, looking for valuable items hidden on those tables, but with garage sales, anything goes.

“Traditionally, yard sales have consisted of household and kitchen items priced at pennies on the dollar, toys and clothing the children have outgrown and home decor that has fallen out of fashion,” said Willow Wright, owner of Urban Redeux, an antique store in Alexandria, Virginia.

5 Differences Between Estate and Garage Sales

Garage and estate sales have plenty in common, but there are also a few differences. Here are five ways estate sales and garage sales are unique.

1. Estate Sales Can Have Rare Pieces

Since estate sales have become associated with post-death asset liquidation, shoppers tend to expect higher-quality items. You’ll see valuables like antique furniture, fine china and vintage clothing, along with the household items you’d see at a garage sale.

Garage sale buyers, on the other hand, know family members are merely trying to get rid of unwanted household goods. They’ll expect to see items like children’s clothing, books, used toys and knickknacks. Some old furniture and electronics may be part of it, but garage sale shoppers don’t expect to see full bedroom suites.

2. Price Tags Are Higher on Estate Sales

There’s a big pricing difference between estate and garage sales. Garage sales typically price items at a much lower range than estate sales. You’ll see an old toy for a quarter or a used tumbler for 50 cents. Estate sale buyers arrive looking for more valuable items, so family members usually hire an estate sale company, which charges a fee but makes sure items are priced at market value.

“These two events draw different types of shoppers,” Wright said. “You won’t get yard sale prices at an estate sale and you shouldn’t charge estate sale prices at a yard sale.”

3. Estate Sales Are Usually Managed by Experts

Selling items at a garage sale vs an estate sale has some differences too. You’ll likely handle selling your unwanted items yourself at a garage sale, while estate sale companies do a great job of handling those.

“Because estate companies do this every day, they are efficient at sorting and pricing, and they have no sentimental attachment to any of the items so they can sort quickly and not get bogged down with memories,” said antiques and appraisals expert Sophia du Brul.

4. Garage Sales Are Typically Held Outdoors

Unlike garage sales, estate sales typically take place inside the house. The organizer will open the doors and invite potential buyers inside. Some sales limit the number of people in the house at all times, while others allow as many buyers as will fit into the house.

As the name implies, a yard or garage sale takes place in either of those two places. This can make things challenging if the weather takes a turn for the worse, but it also keeps strangers out of your house. Since these sales are open to anyone who wants to show up, that’s an important distinction.

5. Estate Sale Companies Handle Permitting

If you opt for a garage sale vs an estate sale, it’s important to be aware of permitting. While an estate sale company will usually take care of any required paperwork, yard sales require family members to check on local permitting requirements. Failure to get a permit, when required, could result in costly fines.

“When contemplating either an estate sale or garage sale, you should review your local ordinances and, if located in a neighborhood with a homeowners association, review their rules,” said attorney John Wood of Grant Park Legal Advisors. “In many cases, there will be regulations regarding the times, places, and size of a sale. HOAs and some more restrictive municipalities may prohibit private sales altogether.”

Antique items are presented on a table for people to buy.
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Tips for a Successful Estate Sale

If you’re dealing with an entire household full of items, either after a death or due to downsizing, this type of sale might be a better option. Here are some tips to make it a success.

  • Hire an expert: There’s no need to go it alone when experts exist to help. Reach out to an estate company and ask that they take a look at your items. Chances are, they’ll be able to determine the market value of each valuable.
  • Double-check values: Even if you’ve gone with an expert, it can’t hurt to research some of your top-dollar items. Track down an antique expert in your area and have the person take a look at any items you think might fetch a certain price.
  • Choose the right timing: Unlike garage sales, you might not be able to plan your estate sale months in advance. But by making sure you include at least one weekend day in your sale, you’ll be able to accommodate those who travel to check out your offerings.

Tips for a Successful Garage Sale

For yard sales, all the work will fall on you. Here are some tips to make it a success.

  • Choose a good date: Unless it’s a moving sale, you’ll probably have a little scheduling flexibility. Since you’ll likely be setting up outdoors, choose a date in the fall or spring when weather is at its best. Make sure you have a contingency plan in case of rain.
  • Enlist help: These sales often require someone to man the checkout from the start of each day to the end. Having friends or family members to help can make a big difference. This will give you relief for breaks and let you focus on helping shoppers while someone else processes payment.
  • Have a disposal plan: At the end of your sale, there will likely be at least a few unwanted items left on the table. Make sure you have a plan to quickly get rid of those items.
  • Promote the sale: It’s important to get the word out about your sale. Snap pictures and share them on social media, both on your own feed and in local groups. Post hand made signs in the area each day, and make sure you have your own home clearly marked so shoppers can find you.
  • Reduce liability: There are some legal concerns when you’re inviting the public onto your property. Prevent tripping risks and avoid selling any hazardous items. If you have sharp objects like knives for sale, make sure they’re out of children’s reach.

Permits and Ordinances

Before you start hanging signs and setting out items, check to make sure you’ll stay on the right side of local regulations. In some areas, you’ll need to apply for a permit before you have either kind of sale. If you’re working with an estate company, they will likely handle permitting, but check to make sure before you hire one.

“The much more important question is what does the HOA allow?” said duBrul. “If the property is located in a development with a condo board or homeowner’s association, they may require certain hours, limited signs, parking restrictions, or they might be very chill and be fine with it all.

If your community doesn’t allow yard or estate sales, you aren’t necessarily out of luck. Some estate companies will host the sale off site, allowing you to still sell your items without putting your standing as a good community member in jeopardy.

Whether you’re looking for extra cash or someone recently died, yard and estate sales can be a quick way to sell personal belongings. By understanding the difference between both types of sales, you can maximize your results.

Stephanie Faris is a professional finance writer with more than a decade of experience. Her work has been featured on a variety of top finance sites, including Money Under 30, GoBankingRates, Retirable, Sapling and Sifter.