What Is an Estate Sale? (Hint: They’re Not Just for the Deceased)

A woman picks up an antique tea cup off a table.
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When someone dies, that person’s belongings are left behind. It’s then up to the survivors to take care of that personal property, whether that means passing it along, getting rid of it, or selling it.

But estate sales aren’t just for those who are no longer with us. With the right merchandise, you can use an estate sale to downsize or clear out your house before moving.

So, when is an estate sale appropriate? We’ll break it down for you.

Estate Sales Defined

If you’ve ever had a yard sale or garage sale, you’re probably familiar with the process of selling unwanted items. But unlike a garage sale, an estate sale involves offloading most of someone’s personal belongings, including furniture and antiques. Also called tag sales, an estate sale will often be handled by a third party, known as an estate sale company.

“Estate sales tend to make the most sense in situations where you simply have too much stuff to deal with and want to leave it all up to an experienced third party,” said Nick Valentino, VP of Market Operations at Bellhop. “While they’re most common in cases where someone has died and an estate is being liquidated, they’re also a popular choice for people who are downsizing in retirement, especially if they’re recently widowed.”

How Estate Sales Work

Like a garage sale, an estate sale kicks off with identifying the information you need to sell. With an estate sale, though, you’re more likely to reach out to an estate sale company to handle pricing the items. Estate sale companies charge a fee, which is either a percentage of total sales or a sliding scale, with lower price tags netting a lower percentage.

In many cases, an estate sale involves inviting shoppers into the home rather than dragging items into the garage or onto the front lawn. Estate sales also tend to be hot ticket events, with participants sometimes coming from far away and lining up for hours beforehand. Some estate sale companies will even arrange an estate auction, which has an auction house awarding items to the highest bidder.

What Estate Sales Companies Do

Since an estate sale company will take a fee, you may wonder why you don’t skip the third party and have friends and family members handle your estate sale. Before making that decision, though, there are some things estate sale companies do that might make them worth the cost.

Manage the Sale

If you’ve ever held a yard sale, you know the work it involves. That can be even tougher for family members of the deceased owner of the personal belongings being sold. Estate sale companies work on-site throughout the sale, relieving you of the stress of watching treasured belongings go to new owners.

“An estate sale usually has someone’s entire life’s worth of belongings, but also heirloom furniture and jewelry, collectibles, etc.,” said Willow Wright, owner of Urban Redeux, an antique store in Alexandria, Virginia. “Having strangers rummage through your home, attempting to haggle on heirlooms, can be unsettling,”

Eliminating Travel

Although they can be used for moves and downsizing, estate sales typically happen after the death of a loved one. If the family isn’t local, an estate sale organizer can manage the entire estate sale for you.

“Your aunt died in Chicago, but you live in LA.,” said appraisals expert Sophia du Brul. “You need to factor in the travel costs and taking time off work. Handing the estate over to a professional company will save you money.”

Ensuring Value

Unlike yard sales, items at a tag sale can fetch top dollar, especially if they hold value on the antique market. Most estate sale companies bring expertise in setting item prices. You might underprice that vintage childhood toy, but an estate sale organizer won’t let you take less than market value.

If you have quite a few valuable items, this is where an estate auction might be a better option. There’s nothing like a little competition to drive prices up, helping you get far more than you would on a marked price.

Reducing Family Disputes

“Another thing to consider is your family situation,” du Brul said. “Mother has died and you and your siblings are all getting an equal share. If everyone is fighting over every last teacup, it is better to bring in a third party to help keep the peace.”

One of the best things about an estate sale company is that an objective third party takes care of your estate sale. This can also reduce bickering over prices and ensure any proceeds are divided evenly.

Estate Sale Permits and Regulations

Like garage and yard sales, estate sales are subject to local regulations. If you turn the process over to a third party, they’ll usually handle permitting. If you do things yourself, though, you’ll have to research estate sale permit requirements in your area and file the paperwork.

In addition to regulations, you’ll also need to consider restrictions specific to your neighborhood. If you have an HOA, look at association rules regarding a garage or yard sale, since the same restrictions likely apply to estate sales. Even without an HOA, check local ordinances regarding parking and signage.

“Worst case, they may not allow any kind of sale,” du Brul said. “If that is the case, some estate sale companies are in the position to do a whole house buy-out or remove the items and sell them offsite.”

Tips for Holding an Estate Sale

Estate sales involve far more than setting a price and collecting money. Here are some tips to help make your next estate sale a success.

1. Know the Cost

Before you hire someone to manage your estate sale, standard practice is to get a quote. Each company has its own way of charging for its services, but typically it will be based on a percentage of the money they make. There may be additional costs that will cut into the profits you earn from your estate sale items.

“Consider how each company structures their fees,” du Brul said. “Do they charge a minimum? Is it straight commission? Do they charge extra for advertising? Do they include staff hours in their fees? Ask all of these questions.”

2. Keep an Eye on Things

Whether you’re hiring an estate company or managing things yourself, you may want to be on hand to manage things. Estate sales come with their own set of unspoken rules, but people will inevitably show up with no idea of what is estate sale etiquette.

As with yard sales, you may have families with unruly children. To protect your valuables, try to keep breakables to the same area of the home, then assign someone to watch that section. Estate sales are often hectic, so even if you have an organizer, that person won’t protect someone’s personal property like family members will.

3. Get the Word Out

If you’ve hired an organizer to help with your estate sale, some of your marketing will be handled for you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t help with spreading the word. Make sure you let friends and family in the area know that the estate sale is happening. Post on social media and ask them to share the news with their own network.

Don’t stop with your personal social media page. Utilize local Facebook Groups to let residents know an estate sale is taking place. You can also reach out to people who will travel for estate sales. Sites like EstateSale.com and EstateSales.org will let you post your ad for a small fee. Before listing on one of these sites, though, check with your estate sale organizer to make sure they don’t provide this service for you.

4. Have a Disposal Plan

No matter how great your sale goes, there will be some unsold items when it’s over. Before the sale begins, make sure you have a plan for what you’ll do with any remaining estate sale items. Here are some options:

  • Drop the price: In the final hours, ask the estate company to reduce the price of any hard-to-sell items. It’s sometimes worth taking a cut to offload items you’d otherwise have to discard or donate.
  • Store them: If you have enough leftover items, you may be able to work them into later estate or garage sales. Keeping them can also prove handy for passing them along to children and grandchildren later.
  • Donate them: Every town has its share of charities that are always open to donations. Some will even send a truck to pick up certain items.
  • Dispose of them: Some household items simply hold no value. You can take truckfuls to the local dump or pay a junk removal specialist to cart your unsold items away.
  • Leave them: If you’re selling the house, those leftover items could boost the price you get. The new owners might like a partially furnished home, and those paintings and trinkets could offer a head start on decorating.

Estate sales are a great way to sell your own or your loved one’s possessions, whether you’re downsizing or someone recently died. No matter how many belongings you’re selling, hiring a company to manage things is usually a good idea. They’ll be able to bring in the buyers you need to get the best price for your belongings.

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.